A routine can help manage an anxiety disorder, but it can also hurt. Here’s how I’ve come to find balance.
Living with an anxiety disorder for a large part of my life, I have been forced to structure my life in a certain way in order to manage my day-to-day and minimize the affects of my anxiety. My routine has been a blessing. It has also become the bane of my existence at times. Finding a balance between the two sides of routine can be tough. Here are some pieces of advice I can offer from my experience.
Routine, a Blessing:
Calming my anxiety by creating structure: Having my day broken down and detailed piece by piece helps me to get started each day, even on super anxious days. The structure it creates carries me throughout the entire day knowing exactly what is ahead of me, and what is coming around the corner. Time is a huge part of my routine. I start each day at the same time every morning. I have the same morning breakfast each day, I shower and get ready at the same time, I leave the house for my commute at the same time, and I structure my work day in two hour blocks to manage production. I leave work at the same time, arrive home and make sure to have dinner at the same time each day. In between there are a bunch of little items entered into my routine, some good, some bad, but I stick to it, each day. Everyone will have a different structure to their day, this is what works for me.
More dependable and reliable at work: Having my daily routine established at work makes my production much more reliable. I can be counted on each day to accomplish certain tasks and duties by a certain time each day. It helps me be more dependable to my co-workers and my boss. I go into every day knowing I will have the time to accomplish my goals and finish my work with very few “loose ends” open. My routine helps me stay focused, and it also makes the day go by faster, which helps lead me to my afterwork, much more enjoyable routine.
Ability to schedule mental health time: Having my day mapped out also allows me the chance to schedule in some mental health time. I set a time to do some mindfulness techniques, yoga, meditation, breathing exercises, etc. I even schedule a “worry time” to get all my anxious thoughts out, acknowledge them, worry about them and then move on from them. This mental health time is extremely important for me, just knowing that this time exists helps me navigate my day more positively and lets me know I have something to look forward to.
Freedom to set aside some “me” time: This one sounds familiar to the mental health time but is quite different. I can schedule time for myself to unwind and find peace. My “me time” consists of consuming some “brain candy.” My candy of choice is usually either music or comedy videos on the internet. The “brain candy” helps me shut off my brain for a while and there are no expectations to accomplish anything during this time. This time helps me expel any negative energy from the day.
Sleep routine has improved my sanity: Having a set time for bed and a set time to rise every morning helps me get an adequate amount of rest each night. I make sure to shut down my electronics by a certain time, do a quick meditation, brush and floss my teeth, and settle in for a good night’s rest. I don’t say sleep because sometimes it’s not all sleep, it’s just rest. Sometimes ruminations and insomnia interject. Having a routine helps keep these issues at bay most nights.
Routine, the Bane of My Existence:
Any little change will through my entire day off: Having such a rigid routine, while helping often, can also be a detriment to my life. Even the slightest little change can throw off my routine. It can send my day, and my mind, into a downward spiral. God forbid I oversleep my alarm, or even hit snooze for 10 minutes, it is all over. If I am tied up with a project at work and overrun my two-hour allotted block, it’s all bad. Most days I can recover, and find my way back to the routine, but some days it’s impossible, and this creates some of my worst anxiety days.
Not growing or expanding my life: With my routine, and maintaining it, I am leaving little room to grow and expand my horizons. Boring drudgery comes to mind. My routine makes me a boring person. Everything stays the same, which is good for anxiety, bad for life growth. Spontaneity is a four-letter word, there is no room for the surprise dinner invitation, or drinks after work, or even a friendly 20-minute conversation with a co-worker. I know this sounds depressing, and that’s because it is, but sometimes having a routine is a negative thing.
Routine cuts me off from feeling: Having each day outlined and set in stone helps manage my anxiety by having no extra thought required. This also causes it to sever my ability to think freely, feel anything and step back and enjoy life. I find that most days I am on cruise control. Again, this is a good thing in the anxiety world, but in the human being world it makes me feel like a regulated zombie sometimes. Days, weeks, months fly by and while I did not have any panic attacks or anxiety flare ups, I may have just missed six months of my life.
Unpredictability is the worst thing ever: The unpredictable nature of life, especially these days, is the worst part of being routine-regimented. Every aspect of life is unpredictable. Changes are often things I cannot control; they can even be positive change but most times I cannot handle the unpredictable aspect of life. Even worse, if an unpredictable event, for example, a pandemic arises, it can put me into an endless cycle of anxiety until I can alter my routine in some way to accommodate the change. Sometimes it’s not possible to alter the routine, this creates peak anxiety levels.
Adding something new can take a long time: Sometimes, there must be a change to the routine. This can take forever to install and will put me at an increased anxiety level until it becomes part of the routine. They say it takes 21 days to create a habit, the same can be said about a routine. Most of the time the new addition is a positive one, one that I know will help me in the long run. Many times, I won’t even try to do it just because of the time it will take to become comfortable with the change.
Finding balance between the blessing and the bane of routine can be a tight rope act. Finding this balance and pushing it more towards the blessing side of routine can only help.
Flexibility: I have discovered recently that I need to add some flexibility to my routine in order to maintain a healthier mental health status. There were just too many days getting thrown off by minuscule changes. Now, instead of getting up at 5:28 am each day, I give myself a range,. I can wake up between 5:20 and 5:40 and be OK. I can also afford to reduce my “me time” anywhere from the previously allotted two hours, down to 30 minutes if an event or unpredictable occurrence arises and be OK. These are just some of the changes I have made, you can start small and expand over time.
Allow for some “nothing” time: This aspect goes along with flexibility; I have started to block out an hour or two of nothing. This way I can temper the unpredictable nature of life and use my “nothing” time to accommodate any events that arise. I now do this for a block of my day at work as well (don’t tell my boss), and also section off a part of my afterwork routine. This has become a positive aspect because I can overextend some of the good parts of my routine into my “nothing” time if I need it.
Add time for relationship building: Do not forget to add time in your routine to strengthen your relationships. Be it with a significant other, or family or co-workers, you need to squeeze in some time to have relationships with other humans. Insert some time in your week to call a friend, or have a date night, or call your gamily. The connections you make and expand will make you feel much better and help lift the cloud of anxiety you live under.
Take time to step back and be mindful: Previously with my rigorous routine, almost every minute was allotted and planned out. I forgot to put in some mindfulness time. It is extremely important to take time during the day and live life in the moment. Your mindful time might just be taking a few minutes to express gratitude. It might be sitting at your desk thinking about your next vacation, or touching base with family. Take the time to live in the moment, and take stock in what you have and what you live for. Otherwise, you are just going through the motions and not truly experiencing life. I have found that these moments are starting to automatically interject themselves into my day, and I like it, it makes me feel like I am starting to live life more often.
Eliminate some of the bad routines: Part of finding extra time and creating balance is the ability to eliminate some of the bad routines you are practicing. I know this contradicts my earlier section about changing my routine, and how it takes forever to change. Some changes are absolutely necessary to improve your life. For me, some of the bad routines are the scheduled smoke breaks and my afternoon snickers bar snack. I have been able to eliminate the snickers break and reduce the smoke breaks until I can fully quit. Whatever your bad routines are, try to remove some of them, no matter how hard it may be. You can use this extra time to fill with something positive.
All in all, I am still a massive work in progress, and each day living with an anxiety disorder is a struggle to manage. Finding balance between the good and bad of having a daily routine has slowly helped me make positive changes in my life and start to remove the boring drudgery feeling that creeps in. Perhaps the moral of this story is that while routine is a good thing for an anxiety disorder, we need to be careful how rigorous and regimented our routine becomes, it could turn evil.
Nothing is more important than living your life, remember to look up from your routine and live a little. These little chunks of living will become bigger and bigger each month. Who knows, with hard work and dedication maybe someday the entire routine will look like this: Wake up, live life, go to bed, repeat. We can only hope.