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In for 2024: Tackling stress by embracing the power of routine

This New Year, I fell victim to one of those prevailing social media trends. This one: 2024 ins and outs.


If you haven’t seen it, the idea is essentially a fresh outlook on New Year’s Resolutions. A list of smaller, more manageable things to bring into 2024, or leave in the past of 2023. New Year’s Resolutions are likely not going anywhere, but there’s certainly a case to be argued for the pressure we often put on ourselves trying to transform under the weight of big and often reaching ambitions. While the start of a new year is the perfect time to embrace the opportunity of a fresh start (even scientifically speaking), lots of us inevitably fall short of our resolutions and leave ourselves open to disappointment. The 'ins and outs' lists are instead a new and light-hearted way of embracing the inspiration and implementing change through more manageable and attainable actions.


Like many, my ‘outs’ list was full of little things like saying goodbye to unnecessary spending and avoiding high-screen time, but I found my ‘ins’ to be far more interesting. Rather than a big resolution to reach, I had inadvertently added little things to incorporate into my existing routines which, would ultimately help me to reach a larger goal of mine, sans pressure. And, all by complete coincidence.


The current (I am mindful that we are still only in January...) success of my new-and-improved daily routine, and seeing others around me revamp their own, really led me to think about the benefit of routine. Digging deeper, I discovered there was far more to it than I initially knew, and routines actually have some incredible implications for our mental well-being, particularly when it comes to stress reduction. Perfect, really, given that another of my 'outs' was unnecessary stress...


Morning routines, skincare routines, workout routines, night routines. Our routines come in all shapes and sizes and are ever-evolving throughout our lifetimes. Some, called ‘primary routines,’ are essential for making sure we meet our essential needs like sleeping, eating, and maintaining hygiene. These primary routines help us to regulate the structure of our daily lives. Others are, well, less essential. I can’t say that my daily skincare routine is particularly crucial to my survival but, routines like this do still help us to add a certain level of control to our every day. And some just make us feel good.

 

As humans, we are habitual creatures, hence why we thrive with routine. Routines make things so that, with enough repetition, we do not need conscious thought or effort to complete the individual parts of our routine. It’s not too often that you have to make a conscious decision on whether to brush your teeth before or after you shower. You just do it in whichever order you usually do. It seems very simple, but this is more helpful than it may appear.

 

No matter the size, decisions are decisions. Of course, some are far less important than others, but they all require a certain level of thought and brain power. Having routines in place for the things we do frequently, removes the need to make quite so many decisions thus leaving us with more capacity to handle decisions we need to make which aren’t part of everyday life. How to respond to that scary work email, for example.

 

It all comes back to a sense of control. The more we feel we can control things, the more we reduce our stress. During particularly stressful times, the familiarity of routine can be especially helpful. During the COVID-19 pandemic, a stressful time for everyone, advice from the World Health Organisation implemented by several governments encouraged people to keep regular routines and schedules as much as possible due to the buffering effect that continuity can have on our mental health.

 

As an added bonus, sometimes the things we incorporate into routines have their own stress-busting benefits. While it is possible to get into unhealthy routines, most intentional routines are actually encouraging us to build healthy habits. Sleep and exercise being big ones.


Your sleep routine is probably one of the most important in day-to-day life. Whether it's trying to go to sleep at roughly the same time each night, trying to get a set number of hours, or doing things before bed to help improve your sleep quality, it is all-important for well-being.


There's an awful lot of synchronicity between sleep and stress. When you feel more stressed you may notice your sleep suffer - it can take longer to fall asleep, or it may be a more restless night. This is because we have higher levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol, working to prepare us to tackle our stressors. But, in true fashion for such a reciprocal relationship, not getting enough good quality sleep can subsequently increase feelings of stress, as when we do sleep, our brains are busy restoring our bodies' balance. Part of this is reducing certain hormones such as... you guessed it, cortisol. This is all a very long-winded way of saying that any routine aimed at improving or regulating our sleep is wonderful for trying to make the potentially vicious cycle between stress and sleep a more positive one.


Similarly, many people have daily or weekly routines to incorporate exercise and movement. Not only do you get into the habit of movement, making it easier to continue, but there are obvious benefits for health. Having a routine to get moving regularly has particular perks for also bringing down those cortisol levels, similar to sleep, helping to reduce feelings of stress. As a bonus, physical activity has also been shown to increase the brain's production of endorphins, which are essentially our happy hormones. But again, it's not always that simple. When you feel stressed or are experiencing low mood or motivation, exercise can be the last thing you want to do which is why it can be helpful when it becomes part of your routine.

 

It's important to recognise that just because routines can be very helpful, it doesn’t mean they’re always easy. Our ability to create and adhere to a routine can ebb and flow just like many things in life and it isn’t always in our control. Important factors such as your working hours, financial situations, and even your mental and physical health can have huge impact on your ability to have and stick to routines. Ironically, times of high stress can become a barrier to maintaining routines. We've already seen that our routines can be held back by stress as much as they can help it.


Like most things when it comes to well-being, we are all individuals with our own sets of circumstances; adapting to what you can and want to do is the most important thing. Routines aren’t for everyone and that’s ok. The important thing, as with most things in life is to do what works best for you.

 

Maybe you didn’t start a new routine at the beginning of the year but the beauty of it is, routines aren’t resolutions, and we can start and update them at any time. It’s not necessarily easy to form routines and our ability to do so varies between us, but to do so can be very fulfilling and may help to reduce those stress levels.

 

It is, however, important to take it with a grain of salt. I think part of the reason I enjoyed embracing the 'ins and outs' list was that it was a low-pressured set of changes. Resolutions are more cutthroat. By the end of the year, you were either successful in meeting your goal, or you failed. Routines do not hold such high stakes. Occasionally missing a day or skipping a step in a routine likely won’t have such rigid implications. The goal isn’t to achieve perfection, but rather to have enough consistency to get all the added benefits. So, for now, I will try and keep up with my new and improved 2024 routines and see if that stress-related 'out' takes care of itself.

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