Why your Brain Needs a Routine

By Carissa Weber

Photo by Cristian Rojas on Pexels.com

In a world that is run on caffeine and deadlines, we often overlook our routines. Sure, we may establish routines for our kids and our pets, but why do humans need a routine?  In this short and sweet post, we will explore the science behind why routines help decrease our anxiety and use the awesome skill of behavioral activation (which I will talk about next week) to help gain motivation when our depression tells us no.

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First off, what is a routine?  If you want to get fancy, Miriam-Webster dictionary defines a routine as “a regular course of procedure.”  Is it just me or does this definition seem very broad? When you think of it, this simple definition helps define our day. Whether it is the steps we have to take at our job, filling out a bank deposit receipt, and even getting ready for bed. I think we’ve already established that that darn amygdala really likes to create havoc and have ADHD moments, but what does a routine do for our brain and why?

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What you may or may not realize is that there are benefits that come from maintaining a routine.  Let’s start first with the benefit of decreased stress. If you are like me (and I bet there are a ton of you), you may notice when your anxiety peaks, you try to find something to control. Have you taken a good look at what is going on in your day and noticed that your routine has been thrown off? You can blame your darn amygdala for doing that! If you remember from the post, Amped up or Shut Down: The Many Sides of Anxiety, we strive to collect control. This is because that darn amygdala sends the signal to the thalamus to tell the rest of the brain to release adrenaline and noradrenaline, as well as cortisol, to create the stress response. By creating and maintaining a routine, our brain knows what is expected of us. This means, there is less reason for that darn amygdala to initiate the stress response because it knows what is expected. 

Another benefit from creating a routine includes a better sleep cycle. Do you lie awake in bed wondering what things you left to complete for tomorrow? Are you ruminating about your to do list for the next week? By creating a routine, you’re allowing your prefrontal cortex to provide objective facts to your amygdala, which will help quiet it down. By creating a list of things that need to be completed, you are also allowing your brain to prepare to release serotonin! Remember, serotonin is a neurotransmitter that loves to complete tasks and see the check-offs on that to do list.  Creating a routine before bed can also trigger the release of melatonin. As some of you may already know, melatonin is a neurotransmitter associated with sleep. By getting your body used to a certain routine, it can trigger the production of melatonin, meaning we will fall asleep faster and more consistently. I don’t know about you, but I enjoy those nights where I fall asleep when my head hits the pillow versus four hours later while I stress about why I can’t fall asleep. 

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Routine also has an important role in our nutrition.  Maybe you have noticed on those days that you don’t make a lunch for work and pick up some fast food, that you feel even more sluggish after eating that then you did when you woke up this morning. Maybe you have noticed the more stress you experience, the more you crave that chocolatey treat. When we throw off the natural routine, and stress is released into our body, we crave those not so healthy things. What does that mean? Our brain isn’t getting the nutrients it needs to stay healthy. This alone can increase the production of adrenaline, noradrenaline, cortisol, and reinforce that eating junk food is the world’s greatest coping skill (sometimes it is, don’t get me wrong, but ultimately it could cause a lot of health concerns in the long run if it was).  By sticking to a healthy routine of packing our meals each day, eating 3 to 6 short meals each day, and eating those nutritious foods that we talked about in The “Feel Good” Neurotransmitter and How to Release Them, you can help naturally reduce the amount your darn amygdala interprets stress! 

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Now that we have talked about the benefits that can come from a healthy routine, how do we develop one?  Based on scientific research, it takes approximately 66 days (give or take a couple of days based on individual people) to develop any sort of new habit. This means practice!  By practicing those things that you want to become routine each day, you are reinforcing the message in the brain that this is what you need to do to survive. The further you get into daily practice, the stronger the connection the prefrontal cortex develops with that darn amygdala. Over time, your routine will become a lasting and automatic habit that you don’t have to think much about.  During that time, your thalamus will help your hippocampus turn this routine into a memory, which will help decrease the release of adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. This means it will also release the neurotransmitters GABA, glutamate, serotonin, and dopamine.

Just like with any healthy routine, there comes a point in the practice of our routine where it doesn’t seem to be making a difference. Why is that? Well, when we hit the 30 day mark of practicing a new habit or routine, our brain starts to actively make the new connections between the prefrontal cortex. As your brain is putting energy into making these new connections, it kind of forgets about releasing the feel-good neurotransmitters. This means that we may not find the joy like we first did when we started to establish the healthy routine, which is commonly why people usually give up their New Year’s resolutions by the end of January or beginning of February. The brain is making new connections and not feeding our neurotransmitter needs! I guarantee though, if you can continue with the routine through this wall, Your new routine will be more likely to stick (and not be an incredibly overwhelming chore). 

Want some help with keeping track of your new (and healthy) routine? Check out the planner on the left by Penelope Pewter!

I will be talking more about that in the future, but for the sake of today’s post, we can outline, that behavioral activation is a skill used to assist people struggling with the lack of motivation because of depression or shutdown anxiety. It allows the brain (primarily the prefrontal cortex) to shift how it is viewing events as a way to heal the hippocampus, release the feel-good neurotransmitters, and promote healthy routine. I cannot wait to talk more about this skill in upcoming posts because I feel this is a skill many of us would greatly benefit from.

How do we start setting routines? Well first, we need to be able to make our routine our goal. My favorite way to set goals is using what is known as SMART goals. This acronym helps us not only set goals that are realistic, but that are attainable and have a timeline.

Coping skill alert!

SMART goals stand for the following:

  • S – specific. The more specific your goal is, the less your darn amygdala has to argue with
  • M – Measurable. These are the blocks of information that lets you know that you are on your way (or have already) achieved that goal
  • A – Attainable. Setting a goal must be something you can actually accomplish. For example, I’m not going to set a goal to run a marathon in a month if I’m not a runner. Starting with “I will run 6 minutes a day” would be a more attainable goal for us that prefer our chocolate and cheeseburgers
  • R – Realistic. This is where things get a bit tricky. We need to set goals that are within our abilities. If you say you are going to read for 2 hours a day and you don’t have that time, is that a realistic goal?
  • T – Trackable. Using clear ways to measure your progress allows you to celebrate the small victories and release some dopamine and serotonin! Remember, these reinforce that you are doing a great job and keep doing this.

By using SMART goals to set up our routines, we can assure our prefrontal cortex that we have a game plan full of facts to help tell that darn amygdala to kindly shut its trap. As the serotonin and other feel good neurotransmitters start to flow, we are naturally rewarding our brain for keeping that routine. In thanks, symptoms of depression and anxiety decrease. Who knew?

I want to thank you for taking some time to learn about why routines are so important to our mental health. I would like to challenge you to setting at least one SMART goal a week to help you establish a healthy routine and start helping your brain heal! It is a lot of work (and a lot of practice) to help keep your mental health, well, healthy. Hopefully this post will help you establish some skills to make that job easier

To recap this post:

– establishing healthy routines can improve depression and anxiety symptoms

– Routines can improve the connection between the prefrontal cortex and that darn amygdala, which reduces stress

– It takes approximately 66 days to establish a new healthy habit or routine

– By using SMART goals, you can make it easier for your prefrontal cortex the challenge that darn amygdala as we establish a routine

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