By Carissa Weber, MA, LPC, CSAC
This post was originally published on May 21, 2021. It has been updated to reflect the most up-to-date, science-based information to better help you take control
In a world that runs 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 skills to get our brains working for us!
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 darn amygdala really likes to create havoc in our day, but what does a routine do for our brain and why?
Benefits of a Routine
What you may or may not realize is 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. Take a good look at what is going on in your day. Do you notice if your routine has been thrown off? If it is, 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 (especially your prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, and your darn amygdala) knows what is expected of us.
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? By creating a routine, you’re allowing your prefrontal cortex to provide objective facts to your darn amygdala, which will help quiet it down. As it quiets down, the part of your brain responsible for sleep, the pineal gland, will start to produce melatonin. Talk about awesome!
Speaking of your to-do list keeping you awake, did you know by creating a list of things that need to be completed, you are helping your brain to:
- prepare to release dopamine! Remember, dopamine is a neurotransmitter that loves to complete tasks and see the checkoffs on that to do list
- Rest your hippocampus so you can fall into a more restful sleep
- Prioritize what needs your attention
Nutrition and Routine
Routine also has an important role in our nutrition. 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!
Creating a Healthy Routine
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? 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 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).
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?
Routines and Depression
I bet there are a few of you going “this all sounds fine and dandy, but what if I don’t have the motivation to do this?” Let me say, I hear you. Sometimes, depression and anxiety can leave us paralyzed, unmotivated, or even in a state of constant avoidance.
One skill I teach is called behavioral activation. This skill is great for helping your brain:
- Identify your anxiety and depression triggers
- Label your values to help build a serotonin release
- Bring attention to behaviors you can change
- Increasing your feelings of motivation
Behavioral activation requires a lot of self-reflection. You need to be able to reflect on a few questions:
- What activities make me feel better/worse?
- Are there certain times of the day I am more/least likely to engage in activities that make me feel good?
- What are the times of days my anxiety and/or depression are really high?
- Do I participate in any activities that do not align with my values in life?
- What do I value in my life (e.g. – family/friends, physical health, mental health, career, hobbies, religion/faith, education, etc.) and what can I do that brings me closer to my values?
Understanding what you value and the activities that bring you closer to those values is crucial for improving motivation to do something. Why? Your value system triggers your hippocampus to start pouring through memories about why this value is important to you. As it releases oxytocin, your prefrontal cortex wakes up a bit. Your prefrontal cortex agrees with your hippocampus and starts to prioritize those activities. This means you are getting more dopamine flowing, rewarding your brain for doing something. What’s neat, is that your brain is going to want to do more things that release dopamine, so it is going to improve your motivation to do more activities.
Do you know what that means? You are going to be more likely to participate in activities, whether you like it or not! What a neat way to prime your brain and rewire it for staying motivated!
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
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- Arlinghaus, K. R., & Johnston, C. A. (2018). The Importance of Creating Habits and Routine. American journal of lifestyle medicine, 13(2), 142–144. https://doi.org/10.1177/1559827618818044. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6378489/
- Frothingham, Scott (2019). How Long Does It Take for a New Behavior to Become Automatic? Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/how-long-does-it-take-to-form-a-habit
- Routine (1829). In Merriam-Webster.com. Retrieved on April 28, 2021 from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/routine