The pandemic has disrupted our daily patterns and forced us to change so many cherished traditions. What can be done to create a weekly pattern that works? Can we rescue the upcoming winter holiday season?
Since the pandemic began, I have often wondered what day it is. I missed a meeting I organized this week -- I just completely spaced. My son missed his distance learning class because we both forgot what day it was. Weekends feel like every other day with a tinge of Bill Murray Groundhog Day de ja vu. “Good morning folks! It’s Blursday, November... no December... uh... can’t remember what date, 2020. Definitely 2020.”
Add to that the fact that the holidays are here. Graduations, birthdays, summer vacations, weddings, Halloween, and Thanksgiving have all been drastically changed. For twenty years, ever since I met my husband in graduate school, we have gone to the same beautiful cabin on the Kalamouth River for Thanksgiving. It’s my happy place where I fully unwind and unplug with my dearest family and friends. Didn’t go this year.
Back in October, I was so excited when Hawaii announced their pre-travel COVID testing program. I could go visit my parents, sister, and one year old niece for the winter holidays! Well, I just cancelled my plane tickets yesterday. California’s numbers continue to rise and hospitals are on the verge of being overwhelmed. I cannot in good conscience travel.
Yes, I know these are all problems of privilege. I have a job and am financially secure. My kids are amazingly independent and can generally manage their own distance learning. I have access to a cabin in the woods. I can afford tickets to Hawaii. But the grief over the loss of cherished traditions and family connections is real. So is the blur of one day to the next. And the corona coaster that comes with it all is definitely real.
Fortunately, there is a way to make it better. It hinges on how our brains mark transitions in time and space. It relies on the emotional safety created by rituals and routines.
The human brain loves certainty, predictability, structure and routine. Our brain is on autopilot much of the time in order to conserve energy. How many times have you meant to pick up groceries on the way home from work but missed the turn because you were on autopilot? We are creatures of habit. There’s reassurance in my coming home ritual -- park the car, kick off my shoes, bag by the kitchen counter, plug in my phone, check on the kids. It’s the same reassurance I got from Mr. Rogers singing his “Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” song while changing into a sweater and sneakers at the start of every episode. The “reward” chemical, dopamine, is released by our brain each time we cozy up with our standard routines and habits.
When your routine is thrown off and something unexpected happens, your brain goes into alarm mode. Have you ever been annoyed to find someone is in your favorite parking spot at work? Or grumpy when you are interrupted by a phone call in the middle of your bedtime routine? As this wonderful New York Times piece states: “When there are discrepancies between expectations and reality, all kinds of distress signals go off in the brain. It doesn’t matter if it’s a holiday ritual or more mundane habit like how you tie your shoes; if you can’t do it the way you normally do it, you’re biologically engineered to get upset.”
In short, habits and routines conserve mental energy. When your routine is disrupted, your brain has to work a lot harder, and sometimes even goes into a full out stress response.
You might notice that many daily routines are linked to transitions in your day -- times when you are moving from one activity to the next. We have autopilot routines for getting out of bed and making coffee to mark the transition from sleep to wakefulness. Similarly, we have autopilot routines for getting the kids to school, entering the office, coming home from the store, making dinner, and bedtime.
Part of the reason this pandemic is so challenging for everyone is that so many daily routines are disrupted. Kids are not going to school. I’m not driving to the office. I rarely leave the house. There’s no clear transition from home to work and work to home. Weekends used to feel different because I could sleep in, stay in my pajamas, and linger over breakfast. Now, I can do that any day that I don’t have a morning meeting.
The loss of transition routines explains why each day blends into the next, why weekends don’t feel different, why we lose track of the days, and why it’s so hard to keep work, home, kids, and life compartmentalized.
Now, hold that thought. We’ll come back to it.
Explaining Holiday Angst
Next, take the problem of the holidays. This season is normally one long, elaborate habit and routine designed to nurture us and our connections to family and community. The many traditions from hanging lights to decorating to making elaborate meals create a sense of safety and belonging. They connect us to history. They celebrate family across the generations.
Whether you and yours celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Diwali, or the Winter Solstice, there’s a rich set of traditions and routines to mark the transition from one year to the next and from the ordinary life to holiday season. Anthropologist, Dimitris Xygalatas explains, “Everyday life is stressful and full of uncertainty. Having a special time of the year when we know exactly what to do, the way we’ve always done it, provides a comfortable sense of structure, control and stability.”
And of course, the pandemic has messed that up too. This was in my Facebook feed this morning “So I would like to remind you that there are people for whatever reason are not looking forward to Christmas. Some people are not surrounded by large wonderful families… For many it is their first Christmas without a particular loved one and many others lost loved ones at Christmas. And, many people have no one to spend these times with and are besieged by loneliness. We all need caring, loving thoughts right now.”
Just like daily habits and rituals bring safety and security, so too do holiday traditions. Our brains love these familiar traditions and release dopamine in response. When traditions are disrupted, a stress response is triggered and it’s all downhill from there.
How to Resolve Blursday and Holiday Angst
The solution relies on creatively replacing disrupted daily and holiday rituals with something new but meaningful. Whatever it is should have these three features:
Clearly mark the transition in time and space.
Create a sense of safety, connection, and certainty.
Replicate the emotion and spirit of the old routine.
For example, how did my family handle not going to the cabin on the Kalamouth River this year? To start, we sat down and had a family meeting to discuss what each of us loved most about the typical traditional Thanksgiving -- walks, yummy food, family and friend time, unplugging from electronics, naps (for my husband and I), board games, reading a family book, puzzles, leaf piles to jump in, a fire to sit by, etc. Then we made a plan to make sure to hit all those things over the holiday.
To clearly mark the transition from ordinary to extraordinary in time and space, we left the house, frequently and intentionally, all that week to play and eat outdoors. To create a sense of safety, connection, and certainty, we made all our favorite Thanksgiving dishes just like always -- eggs benedict and fresh squeezed mandarin orange juice in the morning, lamb, stuffing, and cheesecake in the evening. And to replicate the emotion and spirit of the old routine, we planned outdoor distanced walks with the family or friends that normally would have joined us at the cabin. We read books by the fire, played games, raked leaves, and turned off our electronics. It was different, but really good in its own way. While I missed the old routine, the new one fully nourished my soul and created memories that I’ll look back on fondly.
With a little creativity and planning, you can do the same to any disrupted daily or holiday routine. For instance, to clearly mark space in the morning transition from home to work, I try hard to only be at my desk at home during work hours, 8 am to 6 pm, with rare exceptions. Or, to replicate the sense of safety, connection, and certainty of weekends versus weekdays, my household makes a point to sit down together at the dining table every Saturday and Sunday for a delicious hot breakfast, and linger at the table with our family reading book long after everyone is full. But on weekdays, it’s a quick breakfast at the kitchen counter, brush teeth, and off to our computers.
How might you adjust your daily habits to create clear routines around the important transitions of your day? How can you do the same around the holidays? If you want some structure, consider using these sentence starters:
A daily/holiday routine that’s missing right now is _____________________.
This routine is important because it marks the transition from ____________ to ____________.
A new routine that serves the same purpose might be _____________________.
To clearly mark the transition in time and space, I/we could _____________________.
To create a sense of safety, connection, and certainty, I/we could _____________________.
To replicate the emotion and spirit of the old routine, I/we could _____________________.
New-to-you rituals and habits are healing when designed with intention. They give a burst of dopamine, save mental energy, reduce the stress response, add structure to our lives, reduce anxiety, build connection, and allow us to grow through and beyond trauma.
On my to do list for this weekend is a discussion with my parents and sister in Hawaii about how to intentionally create opportunities for connection at a distance this holiday season. Perhaps we’ll play chess online with my dad. Or set up a standing, weekly FaceTime. Or maybe we’ll all sit down to Chinese hot pot “together” around New Years, us on our computer in California and them on theirs in Hawaii, to replicate the emotion and spirit of our usual tradition.
Whatever we choose, it will be different, but good.
Kate Murphy’s New York Times piece “Pandemic-proof your habits” is excellent. Read it.
And for a broader view on resilience, either read “7 Habits of highly resilient people” by Harvey Deutschendorf OR watch this fabulous TED talk by Lucy Hone. Related to Lucy Hone’s TED Talk, yes, the loss of habits, routines and traditions definitely counts as a source of grief and trauma. If the strategies she shares can get her through the death of her daughter, they darn well better be able to get us through the holiday season.
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I just completed advanced training with the Center for Mind Body Medicine to create communities of hope and healing. I am planning to run an eight-week small group in early 2021. Yes, I know the idea of one more thing can feel like one too much. Personally, I’ve now been part of two Mind Body Medicine small groups and both have been absolutely transformative in different ways. I built soul-enriching, deep connections with some amazing people. I am not alone! I have more compassion for myself and others. I have gained so much resilience. Setbacks no longer send me into tearful, freak out mode. If you are interested in joining a small group for free to learn skills scientifically proven to reduce stress, e-mail me.
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