What Keeping A Social-Distancing Routine Does To Your Brain, According To Experts

For many, staying at home means no commute, no set mealtimes, no need to get out of your comfiest pajamas, but it’s anything but a vacation. People who are staying at home to flatten the coronavirus curve, experts say, should stick to a routine in order to help their mental health.

Dr. Sarita Robinson PhD, CPsychol, SFHEA, ICPEM, principal lecturer in psychology at the University of Central Lancashire and expert in survival psychology, compares the social distancing many people are practicing to the time between Christmas and New Year, where people tend to stay at home and do very little. "We can very quickly start to lose track of time and feel like all the days are merging into one," she says.

Boring though they may seem, regular schedules are necessary to combat that sense, in part because the brain loves routine. Clinical psychologist Dr. Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., tells Bustle that while having a bowl of cereal whenever you want feels great for a bit, the brain eventually begins to crave regularity. "Not being able to engage in habitual behaviors (work, school, exercise, social interaction) can be incredibly distressing," he says. "While not having regularity can in the short run feel freeing, as time passes, most people will experience a sense of confusion, loss of motivation, and a feeling of being lost."

The human brain is conditioned to develop and repeat habits, rather than thriving in a daily free-for-all. As a behavior becomes habitual, you you start doing it automatically. "Forty percent of the time we’re not thinking about what we’re doing," social psychologist Professor Wendy Wood told the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in 2014. "The thoughtful, intentional mind is easily derailed, and people tend to fall back on habitual behaviors." These leave us free to think about important problems as they crop up, like how to mop up the spill that’s suddenly appeared on the floor, rather than devoting brain space to our morning routine. We rely on these automatic patterns when we’re stressed and distracted.

Psychologists think that habits are essentially labor-saving devices for the brain, because making decisions all the time about everything is hard. "Rather than having to decide how to live each moment afresh, we can navigate our lives using a simple strategy: (a) other things being equal, choose whatever we chose before, and (b) organise [sic] our lives in such a way that we are faced with the same choices, over and over again," behavioral scientist Professor Nick Chater wrote for The Conversation in 2018. However, he points out that everybody needs to balance regularity and spontaneity.

We also flourish when we have these set-ups. One study published in Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin in 2018 found that people with routines tended to find more meaning in life. Patterns of regular behavior have also been found to reduce symptoms of anxiety and ADHD, and conditions like insomnia. People with daily schedules, according to a 2016 study in Health Psychology Review, may also have more self-control when it comes to making decisions that will help them long-term.

Sticking to a regimen right now is a helpful way to minimize stress and reduce anxiety. "I would recommend sticking to a set waking time, set meal times and a set bedtime," Dr. Robinson tells Bustle. An exercise plan, a set workspace for those who are working from home, times for walking outside or talking to friends, and other kinds of scheduling can all help your brain out. "The result is a day that can be as structured as you want, and that will remind you that your life has predictability, which reduces distress," Dr. Klapow says. From that foundation you can build in spontaneous living room dance parties, marathons of cookie-baking, and at least one why-not nap.


Dr. Joshua Klapow Ph.D, clinical psychologist

Dr Sarita Robinson PhD, CPsychol, SFHEA, ICPEM, principal lecturer in psychology

Studies cited:

De Ridder, D., Gillebaart, M. (2017). Lessons learned from trait self-control in well-being: making the case for routines and initiation as important components of trait self-control. Health Psychol Rev. 11(1), 89-99. doi: 10.1080/17437199.2016.1266275.

Dunn, W. W. (2000). Habit: What’s the Brain Got to Do with It? The Occupational Therapy Journal of Research, 20(1_suppl), 6S-20S. https://doi.org/10.1177/15394492000200S102

Heintzelman, S. J., & King, L. A. (2019). Routines and Meaning in Life. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45(5), 688–699. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167218795133

Wood, W. (2017). Habit in Personality and Social Psychology. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 21(4), 389–403. https://doi.org/10.1177/1088868317720362

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