The role of routine on mental health

The role of routine on mental health

by Linda Ambard
18th Wing Public Affairs

KADENA AIR BASE, Japan -- My children and those who know me well would tell others that I am a creature of habit. I get up early and I go to bed early. At this point in my life, I drink a cup of coffee and then I run. The minute I come in from running, I remove my shoes and get them ready for the next day. I remove my hydration belt and visor and set them up for the next run. I fill my water bottles and put them in the fridge next to the cream for my coffee. I shower and immediately start a load of laundry. Sounds like a rut, doesn’t it? That rut is actually important in mental health.

Routines anchor a person. During chaotic days or PCS moves, eating dinner at the same time, having the normal Friday night date night, doing dishes to avoid dirty dishes in the sink, or making a bed can bring the sense of “normal” when nothing else is normal. Structure provides the knots in the rope to break the fall. Those routines reduce stress because the routine allows a person to have “autopilot” minutes, which then allows for time built for the important things such as hobbies, friendships, relationships, vacation, or downtime.

I have previously written about the choice I made just after my spouse died. I chose to go back to work five days after he was buried. I didn’t have to, but by trusting my own intuition, work allowed me to be normal for almost nine hours a day. I had to keep my focus on my students who merely saw me as Mrs. A. I had to get up in the morning, shower, and get dressed. Once I was at work, I wasn’t surrounded by my own thoughts or emotions and I wasn’t picking at the pain that was present whenever I wasn’t busy with something else.

Basic routines include:
1. Making one’s bed because it completes the first task of the day and preps the brain for the tasks of the day
2. Showering: Morning showers booster energy, stimulate the brain, and help lift moods
3. Combing hair, brushing teeth, and getting dressed. It is easy to wallow and at times skip basic hygiene, but a depressed person struggles much longer than a day or two.
4. Packing a lunch or having a meal plan
5. Exercise
6. Meal times at regular times helps regulate diet and weight
7. Bed times that are regular and maintained are critical to health both physical and mental. Being tired makes everything harder and it makes everything seem worse.
8. Rules and expectations

Routines are time savers when normal business builds throughout the day. As a parent, routines help regulate moderate impulsiveness and oppositional defiance in children. Did you hear that? Consistent routines help a child know what is expected of them and it provides a sense of normal. As any military family can tell others, moving is one of those times when at times it seems like too much. Spouses often have short-tempered moments and children behave in ways that leave parents frustrated.

My mother once asked why I couldn’t relax the bedtimes or the rules when we were visiting. I couldn’t relax because my children would start fighting, going crazy with frenzied energy, and they would
become defiant. They would not sleep in the next day. They needed the structure of that consistent bedtime. Most children are like that. Ask any teacher who works with children the hardest times s/he has with students and the teacher would cite after vacations or right before the holidays. Holidays are their own special category because parents often get caught up in the business of the season. While most parents of young children wouldn’t drag children out to malls or events after dinner or lasting past bedtime on a school night, the few weeks leading to Christmas is often the exception. I have been at stores watching my most well-behaved students behaving in manners I would never have believed if I hadn’t seen it. I have seen those behaviors well after a reasonable school night bedtime.

Help your children by establishing routines for home/chores, school/homework, friendships, and personal routines. Start when your child is very young. A two-year-old can learn to get up and help make a bed. They can learn to carry a bowl to the sink. They can learn that after lunch is story time and then nap time. These simple routines help when a child is old enough for a driver’s license. Older children benefit from early established routines because those routines provide a framework for mental health, organization, goal setting, and accountability. If a child is practiced at having to tell mom or dad where they are going, who they are with, what time they will be back, etc, it isn’t unreasonable to have to do the same during adolescence.

I would like to share a story about my children as teenagers. I set the standard of rooms needing to be cleaned before my children went out for elective fun time. While I do not remember what it was that my older three teens wanted to do on a Friday night, I heard them talking. “Mom is going to say no unless we have cleaned our rooms, done our chores, and stripped the sheets off of our beds.” . I didn’t nag my children or remind them, but when they wanted to go out with friends, I didn’t have to say a word most of the time.

Routines can be life-enriching when incorporated into relationships, on a personal level, and at work. Routines are not a bad rut, but a rut in which to find a place to rest and gain foothold for the day. If you are struggling to find time for working out, consider where you could put that routine. Thirty minutes at the gym before you go home? In the morning before you go to work? If you are struggling with wanting to lose weight or eating out too much, look at food prep on Friday Night (or another night) and food prep for a week.

Routines are an important part of mental health stability. How are you doing with routines during COVID? What one routine do you need to be better about? What one step could you implement now to get that routine started? What is one routine you can help your children with? Start with one simple routine. It can be as simple as making Saturday a meal prep together. Maybe the simple routine is putting a cubby by the door for children to put a coat and backpack in. Maybe it is a simple reward for making one’s bed every morning before breakfast. Routines simplify life and bring balance to one’s days.

If you have any questions or comments, please e-mail me at

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