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  • Chris Masuda

The Power of Structure and Routine

June is in full swing and in Texas that means a humid blanket of heat settles down, driving people into AC and swimming pools to escape. School recently got out, vacation plans pop up, summer camps enroll, and life can feel kind of, well, chaotic.

I recently tried to make plans with a friend and we both have our own families including kids to consider. Our text exchange was comical, involving a lengthy back and forth pitching and shooting down dates due to conflicting summer activities and trips. We finally settled on ''let's try again after summer is over''.

Summer is different than the rest of the year for many people, especially those who are still normally in school. With such freedom and time comes many opportunities, but it also involves a loss of something that I've thought more and more about lately.

The older I get the more I think about the duality of things. Most things involve pros and cons. Most things can be both good and bad, can be useful or not useful depending on the situation. Oftentimes a strength can also be a weakness. Summer has made me think about the duality of more free time.

Kids tend to thrive with structure and routine. I get to witness this firsthand in my toddler. He, like every other 2 year old on the planet, hates to go to bed. I was surprised at the power of the bedtime routine though. Once implemented, there's some kind of magic in knowing that first comes a diaper change, then tooth brushing, then book reading, then sleep. We enter a flow and it is simply easier to do a given task due to the routine.

Routine can be powerful in adults as well. I struggled to get on the treadmill as much I wanted to. I decided to try incorporating it into the evening routine and linked putting my toddler to sleep to immediately working out afterwards. Now when I get done with his bedtime, I have this sense of empty mental space, a sense of readiness for the ''normal'' next step of working out. That was an ''aha'' moment for me, a realization of how powerful routine can be. I also noticed that maintaining the routine seems key to its power. If I miss more than 2 days in a row, I start noticing the absence of that magical flow, that inside prompting me to do the next thing.

Mental Health Professionals try to harness this power of structure in many ways clinically. When we teach sleep hygiene, we are basically teaching a bedtime routine and research based facts about optimizing it. When we problem solve forgetfulness about taking meds, we often try linking the medication to something that is already part of the routine like brushing one's teeth. When we discuss time off of school or work due to functionally impairing depression or anxiety, the next question is how do we achieve structure and routine during the healing process? Without work or school, structure is often a lot harder to maintain. The easiest way is to get someone enrolled in an intensive outpatient program (IOP) to provide both structure and intensive therapy. Partial hospitalization programs (PHPs) and rehabs offer various levels of similarly helpful structure.

If structure makes it easier to do tasks or things that we already want to achieve, then it makes sense that it may impact mood positively for many people. In addition, for those who struggle with depression, getting out of bed and having structured activities can be behaviorally activating, improving mood that way. For anxious folks, structure can be grounding. Think about what happens when you're anxious and have nothing to do; you're brain probably gets free reign to ride the worry train in circles for hours. There's nothing to distract it from the 100 things that could go wrong or that one catastrophically awkward thing you said.

When depression or anxiety are mild, sometimes people can make structure for themselves even while not doing a program, school or work. However, the amount of effort it takes is much more than just enrolling in a program where the structure/routine is handed to you. Think about how much discipline is required in deciding to take a daily walk instead of staying on the couch. Alternatively think on what it would be like to already be in a group where the next activity is a walk and everyone is getting up to go do it. It'd actually take more effort to NOT do the walk. A structured day probably involves at least 5-10 activities, so multiple that thought experiment by five.

School, work, and camp are also sources of pretty automatic structure and routine for most people. Some of that can even be free. In work, people pay YOU to have structure/routine. It's just another aspect to notice about it.

I'm not saying never take a vacation or just chill. Freedom and unstructured time and spontaneity have incredibly beautiful and powerful aspects to them as well. I just think structure and routine can so easily become wallflowers, why not honor them with the spotlight this summer? Give them a nod to their power and strength, and think about how and where you may be able to wield their utility in your life.


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