Balancing Healthy Vs. Unhealthy Routines

When I look up tips for coping with anxiety or self-care ideas, I often see people talking about setting up morning and nighttime routines. Creating routines has always been something I am easily able to get excited about. I think new habits are much easier to stick with if you structure a set time and order to do them. Not only that, having a strong self-care routine to wake up or wind down at the end of the day can be a great way to help ground you and alleviate anxiety. It always feels good to do something for yourself with loving intentions.

I’ve been tempted to add a more structured nighttime routine into my daily habits in order to help me break away from my disordered nightly eating habits. I also think it would be nice to set aside a few extra moments of meditation and mindfulness in the evenings as I tend to get especially anxious later in the day. The only thing that’s holding me back from creating this new routine is the OCD tendencies I’ve become aware of lately.

I honestly can’t say how long this has been a problem for me. It has only become clear since the pandemic hit and I was alone in my house for days at a time. I think the reason it took me awhile to catch on to these unhealthy patterns is because I never really thought of OCD presenting in this way. Whenever I imagined OCD, I thought about people doing very simple repetitive things like turning lights on and off a certain number of times. I never really imagined that more complex, in depth (otherwise healthy) routines could become obsessive compulsive. Yet that’s what it feels like. I feel compelled to do certain activities each and every day, usually in the exact same order, or else I will feel off balance and extra anxious.

I know that OCD and anxiety are very closely related to one another and often overlap. Anxious feelings are what compel someone with OCD to perform certain behaviors. These behaviors are then rewarded by a decrease in anxiety, thereby creating a cycle of reinforcement. Plus I know that these mental health problems often have a genetic component. My mother has anxiety, but she also has ever increasing symptoms of OCD. Although her habits are more what I normally think of, such as checking the stove or the locks multiple times before being able to leave the house.

I would be interested to hear what a therapist would have to say on the subject of healthy routines and people suffering from OCD. Is there a way to integrate a routine that won’t become unhealthy for people like me? I am always very selective with any routine I begin to practice. I know that very likely it will soon cease to be a pleasant, healthy habit, and become a mandatory, anxiety producing part of my day. Instead of feeling like I am doing something kind for myself because I want to, it starts to feel like just another overwhelming obligation.

I have thought of one possible solution to this problem, but I don’t know how practical it would actually be. Perhaps if I were able to create a cycle big enough, spanning a long enough time period, like a whole month for example, I wouldn’t get so obsessed with performing identical tasks. However, I don’t know that this would really make a difference. It feels like I would be less attached to a behavior I only performed once a month, than one that I do every single day. For example, if on the 14th of every month, I take myself out on a date, it might not give me as much anxiety if that didn’t fit into my schedule one month.

Part of me thinks that is a very clever solution, but another part of me wonders if I might just be moving the goal posts. My gut tells me a therapist would prefer that I work on the problem in a different way. I know it’d be more helpful to actually start seeing a therapist and just ask about it, but we all know I’ve been trying and failing to get myself to go to therapy for years now. There just aren’t many therapists in my area that actually know what they’re doing. The good ones I do know either don’t accept my insurance, or are unable to see me as a client because we know one another through work.

For the time being I am interested to here what you all think about this issue. Do you believe routines can be healthy for some people, but unhealthy for others? Is there a way that someone with OCD can develop a healthier relationship with personal routines? Do you have any experience with this dilemma? What have you found helpful? Also, if anyone reading this happens to be a therapist, I would absolutely love to have you weigh in and give me your opinion.

Morning Routine High Res Stock Images | Shutterstock

Remember Why You Started

As you know, I’ve been thinking a lot about exactly how I ended up so enmeshed in the repetitive behaviors I now perform daily. I thought back to the first time I remember giving myself a similar list of tasks. In the beginning, I remember it being so exciting. I had big plans about bettering myself and working towards becoming the person I wanted to be. I’ve come a long way since then. I’ve made a lot of progress towards those goals. However, sadly I seem to have lost the passion that drove me to start this journey in the first place.

It feels like in the last few years, I’ve started to stagnate. These efforts at self-improvement were supposed to be fun. I want to get back to that passion that I once had. I was energized by these activities rather than exasperated by them. I believed in myself, in my potential. I was excited at the idea of reaching my goals. Somewhere along the line I seem to have lost all that faith in myself. I lost sight of the self love that once spurred me onward.

Thankfully, spring always reawakens something inside of me. I feel filled with a new energy as the air begins to heat back up and the sun reemerges. And with the coming spring, I’ve also had an important realization. I’ve been scrambling around inside my head trying to figure out a way to make time to meet a new vegan friend I met online. I’ve been ridiculously stressed out by the effort of trying to cram yet another activity into my already busy schedule. Only after a few days of this psychotic planning did it suddenly dawn on me, it doesn’t even matter if I miss doing all of my usual things for ONE day. How obvious.

The whole point of the things I make myself do everyday is self-improvement. Doing them every day was just a way to get into the habit. It was just supposed to give me direction and a way to feel productive on days when I had nothing else to do. I don’t know at what point it started to dominate my life instead. It seems like for years now, I have been prioritizing these “hobbies” over everything else in my life. I don’t make plans with friends and family because I tell myself I don’t have time for it. I neglect other, more important things, in favor of completing my these rituals. Only very recently have I realized how absurd that is.

These activities were supposed to help me become a better person, not prevent me from living a normal life. The ultimate goal isn’t 365 consecutive days of checking off these arbitrary boxes, the goal was to use my time wisely and learn new things. It completely defeats the purpose if in the end these habits inhibit my life rather than compliment it.

This is why it is so important to have clear intentions for yourself. My intention somehow got lost along the way. Luckily I’m finding my way back to it. Maybe a few years ago, what I needed was to have a more structured routine, but needs change. It’s time I allow myself to change with them. These habits were meant to serve me, but instead they’ve consumed me. Now what I need is learn how to give myself a break. I need to remind myself that it’s okay to rest. I don’t want to look back on my life one day just to see hundreds of checked off to-do lists. I want to give myself the freedom to have spontaneous adventures and make meaningful memories as well.

Tomorrow I want to give myself a long over due gift. I want to have a day off, a day free from my own demands. I want to meet someone new, get to know them. I want to explore and be curious and flexible. I want to not worry about whether or not I’ll have time to read later or write in my gratitude journal. How silly that the act of writing down a list of things I’m grateful for everyday became more important than allowing myself the time to enjoy what I’m grateful for. It’s no wonder I’ve lost all of my drive and passion. I’ve burnt myself out a long time ago. I’ve been running on fumes. It’s time to stop and recharge. It’s time to take a day just to breathe, to reflect, to enjoy the progress I’ve made, and to share my new and improved self with new people and with the ones I love, the ones that have stuck with me through all of these years of being distant and uninvolved. It’s time for me to thank them for that. It’s time for my to thank myself and enjoy how far I’ve come, how strong I’ve been. Time to refocus on my intention and reignite that excitement, that passion for my life.

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Doing Things Differently

I follow very strict daily routines. There was never any real reason that I began doing things in this particular order. It just kind of fell together that way. Now it’s become a pattern that, although has its variations depending on what I may have to do that day, has become very domineering. It has started to concern me as it’s begun to strongly resemble OCD. This all day ritual that I must perform or else I won’t be able to feel okay. Not that I feel no anxiety even when I’ve completed everything perfectly.

I know that the obvious solution is to stop letting myself do things in this order every day. Then I will see that everything is still fine when I divert from my normal routine. But like any form of addiction, I usually tell myself, “But I don’t want to stop.” This feels like only a half-truth at best. Regardless I need to stop so that it doesn’t continue to escalate and become an even more overpowering compulsion. I’ve already seen it slowly expanding to consume every waking hour. Once upon a time, it was merely my mornings that were off limits. I’ve left lovers in bed so that I could start my reading and study Spanish. At that point it still just felt like being efficient and productive. Come afternoon I would be free once again to do anything I’d like.

But now that morning routine has bled out into the afternoon, the evening. It sounds crazy even to me, but yesterday it was a great internal struggle to allow my best friend to come over and hangout for a few hours. I dearly love her and don’t get to see her often enough, partly due to this madness of mine. Still I was so tempted to make up an excuse not to see her so I could make sure my day was an exact photocopy of the day before. I’m not sure if anyone in my life right now is even aware of this issue to be honest. If anything they just admire my “commitment” and “productivity.” Little do they know it’s more like an illness than a virtue.

Nevertheless, I am going to try to change, if even just a little bit. Yesterday I had my friend over. This morning I accidentally slept in, so since things were already going to be slightly off, I managed to do my yoga and meditation first thing. It was very interesting. I want to encourage myself to make small changes to my rigid routine every day. Just to prove to myself that I can. Maybe eventually I’ll even set aside a day to make totally different.

All of this sounds completely insane to me as I write it. I can’t imagine what it sounds like to someone who’s never experienced anything like this. I wouldn’t even know what a normal person’s days look like at this point. It seems like most people just sit around all day. Whereas I feel compelled to fill every single moment with something, even if it’s something silly. Now that I think of it, although I always have something playing on YouTube or Netflix, I can’t remember the last time simply watching it was all I was doing. It is usually just on for background noise as I work on something else.

It may sound like this isn’t a huge issue and that I must be accomplishing a lot, but sadly that isn’t always the case. A lot of the time, there are other things I actually need to be working on, but I never get around to doing them because I’ve already filled up every second of my day with other projects. It is becoming impossible for me to shift my priorities and focus on the things that need my attention, but aren’t every day activities. I feel like this leads to me appearing lazy or letting people down. It’s something I’m unable to explain or even justify to anyone else. So far I’ve been able to manage it, barely. But I fear that if I don’t actively work on dismantling this toxic, overbearing routine I won’t be able to manage it forever.

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The Magic of Making Lists

Basically since I learned how to write, I’ve been making lists. Lists of things I want to do, things I need to get, things that I want to read, research, ideas, etc. This is a habit that has stuck with me all my life. Possibly one I even somewhat inherited from my mother, who is a prolific list maker herself. Even though, at times, the lists I make can seem repetitive they are always helpful for a multitude of reasons, all of which help greatly in reducing my overall stress.

Organize Your Thoughts

Sometimes when I have a lot of things on my plate, it can feel like my mind is a fishbowl that has been stirred up. The tiny rocks of my thoughts are spinning around and around rather than resting gently at the bottom. I begin to feel rushed, panicked. I have this nagging feeling that I am going to forget something important. Sitting down to make a list of everything swirling through my mind is a great way to get the water to settle. I don’t feel the need to keep thinking about all of these things. I can find comfort in the fact that it’s all written down. It gives me confidence that I won’t forget so I can get on with the rest of my day.

Prioritize & Visualize

Another great reason to make lists is to help you prioritize. Sometimes things seem so jumbled and complicated in my mind. It is hard for me to decide where to start. Writing everything down allows me to get a better idea of what I need to do first and what can wait until later. It also helps me to visualize the tasks I’ve set for myself. It gives me a clearer concept of how much I really have on my plate. Before I make a list, it always feels like I have a huge number of things to do. I feel helplessly overwhelmed. However, once I write it out, there are usually only a handful of tasks. I feel much calmer after realizing this. My lists always look manageable and allow me to feel more capable of completing everything I have to do.

Routines

There was a period of time when I started to become frustrated by my lists. It felt like every morning I was writing out the same exact things, and I was getting tired of it. My bullet journal allowed me to solve that problem. Most bullet journal tutorials online will include something called a habit tracker. Every month you can make a chart with a list of all of the things you would like to do everyday along with a designated box for each day of that month. You can come back to that page each evening and color in a box for each habit you completed that day. It is a great way to get into a routine or begin a new habit. It also saves a lot of time. No more writing out the same exact list over and over again.

Satisfaction

One of my favorite things about making lists is the satisfaction of checking things off of them. It’s funny the small seemingly meaningless things that can make us happy. Adding a check to a box, crossing off a line, or coloring in a square, don’t really strike me as pleasurable activities. But somehow the brain gets a dopamine hit for each one. It is such a delight to look at a finished list. Especially when it’s a completely filled in monthly habit tracker!

Ta-Da List

The other day I stumbled upon another great way for lists to help reduce stress. A Ta-Da List is something you can write to help you feel pride in what you’ve accomplished. Instead of all the things you need to do, a ta-da list is a list of everything that you’ve already done. You can even cross them all out as you go for that extra satisfaction. Sometimes at the end of the day, even though I know I have done a heck of a lot, it still feels like I haven’t done anything. This type of list can help you to acknowledge all the hard work you’ve done and give yourself credit. It can really ease an anxious mind that is afraid you’ve wasted the day away.

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Routines

Last night I had a dream that I was a child again. I was in my old rec room at my parents’ house. There I sat behind the couch with my Hamtaros, playing. I hadn’t a care in the world. For what reason did I decide to go back there and play? What signaled me to stop eventually? Why, my own desire, my intuitive self, that thing I was once so in tune with without even knowing. There is such a gentle flush of comfort and peace when I imagine being that carefree child again. I was able to do whatever my little heart desired.

It is not as if I don’t have the time or the freedom to do as I please now. Sadly, I just don’t know how to do that anymore. I could do whatever I like today, but what would I like? I have lost that precious connection with my own heart, my own desire. My intuition has gone silent. When did that happen? When did I change? Now each day is so rigid and unrelenting.

There is a certain comfort in routine. In the beginning that structure feels satisfying, productive. I seem to always notice a “sweet spot” where I am enjoying a routine to its fullest. It feels like I’ve found the perfect flow. However, nothing lasts forever.

Eventually that same routine that gave me so much joy, become suffocating. I feel caged by it. Unable to escape my rigid schedule for any reason even though it no longer make me happy like it once did. I don’t know if other people experience this, but it is very frustrating. Everything in life is a cycle. I know that. I see it everywhere I look. It can be a beautiful and awe inspiring thing. Yet I can never seem to find my way through my own cycles.

When I try to imagine how I would move through my day without following these ingrained routines, I am at a complete loss. I have no idea what I would do. Therefore it is always so much easier to just give in and do things the way that I did the day before. It seems like only a huge change that is out of my control is ever able to shake me from my pattern. Like with any big change, especially when it isn’t a choice, I am petrified at first. But there is a sort of aliveness in that terror, in that uncertainty. For a moment I almost feel free. Free to start again. That is when I am able to form new routines and thoroughly enjoy them for awhile. Unfortunately that period of peace never lasts long.

I am constantly clinging to my old habits and resisting change. Perhaps OCD is partially to blame. I get fixated on doing things a certain way, in a certain order and then can’t bear the idea of things being any other way. Even when the way things are now is no longer serving me. I am afraid to change. But I am also afraid to stay the way I am.

As neurotic as it may sound, maybe I could attempt to plan change. I could schedule my own cycles. Perhaps that would give my brain the structure it craves while also providing it with novelty and freshness. Or maybe I could regularly phase things in and out of my already established routine. Maybe I’ll start reading some books about connecting to your intuition. Even though it seems like that little voice of passion that once pushed me towards certain things has gone completely silent, I know it is still there somewhere. I hope one day I am able to find it again.

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Sleepwalking

Everyday I follow the same pattern. And the more days that go buy that way, the harder it is to deviate from that pattern. I tell myself I just like doing things this way and I can stop whenever I decide to. But then there is a softer voice in my head that wonders can I? I have been sleepwalking through life for so long now, years actually. I haven’t even tried to stop. Now I’m afraid I may not be able to.

One of the things I’ve always been grateful for is my ability to kick addictions. I’ve stopped smoking cigarettes for years at a time quite easily, cold turkey. I’ve abruptly been able to halt a rapid descent into alcoholism. No desire to drink lingering for even a moment. No hesitation. I’m one of the few able to successfully and easily become vegan. It’s been nearly a decade without animal products now. I have been able to stop smoking weed at times when I felt it was no longer serving me. No hassle at all.

I don’t know how other people end addictions, but for me I just start to get sick of it. I guess it’s like hitting rock bottom. The fear of continuing on this way becomes greater than the fear of changing. I’ve also heard that some people are just genetically predisposed to struggle more with addiction. I’m not sure how true that is scientifically, but it does seem to be a lot harder for some people, impossible even.

But maybe it’s not the chemicals or substances that I can’t let go of. Maybe it is harder for me to sacrifice my routine. If I am able to replace a component, whether it be an addictive substance or not, I am easily able to carry on. I’m less confident about being able to change my routine in general. To break away from even having a rigid routine. I am getting tired of it though. Being a prisoner of my own habits. I’m tired of sleepwalking through my days. Not thinking, mindlessly going through the motions, mimicking the day before. Even when it wasn’t a good day.

I can hardly remember what it was like to be a kid, waking up to endless possibilities, no structure, perfect summer days, doing exactly as I pleased. I’ve all but forgotten how to exist in that way. I don’t know how to listen to my own desires anymore. I’ve boxed myself in. And I’ve become afraid to leave that box. But I want to learn how to be mindful in each moment again. To really live again. Or at least try to. And even though here I am again, just planning to make plans, I still have faith in myself. At least it’s something.

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