Have you asked someone what day it is recently? You’re hardly alone — it’s getting harder and harder to tell when every day seems the same. Despite the what's happening outside, indoors, it feels like it feels like we’re all stuck in our own version of “Groundhog Day,” where each day bleeds into the next. When you’ve reconfigured all of your daily activities to fit inside four walls, it’s easy to feel like a rodent on a wheel, ever destined to run around in circles, with the mounting feeling those walls are starting to cave in.
“When our day is exactly like the last, and we are feeling stress about sickness, economic struggles, and the state of the world and our community, we can fall down a rabbit hole of anxiety and frustration pretty quickly,” explained Sanam Hafeez, a neuropsychologist in New York City on faculty at Columbia University. “When our routine and physical environment does not change after 30, 60, and more days, you begin to miss the errands and business of your normal life, and this can lead to a sense of loss, lack of control and anxiety.”
This monotony feels so taxing on our outlook because it’s actually taxing our brains. “Our brains need an optimal level of stimulation and variety to learn, grow and stay flexible,” said Dr. Tara Swart, a psychiatrist, neuroscientist, senior lecturer at MIT and author of “The Source: The Secrets of the Universe, the Science of the Brain.”
“All seven days of the week are less differentiated from each other and have the same lack of structure compared to before, but the brain still has an expectation of certain levels of routine, change and variety,” Swart explained, adding that a lack of variety in daily routine can cause stress to the brain.
In describing how we’re grieving our former reality and facing future uncertainty, Swart referenced what’s known as the Kübler-Ross grief/change curve in explaining how the chemicals in our brains aren’t working as they normally would.
“It’s an old psychological model that describes the stages [of grief] we will go through,” she explained. “The first two phases, shock and anger, are high cortisol states, where the brain and body is under stress. The next two, denial and depression, are low serotonin states, where our mood dips and we cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel. The last two, finding meaning and acceptance, are oxytocin building states, where we search for purpose to make sense of the situation and are finally able to adapt.”
Swart explained, due to our extraordinary circumstances, we’re lingering in each phase longer than we would, which takes away the natural shift between our sub-personalities, or the different selves we are in different places (like our work selves, our friend selves), draining our sense of motivation (which correlates with dopamine, a feel-good hormone, in the brain).
Adding insult to injury, by containing all facets of our lives to our homes, we lose the transitional time (found in your daily commute, for example) we use to mentally switch gears between activities.
“In lockdown, our home life, work life, homeschooling, and all versions of ourselves are overlapping, with no specific boundaries or separation,” said Swart.
“Our brains are pulled in so many different directions simultaneously between activities that are normally compartmentalized. It’s like multi-tasking in the extreme, and it’s emotionally draining.”
Both experts said, in order to step out of this Groundhog’s Day cycle, we have to make a concerted effort to switch up our daily routines — both mentally and physically. Here are some of their suggestions.
6 ways to break up the monotony of quarantine
1. Take a walk outside (and go a different route every day)
As cities across the country start to open up, it’s important that we continue physical activity to help our minds and our bodies, Hafeez says. “Scientists explain that the airflow outdoors makes it much safer to get the activity, sunlight and fresh air we need to lessen the heaviness of this isolation,” she explained. Besides, walking for just 30 minutes a day can help improve cardiovascular function, strengthen your bones and muscles and improve your mood.
2. Let the light in
Hafeez said letting as much natural light into your home as possible can help reset your wonky sleep patterns. “Open the curtains first thing and let the sun come in. At night, dim the lights, enjoy a show and some wine, or meditation and tea,” she says, as she warns bringing your phone into bed will only keep you awake when you want to fall asleep — and a good night’s sleep is key right now. “Sleep will help you stay alert and motivated, and when you are less fatigued and lethargic, you are able to deal more effectively with stress,” she said.
3. Establish boundaries
When each day bleeds into the next, it’s easy to become scattered, said Swart. “Create structure in each weekday (with meal times, for example) and introduce changes to that routine at the weekend. Establish boundaries around when you work, spend time with family (virtually or in isolation), exercise, eat, sleep, and have self-care time,” she suggested.
4. Switch up your downtime schedule
You know how, when you go to the gym, you do chest on one day, legs on the next? In order to add variety to your days, alternate the activities you do each day the way you would a workout, suggested Hafeez. “Maybe do chores, house projects, and Netflix shows on one day, alternated with exercise, errands, and a bubble bath on the next, with learning and crafts later in the week,” she said.
5. Practice kindness
Finding ways to lessen the burden of others, or show them we care, is a productive use of time that can help us feel better, Hafeez said. “For example, if you have elderly grandparents, make it routine to call regularly to check on them. Find something that can be shared between you like a show, a book, music, something that adds to their day and yours, leading to a greater sense of quality time, even if far away,” she said.
6. Get industrious
Both experts agree distractions like side-hustles, home projects and hobbies can stimulate our brains and improve our mental health. “The extra time we have (by spending more of it at home) can still be used effectively to stimulate the brain, and even to nourish the brain, as we read and absorb new information,” Swart said.