Creatures of Habit

2020, a year that will never be forgotten due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, has been a challenging year for everyone. It was certainly not the year that any of us expected and it is for this very reason – that it was so unexpected - that many of us have struggled.

When there are discrepancies between our expectations and reality, all sorts of distress signals go off in our brains. It doesn’t matter if it’s an annual holiday ritual or a more mundane daily habit like how you clean your teeth; if you can’t do it the way you normally do it, you’re biologically engineered to get upset. We really are creatures of habit.

This partly explains our longing for the routines that were part of our lives before the pandemic. It also partly explains our sense of unease as we enter a Christmas/holiday season unlike any other.

The good news is that much of what we miss about our routines, customs and traditions, and what makes them so beneficial to us as a species, has more to do with their comforting regularity than with the behaviour’s themselves. So a useful coping skill, during a time of upheaval like this pandemic, is to quickly establish new routines. That way, even if the world is uncertain, there are still things you can predict and count on.

Why are we Creatures of Habit?

Psychologists, anthropologists, neuroscientists and neurobiologists have written countless books and research papers on the topic, but it all comes down to this: Human beings are prediction machines. Our brains are geared to predict what will happen next.

This makes sense because, since prehistoric times, being able to predict what would happen kept you safe and faulty predictions could lead to some very unpleasant surprises — like a tiger eating you or sinking in quicksand. Today, the inability to predict what is going to happen next, sends us into a tizzy because our brain interprets it as a potential threat.

Routines and rituals arise from the primitive part of our brains telling us, “Keep doing what you’ve been doing, because you did it before, and you were safe.” So the unvarying way you shower and shave in the morning, travel the same route to work or sit in the same chair at every lecture, are all essentially subconscious efforts to make your world more predictable, orderly and safe.

Routines and rituals also conserve precious brainpower. When our routines are disrupted we have to make new predictions about the world, which means gathering information, considering options and making choices, all of which have a significant metabolic cost. (The brain accounts for about 20% of oxygen usage and, hence, calories consumed by the body).

What Happens When There is Uncertainty?

When faced with uncertainty, our brains can become like overheated computers: The amount of updating we have to do in the face of new information increases the complexity of the processing, and that can be measured in joules or blood flow or the temperature of our brains. This exertion, combined with the sense of threat, produces emotions like fear, anxiety, hopelessness, apprehension, anger, irritability and stress – everything we are experiencing with this Covid-19 pandemic.

Our brains are literally overburdened with all the uncertainty we are experiencing because of the C-19 pandemic. Not only is the information we have about the virus constantly changing, but things we had already figured out and relegated to the brain’s autopilot function — going to work, visiting the gym, taking the kids to school, religious practice, socializing, grocery shopping — now require serious thought and risk analysis.

As a result, we have less brain capacity available for higher order thinking such as recognizing subtleties, resolving contradictions, developing creative ideas and even finding joy and meaning in life.

Samantha Heintzelman, an assistant professor of psychology at Rutgers University in Newark who studies the connection between routine behaviour and happiness says, “…we think of meaning in life as coming from grandiose experiences, but it’s mundane routines that give us structure to help us pare things down and better navigate the world, which helps us make sense of things and feel that life has meaning.”

Beware of Unhealthy Habits

Of course, you can always take routines and rituals too far, such as the extremely controlled and repetitive behaviors indicative of addiction, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder and eating disorders.

In the coronavirus era, people may resort to obsessive cleaning, hoarding toilet paper, stockpiling food or neurotically wearing masks when driving alone in their cars. On the other end of the spectrum are those who stubbornly adhere to their old routines because stopping the routines feels more threatening than the virus. Both of these are maladaptive.

And then there all those hunkered down in a kind of limbo, waiting until they can go back to living their lives as they did before. But that, too, is maladaptive.

“You’re much better off establishing a new routine within the limited environment that we find ourselves in,” said Dr. Regina Pally, a psychiatrist in Los Angeles who focuses on how subconscious prediction errors drive dysfunctional behavior. “People get so stuck in how they want it to be that they fail to adapt and be fluid to what is. It’s not just Covid, it’s around everything in life.”

Too many people are still longing for their old routines.
Start some new ones instead.


Healthy Habits

Luckily, there is a vast repertoire of habits you can adopt and routines you can establish to structure your days no matter what crises are unfolding around you.

The idea is to find what works for you. It just needs to be regular and help you achieve your goals, whether intellectually, emotionally, socially or professionally. The best habits not only provide structure and order but also give you a sense of pleasure, accomplishment or confidence upon completion. It could be as simple as making your bed in the morning or committing to working the same hours in the same spot.

Pandemic-proof routines might include weekly phone or video calls with friends, sitting down to Sunday lunch with the family, hiking with your spouse on weekends, regularly filling a bird feeder, set times for prayer or meditation, reading or listening to an audiobook every night before bed and doing some physical activity/exercise for 30 mins every day.

The truth is that you cannot completely control what happens in life. But you can create a routine that gives your life a predictable rhythm and secure framework. This frees your brain to develop perspective so you’re better able to take life’s surprises in your stride.

 This article is based on an article in the NY Times written by Kate Murphy.