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How Structure and 'Small Rituals' Can Improve Mental Health

Updated: Jun 5, 2020

Navigating life during the pandemic has been challenging. Sudden changes to all aspects of my life have contributed to a softening of the once-firm constructs of my world and my place in it. So far, just about everyone I’m talking to is reporting similar difficulties in adapting. 

Social tensions caused by quarantine have stressed the boundaries of authority, leadership, and good citizenship to the point of sudden uncomfortable change. Just as tectonic plates appear to be predictable and stable over long periods, inevitably tension builds, forming fault lines that eventually give way. My current circumstances seem to fit this metaphor perfectly.

As the old saying goes, 'change is the only constant.' And sudden change can create both scary earthquakes and the wondrous beauty of mountain ranges. My challenge has been to retain a sense of agency and realistic control during the viral and cultural earthquake. I hope to surf the massive wave of change instead of being pulled under with no clear way back to the surface! To reboot my confidence and sustain good mental health, I've decided to apply new structures to my life to make up for old structures that are no longer available.

Beneficial habits such as meditation, yoga, caring for my family, working, and being creative have immediate and recognizable effects in my life. Research has long proven the advantages of structured sleep, good eating habits, and physical exercise. However, my recent readings and talks with friends led me to believe that now is an excellent time to start new habits and routines. I formalized that intention and started to implement new 'small rituals.'  

I began to notice that the way I start my day has a significant impact on my mind, mood, and resilience to the day's challenges. Because my yoga studio closed, I started a new ritual of doing my yoga and meditation practice at home. I also started another 'small ritual' of putting away dishes, feeding the cat, and making tea or coffee for my non-morning-person partner right after my yoga. By giving this structure a mindful intention--creating the small ritual--I felt purposeful and positive when starting my day. I noticed that on the days I slept in or changed routine, that I lacked focus and direction for the rest of my day.

I began to think of my small rituals as 'pushing the boat away from the dock.'  A good push gets me underway in the right direction, with inertia to aid in my journey. Paddling from a dead stop, or worse, a nudge in the wrong direction, adds to the challenges of my day. I could tell the difference. I kept it up.

My partner began to notice a positive change in my mood. While she has her own habits for starting her day, she decided to join me in yoga mediation, which is a big stretch for her, not being a morning person! We found that our new morning ritual gave us an implicit structure to our day, which improved our functioning and enhanced our attachment. 

I think that finding a new routine and formalizing it into an intentional 'small ritual' should be very easy. A low barrier to success is essential! Putting away the dishes before I made my coffee was the catalyst for this experiment. Around it, I began to find my new morning routine. I began to feel joy in bringing simple order to my kitchen at a time when solving the world’s problems felt impossible. I was pushing off from the dock in the right direction!

Now I am working on small rituals to end my day as well. This practice helps me feel secure, better about myself, and more capable of showing up as 'my best self'. I encourage my clients to become aware of and cultivate their own 'small rituals'.

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