The Coronavirus pandemic has shaken the world. We asked Clinical Psychologist Alexa Scher to discuss the importance of a routine and setting boundaries in our relationships in another session of #ItsOkayNotToBeOkay.
Alexa graduated from UCT, Rhodes and UKZN, along her journey to becoming a psychologist. She has worked for The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) for many years, creating mental health awareness in schools, running support groups and training support group leaders, as well as working in Diepsloot with a number of existing support groups and schools to promote mental health. She is passionate about creating awareness around mental health and breaking down the stigma around it, so that more people can get the help that they need.
Why is it important to have a routine?
Routine is about more than just getting things done, it’s also a critical foundation for our mental health. Researchers have found lots of psychological benefits from following a routine.
If you are asking why, just think about it – when we don’t know what to expect about what is going to happen (in a few hours, tomorrow, next week etc.) it can often leave us feeling pretty anxious.
Let’s look at it like this (those of you from the last webinar will remember this):
When we are in a situation, where we don’t know what to expect, we end up with lots of thoughts, predictions and assumptions about what we think is going to happen – “what if” kinds of thoughts. Unfortunately, the thoughts, predictions and assumptions we make are often quite negative – we imagine the worst case scenario and then hold on to that assumption/prediction as though it is the truth. Now, of course, if you believe something bad is about to happen, you’re most likely going to start feeling anxious, scared and uncertain.
So having a routine is really helpful, because it gives us a structure and way of knowing what to expect?
Yes exactly! When we follow a routine, we can fill up our time so
- We aren’t left with nothing to do other than think too much about what is going to happen in the future (the cause of anxiety) and
- We know what to expect, because we have made our routine and are following it, which helps to decrease all those negative ‘what if’ thoughts, thus decreasing the anxiety that comes from those predictions. Routines provide a sense of predictability, which is comforting and helps us to feel safe.
When we know what to expect and our routines become regular, our minds are then free to think about more important things and we have more energy to do these things, because our energy isn’t being drained by all those anxious thoughts and feelings.
Research shows that people who have active daytime routines have healthier sleeping cycles. If you’ve got regular and healthy sleeping cycles, you lower the risk of mental health and emotional difficulties.
Another benefit of following a routine is that it’s something you can do well – you know how to get up, shower, eat, watch TV etc. but often, when you just do these activities aimlessly, you don’t get a sense of accomplishment from them. However, if these activities are a part of your daily routine, then you’re already able to do a lot of what needs to be done in a day and can feel good about yourself for doing them, because that is what you were expected to do.
This can be really comforting – especially right now during the lockdown – because being stuck at home really limits our ability to be productive, which is often how we feel good about ourselves.
Don’t underestimate the power of that good feeling you get when you cross something off your to-do list! Even if that activity is something you do everyday, like cleaning the house. Sometimes I write things on my to-do list, right before doing it, just so I can get that good feeling of crossing it off once it’s done!
How can we create routines at this time?
First of all, it’s important to understand that different approaches work for different people, so you may need to try out a few different ways of making a routine, to find what works for you.
A good starting point could be to sit and write down all the things you usually do over the course of a week – e.g. Daily: eat, shower, clean dishes, work/look for work, exercise, sleep… Weekly: Laundry, cleaning house, shopping for food, going to church, seeing friends… etc.
So we should sit and write out everything we do each day over the course of a week that matches our lifestyles, see what we can keep or lose and then see what we can set as a normal routine. Is that right?
Yes! Being in lockdown has disrupted our normal routines, so not all of our weekly activities will be able to be included in our new routines. It’s therefore important to be a bit creative, to try and find ways to do something similar or to do things which can provide you with the same sense of value. For example, if you usually go to church every Sunday to feel closer to God, perhaps you can find other activities (which can be done from home), that have a similar effect. Like listening to gospel music, taking time to pray (perhaps together with family – if going to church was also a nice family activity for you), reading the bible, etc.
Once you’ve identified the types of activities you will include in your routine, you can begin to create a structure for it.
I have outlined 7 steps for you, as follows:
Step 1: Decide what time to wake up and what time to go to sleep each day (making sure you’re allowing enough time to rest). Going to sleep and waking up around the same time everyday can really help to improve your sleeping habits. If you’re able to stick to the same sleep and wake times for about 2 weeks, your sleeping patterns should become routine.
Step 2: Decide meal times – around what time do you want to eat breakfast, lunch and supper? It’s important right now to make sure you’re eating well, so that you can maintain a good immune system.
Step 3: Make time for exercise – once Level 4 starts, people will be allowed to walk, jog or go for runs within 5km of their homes from 6am-9am. So you may want to include an early morning exercise activity in your routine (especially if you need a reason to leave the house). Of course, it doesn’t matter when you decide to exercise, if you’re exercising at home, you can choose when it works for you. However it IS a good idea to include some form of exercise in your routine, as it will not only keep you healthy, but it can also help to calm you down and catch a break from all the worries. Ideas for home exercises – lots of information online with great resources here.
Step 4: Make time for studying/work/looking for work – It can be really hard to feel good about your day if you expect yourself to study/work/look for work all day and then don’t manage to do so. And let’s be real, most of us can’t study/work/look for work productively ALL day. So, what’s often more effective is to limit this activity to specific times of the day, when you’re at your most productive.
Some people are morning people, others aren’t, just figure out what works best for you. The amount of time really depends on your studies/work/ways of looking for jobs. Some people may need to create space in their routine for 4 hours of study/work//look for work time, whilst others may need 8 hours or only 30 mins. It’s possible to split this activity up, too. Perhaps creating a morning session, then a break for lunch, and then an afternoon session. It’s up to you!
Step 5: Make time for responsibilities – It can be overwhelming when we think about ALL the responsibilities we need to deal with (e.g. cleaning the whole house, doing all the laundry, cooking, cleaning dishes, etc. etc.). What helps, is to split these responsibilities up. Maybe 2 each day, or give yourself a responsibility-free day each week, and do 3 responsibility activities on the other days. Breaking up responsibilities into tasks can help, as you can then focus on just doing one task at a time, which is a lot less overwhelming.
Step 6: Make time for you – this could be anything, maybe a bath, enjoying your cup of coffee in the sun, watching your favourite TV show. It’s SO NB to carve out time in your day for activities that you enjoy/enrich you. Remember – self care is an incredibly important part of managing your mental health. If you don’t make time for yourself – even if just a small amount of time each day – doing all the other things in your routine will be much harder!
Taking time for yourself can also give you the opportunity to check in with yourself – something we forget to do when we’re so busy doing things all the time! Notice what you’re thinking and feeling and perhaps find some ways to let those feelings out, let go of the thoughts and be compassionate to yourself. Journalling can help with this – write down what’s going on inside so it doesn’t all build up! Perhaps you can try mindfulness/meditating during this time – as it helps a lot. We spoke about this in the last webinar, so you can always go back to the blog to get information on this.
Step 7: Make time for your relationships – whether family, friends, partners, children whoever, it’s important to include in your routine time to connect with those you care about. This is super hard right now, especially if you’re in lockdown alone, so this once again requires some creativity! Perhaps you can agree on a daily time with a friend/family/partner etc. where you can chat together about your day (even if not a phone call, messaging helps too!). Or perhaps it’s about trying to eat a meal together with family everyday, so you can all connect. It really depends on your situation. Making time to still have fun and connect to those you care about is important – even if it’s only once a week that you can have a chat or enjoy time together, use that time wisely.
I just want to add something: some people find creating daily and weekly to-do lists is enough.
Once you have your routine, give it a little time and it’ll start to feel like second nature. If you realise something isn’t working, don’t be afraid to change it. It can be helpful to have a different routine for the weekend too and to chance things up every now and then, to keep your routine fresh and stimulating. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all these steps and ideas, just remember that it’s okay to just start out small – even just getting out of bed at the same time each day is a start. None of us are amazing at sticking to our routines perfectly – sometimes we have off days, or off weeks even! What’s important is to be patient and kind with yourself – you can always start over again the next day!
Let’s now look at how to manage relationships at this time. We all have to share our space with a few people, and it’s a difficult balancing act.
How can we manage our relationships at this time – whether with those they’re cooped up with during the lockdown, or those who they’re not able to be with?
It’s definitely not an easy time for people at the moment and we’re all experiencing LOTS of difficult feelings, e.g. fears, anxiety, hopelessness, helplessness, depression, anger, frustration etc. Despite the fact that most people are feeling these ways, many people keep these kinds of feelings to themselves – often because they don’t want to ‘burden’ others, or because other people have ‘bigger problems’ etc. But is this helpful? Not really – in fact it can result in all sorts of relationship problems!
I like to imagine that keeping feelings inside is like keeping the lid on a pot, when it’s boiling on the stove… Eventually, the lid starts shaking, and the stuff inside starts spitting out uncontrollably. When this is happening, that’s when people close by can get burnt.
It’s kind of the same with feelings. When you keep difficult feelings inside, they can affect the way you behave, taking control of your behaviour instead of you being in control of what you’re doing. Unfortunately, for most of us, the feeling that takes control is often anger, or frustration. And just like how when the lid is on the boiling pot, those standing around can get burned… When feelings like anger take control, we can often end up snapping at others or fighting with those around us, even if they’ve actually done nothing wrong.
To explain what I mean – check out this image again – it’s clearly very important (as you might have noticed 🙂
Because we’re ALL in a very difficult situation at the moment with Covid and lockdown, it’s pretty understandable that we’re all sitting with difficult feelings… Right from young children to the elderly – everyone’s lives have been affected in many ways!
Many people don’t know how to manage all of these incredibly hard feelings, and even if they normally can manage these hard feelings, they may not be able to right now, because their ways of coping have been restricted (e.g. not being allowed to visit friends, go for a walk, exercise). As explained, when people can’t get their feelings out or manage them well, the feelings can take over – controlling their behaviour.
When this happens, our relationships – especially those who we are closest to – can become affected in all sorts of ways.
In order to manage this and prevent problems in your relationships, it’s SO NB that you find ways to manage your own feelings and, if possible, help them to manage their feelings too. A great way to do this is by open, direct communication.
Remember – NO ONE CAN READ MINDS! No one will know what you’re thinking or feeling, if you don’t tell them (and vice versa). All others see is how you behave. If your feelings are spitting out at them, and they don’t know why, it can lead to fights or other problems, which can result in a very unhelpful pattern.
It’s tough right now, because we can’t easily get a break from the people around us – so it’s easy to get stuck in these unhelpful patterns. For relationships where you’re not together, it can be just as difficult, as it’s hard to talk about these things from a distance.
So, it’s important to try to find ways to tell the people around you, or those you care about, what you’re thinking and feeling. If they’re able to do the same, it helps you to both find ways of behaving towards each other that’s helpful!
Can you give us an example?
Yes! You’re feeling upset and stressed, because you were meant to have some work for this month, which is no longer happening because of lockdown. You end up spending a lot of time thinking about how unfair this all is, whilst doing nothing at home.
For like the 5th time this week, your sister asks to use your phone. You end up shouting at her, telling her she should get her own damn phone. She becomes upset with you, tells your mom and now everyone is angry at you, which leaves you feeling even more upset and stressed.
Now let’s take a look at how things could have gone differently, if you’d communicated more directly about what you were thinking and feeling:
Let’s say you explained to your sister that you’re feeling upset and stressed, because you no longer have the money you were expecting to have this month. If you told her that when she asks to use your phone, you think – she’s wasting your data on her friends, meanwhile you need it to look for jobs online and stay in touch with youth capital – which causes a lot more stress for you… do you think she would keep asking you to use your phone? Possibly not as often… Do you think she would be upset with you, if you explained that you’re not angry at her, but it’s just increasing your stress when she asks, because you don’t have enough data? Again, probably not. If she isn’t upset with you, she won’t get you in trouble with everyone else… which at least means your stress isn’t worse.
What is also good about this version, is that not only were YOU in control of your behaviour, but it gives you the opportunity to help those around you to behave in ways that are more helpful. Without others’ knowing what you’re going through, they may do the wrong things without realising it. If you tell them what you’re going through, or what you need, it can give them the opportunity to shift their behaviour in a way that can be more helpful.
Of course this doesn’t always happen – sometimes people do things even though they know it’s not what you want. The thing is, we can’t control other people, only ourselves. If they don’t behave well, that’s on them… at least you can come out of the interaction knowing that you did your best.
Whilst doing your best may not seem that important, it can be very helpful because at least you don’t end up adding feelings like guilt, shame or sadness at the way you behaved, into the pot. Yes, you may still be dealing with being sad and stressed – but it’s easier to deal with just those 2 feelings than it is to deal with those plus guilt, shame etc.
Another reason why this could be a more helpful way of dealing with relationships is because if you are open and honest, it gives others around you the space to do the same. Perhaps, in our example, if you explained to your sister your situation, she could maybe share with you too. She could explain that she’s not actually using the phone to talk to friends, but because she has to do school work on a phone, but she’s run out of data… perhaps you can then support each other emotionally… or find ways to share the data so you can both benefit etc.
Managing relationships is hard at the best of times, let alone now when we’re dealing with lots of feelings. In addition to communication, it’s also important to be patient and compassionate with each other. Instead of just reacting to their behaviour, try understanding the emotions behind it. Maybe they’re hurting and just don’t know how to let it out.
We build and maintain relationships via communication. How can we communicate effectively?
The most effective way to communicate with others is to find a balance between your objective (getting what you want from the interaction), your relationship goals (how you want the person to feel about you after the interaction) and your self-respect goals (how you want to feel about yourself after the interaction).
For example, say you want to tell your sister no, she can’t keep using your phone. If you were to shout at her, you would perhaps achieve your objective (getting her to stop asking to use your phone), BUT the way she feels about you and the way you feel about yourself after shouting at her, isn’t necessarily what you wanted. Ideally, you want to be able to get what you want, whilst still maintaining your relationships with others and feeling good about yourself!
Think of it like this: To make an interpersonal interaction effective, you need to balance out your different goals.
So, step one would be to identify what you’re trying to achieve from the interaction:
1. Objectives – what are your objectives?
What specific changes do you want from this interaction?
Are you wanting to: resolve a conflict? To stand up for your rights in a way that’s taken seriously? To ask someone to do something? To say no? etc.
Step 2, think about how you want the other person to feel about you after the interaction is over.
2. Relationship Goals – what are your relationship priorities?
Do you want:
- To keep this relationship?
- To maintain or improve the relationship while trying to get what you want.
- To act in a way that the other person keeps liking and respecting you.
- To balance immediate goals with the good of the long-term relationship.
Step 3, think about how you want to feel about yourself after the interaction.
3. Self-Respect Goals – what are your self-respect priorities?
Do you want to feel good about yourself? Do you want to feel like you respected your own values and beliefs? Do you feel like you were able to achieve what you wanted to? Do you feel like you acted in a way that you would want others to act towards you?
Once you’ve completed these 3 steps, taking time to think through how you’re going to balance your objectives with your relationship and self-respect goals, you can then use the following skills to put it into practice:
1. Objective Effectiveness Skills – DEAR MAN SKILLS:
Describe – the current situation. Tell the person exactly what you’re reacting to. Stick to the facts – no judgment statements.
E.g. Hey, I don’t have a lot of data on my phone right now, because I was meant to work this month and now I can’t, so I don’t have enough money to buy more.
Express – your FEELINGS and OPINIONS about the situation. Assume they aren’t self-evident. Give a brief rationale. Use phrases – “I want/don’t want” instead of “I need/you should/I can’t”
E.g. This is why it makes me feel very stressed when you ask to use my phone. I feel worried I won’t have enough data to look for work.
Assert – yourself by asking for what you want or saying no clearly. Assume others won’t figure it out or do what you want unless you ask. Don’t expect others to know how hard it is for you to ask directly for what you want. Be clear, concise and assertive.
E.g. Please can you rather ask Mama to use her phone for now, as it’s important that I keep my data for looking for work.
Reinforce – or reward the person ahead of time by explaining consequences. Tell them the positive/negative effects of getting/not getting what you want/need. Help the person feel good ahead of time for doing/accepting what you want.
E.g. If you don’t mind doing this, it will help me a lot with my stress and I will let you use it again when data isn’t a problem.
Mindful – keep your focus on your objectives, don’t be distracted onto another topic.
Appear Confident – use confident voice tone and physical manner with appropriate eye contact.
Negotiate – try find a way you can both get what you want.
2. Relationship Effectiveness Skills – GIVE SKILLS:
Gentle – people respond better to gentleness more than harshness. Avoid attacks, threats and judgments.
(Act) Interested – listen to the other’s point of view, opinions, reasons for saying no/making a request. Don’t interrupt. Be patient.
Validate – or acknowledge the other person’s feelings /wants /difficulties/ opinions.
(Use an) Easy Manner – Try to be lighthearted/ smile…
3. Self-Respect Effectiveness Skills – FAST SKILLS:
(Be) Fair – to yourself and the other person in your attempts to solve the problem.
(No) Apologies – only apologise if warranted, don’t over-apologise – for having an opinion or for disagreeing.
Stick to the values – don’t sell out your values just to get your objective or keep a person liking you. Hold to your position.
Truthful – Don’t lie, act helpless or exaggerate.
These skills can really help when it comes to ALL SORTS of interactions we have – whether work relationships, family or friends. It can help to think through what you want to say, before going into the interaction, so that you’re able to stick to the skills. Even if you need to write it down, that’s okay. Do what you need to do to be most effective!
Sometimes we feel that people are pushing us in all directions. How can we set boundaries effectively?
Setting boundaries is a very important part of managing relationships. It’s not easy to say no, or to express not liking how someone is doing something, but if you’re able to use your interpersonal effectiveness skills (above), you should be able to set your boundaries, whilst maintaining your relationship… AND, in fact, improving your relationship. Again – never assume people can read your mind! If you don’t tell them what you think/feel or need, they won’t be able to just guess.
Often we end up fighting with others because we have assumed things – e.g. assuming they don’t care that they’re hurting us – only to find out that our assumptions aren’t true and in fact the person had no idea they were hurting you. In order to get people to behave in ways we want them to behave, towards us, we need to be clear about what we want and need and HOW we want/need it. This won’t always mean we get what we want, but at least it gives other people an idea of what to do, instead of just guessing and getting it wrong.
How do set boundaries?
The most important things to remember: Be clear and direct about what your boundary is – no room for them to be guessing, because again, they could get it wrong. Be consistent – people won’t respect your boundaries if sometimes you implement them and other times you don’t, as this is confusing.
Boundaries are only ever really effective, if you:
- Are open to negotiating and can agree on what will happen if the person doesn’t respect your boundaries.
- Are very clear about what the boundary is and what the consequences are – it’s not helpful if they are not 100% clear on what they are expected to do. Never assume they just know and if need be, remind them when necessary.
- Are consistent – when they cross the boundary, if you don’t implement the outlined consequences, all your efforts will go to waste! They will immediately take advantage of any loophole, so it’s essential that you show them you mean what you say!
- Respect their boundaries – people are far more willing to respect your boundaries, if they experience the same level of respect for theirs.
It can be very helpful to explain to them WHY you’re setting these boundaries. If they understand your reasoning, they may be more willing to abide by them.
Who can I chat to if I feel that I am struggling?
Families South Africa – FAMSA – (011) 975 7106/7 is a great contact as they provide counseling, specifically related to family and relationship issues.
The South African Depression and Anxiety Group – SADAG – 011 234 4837 provide free counseling and referrals.
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