The Healing Power of Routines

I am looking for friends. What does that mean — tame?”
”It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox. “It means to establish ties.”
”To establish ties?” “Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world....
— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

Many years ago when I worked out in western Mass, I drove the same route every morning at 5 am. And if I passed a certain spot on the road at approximately 5:16 am, I saw a red fox on his appointed rounds. It became part of my morning routine, trying to make sure I was there at the right time for a fox sighting. In the story of the Little Prince, the Little Prince tames the fox. I would have to say, that this fox tamed me. The Little Prince defined tame as ‘to establish ties.’ And while we never met face to face, this fox changed the way I lived my morning—I made the fox a priority. He became part of my morning routine. I felt better when I got to see him.

When we let ourselves be tamed by routine, we get a chance to rest in something else, in something bigger. You create through the act of repetition, and if you wish, devotion, something that can help you feel tethered, grounded, more connected. You establish ties.

Routines can help us feel that we can count on ourselves—can count on the world. Yes, it is true that you can’t predict everything, but you can give yourself a few things that you can mostly count on.

Trauma and big loss can throw us off balance, can make us feel like there is nothing solid in the world, nothing we can count on. And healing can stir up that same sense of disequilibrium, and loss of balance, loss of knowing what you can count on. And having a few well placed routines can help you feel more solid, give you sea legs on the pitching boat of healing, give you a sense of the horizon again.

Children know all about routines. They hang on them like the fixed ropes that they are—and they use them to keep climbing the steep and exciting mountain of growth and development. Routines are what help their brains learn that the world can have an order and predictability to it: that one thing follows another. And the truth is, the fixed ropes of routines can support us all—whether we are healing or growing. Fixed ropes don’t keep us in one place—they allow us to keep moving and stretching and climbing. They allow us to use all of our efforts at forward motion, and not on figuring out how to stay safe.

It doesn’t need to be an entire regimen or anything. Though when needed—a regimen can be really helpful. When I worked in residential treatment and a client was having a really bad day we would sit down with a piece of paper and schedule her entire day in half hour increments. 8:00 am—wake up. 8:30—eat breakfast. 9:00-watch morning TV, etc.  The first time I did this with a young woman I was so surprised how effective it was. It was a whole day of things she could count on and it buoyed her—she was much stronger by bedtime. It’s a really easy and inexpensive fix for bad days—with no negative side effects. I use it myself when necessary.

No, a routine can be something really simple. And sometimes it is a matter of appreciating and being mindful of the routines you already have: your morning coffee or tea, feeding your pet or filling the birdfeeder, reading the paper, waking your children, your morning run or trip to the gym, packing your briefcase for work, Opening your laptop or turning on your computer. Take some time to just notice your routines this week, the ones you do daily without pausing to think.

And sometimes, you can add in routines in that can support your health and healing even more: meditation, walks, prayer, a favorite book at bedtime, a cup of tea in the afternoon. What might you add in as a time to anchor yourself, soothe yourself, give yourself a moment to pause, breathe and connect—to establish ties to yourself- and the world around you?

© 2015 Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD