Let’s face it, everyone is feeling the stress of the current war.
The IDF has operated in Gaza with much success in shutting down and countering the terrorist threat. Thanks to our brave soldiers fighting in Gaza, there seems to be a reduction in the number of rocket attacks aimed at Israel. As the war continues, Israelis, young and old, are feeling sad, worried, and fearful about the security and safety of their loved ones. Mental health hotlines are inundated with calls from worried and stressed Israelis. Since October 7, health professionals report over 100,000 distress calls made by Israelis seeking psychological help due to the emotional effects of the war.
Recently, there have been many articles suggesting the use of various coping skills to decrease stress and worry. However, I would like to address another topic that can help people cope during these very difficult days. I am referring to the importance of routine.
How keeping routine is important for mental health
Almost everyone’s routine has been disrupted since the onset of the war. Mental health experts underscore how important routine is for one’s emotional health.
Rachel Goldman, a psychologist and clinical assistant professor at the NYU School of Medicine, explains: “If people don’t have structure and are sitting around with less to focus on, then they also probably will find themselves thinking about the stressful situation more, which can also lead to additional stress and anxiety.”
Routine helps us feel as though we are achieving something, whatever that may be. In times of crisis and uncertainty, the reassuring feeling of accomplishing tasks can help motivate us to keep going, even if we don’t feel like it. Routine takes our minds off of what we are really worried about. It is a powerful distraction that can help you cope.
RECENTLY, I met Aaron. He and his wife and their two young children were evacuated from one of the southern communities. Like so many families, they were put up in a hotel. Although the hotel in Jerusalem provided food and shelter, life was not easy and became stressful for the family. They missed their own home, they could not cook, and living space was very tight. At some point, the parents decided to rent a small apartment so that they would have some semblance of stability and normality.
The couple realized that a good way to help their family was to take action and establish a routine for all the family members. They immediately enrolled the children in a local school. The children went to their new school, and Aaron helped his children meet new friends and arrange play dates. Aaron set up part of his living room as an office and was able to continue to work online. His wife returned to her job, and although her commute was quite long, she realized that her anxiety was decreased, and she felt better. The parents created a structured family routine that provided a needed dose of psychological security.
I spoke to a woman, Sylvie, in her 30s, the mother of three children, aged five, eight, and 10. She told me that she was overwhelmed with anxiety after the war began. Her husband, a combat reserve officer, was sent to the Gaza border at the start of the war and later joined other units entering the Gaza Strip to fight Hamas terrorists. Sylvie had to do all of the household chores and take her kids to school and preschool by herself. Although her parents were able to help her out with babysitting, she was not able to function at her best and had trouble sleeping at night.
She felt overburdened by her daily tasks. Luckily, a good friend told her how she was coping under similar circumstance. The friend told Sylvie to make a structured routine for each day of the week.
Sylvie recruited her parents to help her with picking up the children on specific days of the week on a weekly basis. She asked a neighbor to help her take her children to school.
At the beginning of the week, Sylvie plans out her to-do list, and integrates the tasks into her daily routines for the week. Routines include making a specific daily time for her eight- and 10-year-old boys to do homework, and arranging specific time for television viewing. She also assigned them tasks that are age appropriate.
Child psychologists note that young children are reassured by regular schedules. If homework is completed at a certain time, it is helpful to make sure to keep that as the time to do homework. Routine structure that is created for children, including going to school and after-school activities, helps kids divert their thinking from what probably really troubles them – missing their dad or worrying about a stressed-out mom.
Sylvie’s friend also encouraged her to remember to build into her routine time to take care of herself, be it taking a yoga class, taking walks, going to the gym, or any other activity that would be her time alone.
Many Israelis sought other kinds of routines to overcome the feelings of sadness, worry, and uncertainty that we are experiencing. Some people get involved in weekly volunteer efforts picking fruits and vegetables at moshavim that are currently without their regular workers due to the impact of the war. In my community, hundreds of volunteers participate in preparing sandwiches every day for evacuees in hotels. The volunteers feel like they are doing something positive and helpful for those in need.
Remember, even if you don’t typically thrive on a strict schedule, having a routine can provide stability and a sense of control during times of unpredictability, uncertainty, and stress. Routine takes our minds off what we are really worried about. It is a powerful distraction that can help you cope.
The writer is a marital, child, and adult cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist with offices in Jerusalem and Ra’anana and global online accessibility. [email protected], www.facebook.com/drmikegropper