Routine and mental health

By Penelope A. Domogo, MD

“Nature’s design has order, harmony and predictability. Geez, we can even predict the weather! Our bodies are programmed for this natural design.”

Imagine if you wake up one morning not knowing what to do because you don’t have a routine. But you realize that are hungry so that makes you decide what to do next- eat. You ask yourself- What will I eat? Then you find there’s nothing ready to eat. What will I cook? You find that there’s nothing in your kitchen. Umagang-umaga pa lang stressed ka na. I can’t imagine how you can cope the whole day. You might just want to go back to sleep but then you are hungry. If this happens for just a few days, like when you just retired or when lockdown was suddenly upon us, then your body can cope. But if you let this spontaneity be your lifestyle, you’ll get into problems.

Studies show that people who don’t have routine suffer from stress, poor sleep and poor eating. Naturally, these will lead to poor health. We know how stress takes a toll on our health. If you don’t have a routine for meals, you will have poor eating because you will end up eating instant noodles and canned goods or just bread and soft drinks (ugh!). No routine also means ineffective use of time where things that need to be done are left undone or half-done because you get easily distracted. Instead of washing the dishes, you get distracted by a beep from your phone, answer a silly  message and you continue scrolling your messages and clicking “like” on facebook and by the time you know it, it’s lunchtime and you didn’t finish the dishes, much less cook lunch. What a chaotic life!

Now we know why there are a lot of ill health in present-day society – obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, depression, anxiety disorders, allergies, covid, etc. Mental and physical and spiritual. We know that these three realms of ourselves are interconnected. This brings us to a discussion of why were there less diseases in the past- whether mental or physical manifestations. Let’s look at why there were less mental illnesses in the past. In my years of practice in Igorot communities, I knew of only two patients who had mental health disorders that they needed medication. I never encountered any woman with post-childbirth depression.

Nature’s design has order, harmony and predictability. Geez, we can even predict the weather! Our bodies are programmed for this natural design. Life, before machines and before electricity, was governed by nature. We woke up at daybreak, pound rice, cook, eat, walk to the farm and do what the season dictated- whether it was seeding, plowing, planting, weeding, harvesting   palay or planting camote, corn, beans and peanuts, or harvesting. Or looking for mushrooms. Or go to the dap-ay if it is time for “begnas” (thanksgiving feast centered around the “dap-ay”)  or rest. Nature dictated that we use our bodies, our hands and feet and mind, so that we would be able to eat. Science now affirms that physical activities are important for our health. For the farmer, the physical activities are routine so he is less stressed compared to the office worker who has to plan and schedule his/her physical activities. This extra choice for the office worker, in turn, gives additional stress especially if there are a lot of choices (would it be walking? tai chi? Tennis? Gym?  Gardening? zumba?. And if this does not become a habit then it becomes plus plus stress daily aside from the risk of sedentary lifestyle.

Since we depended ,then, solely on sunlight to work, we worked only during daytime and slept a good 8 hours at night. Science has shown that such sleep in the dark is good for our health- giving time for the body to repair and recharge- ready for the next day. Experience shows that for sleep to be deep, it has to be routine- meaning same time nightly.

Nature dictated what we were to eat- we can plant corn anytime but the harvest would not be as good as when it is planted in the right season. That goes for most, if not all, plants. People already discovered what plants were good for this and that season and this knowledge passed on to succeeding generations. So people planted more or less the same crops. (And there was no IRRI then (International Rice Research Institute) that experimented on tinkering with rice varieties.) Thus, in choosing what to plant, there was minimal stress because you knew already what to plant even for next year. Moreover, people ate what they planted because there was no public market. So there was no stress in meal planning because there were not a lot of choices. Cooking was routine. And again, science has shown that eating the foods in season, grown naturally, gives the best nutrients and is harmony with the rhythm of your body. Nowadays, what food choices do you have to make?

“Everytime you make a decision, you are adding some stress to your life; the more decisions you have to make, the less self-control you’ll have.” (Living Better Newsletter of Piedmont HealthCare). Dr. Indumathi Bendi, a primary care physician at Piedmont, Georgia says “Carrying out routine activities reduces stress by making the situation appear more controllable and predictable… When you reduce the number of decisions you have to make each day, then you’ll have a deeper sense of peace as well as relaxation of mind and body. Then you’ll be geared up to face your other tasks.” In other words, routines are calming and relieve anxiety.

We can understand, therefore, why, with the myriad of choices today- from clothing, to hobbies to food to gadgets to lifestyle- there are more people getting sick in body-mind-spirit. On the opposite side, we also get to understand that when we let nature organize our life into sensible rational routines, just like in indigenous Igorot communities, we see that there is less stress in us and what more, we get the best benefits (good sleep, good food, physical exercise) and consequently, optimum well-being.***


“For God has given us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” 2Timothy 1:7

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