Coping When Life is Turned Upside Down

In this blog series entitled Life in Challenging Times, we have sought to understand grief and the losses that people have experienced during this pandemic, as well as validating the emotional reactions they may have had.

In the next few blogs we will provide some coping strategies for those struggling to come to terms with a world that has been turned upside down.

In any situation where normal routines have been altered, several things are necessary to help you adjust and move on. An important part of that process is maintaining structure in your life.

  1. The importance of Structure:

Change is never easy and rarely without struggle. While we know that change is inevitable, it is handled best when it is expected and if it occurs in the context of a familiar routine. Predictability allows us to feel safe, and to develop a sense of mastery in handling our lives.

However, an unexpected dramatic life change such as this pandemic has brought is never within our control. Thus, unpredictable changes trigger fear of the unknown which erode this sense of safety and control and leave us feeling anxious and less able to cope with the ebb and flow of life.

Of course, many such changes cannot be avoided, as much as we would like to be able to do so. Structure and routines teach us how to constructively manage ourselves and our environments in both typical as well as in chaotic times when life is turned upside down.

Every parent knows this, of course. What gives a newborn baby a sense of safety and security is establishing a routine … sleeping, waking, feeding, pooping, cleaning, sleeping, all in a regular (albeit changeable) order.

This principle doesn’t change as life progresses. We learn that life runs more smoothly where things are organized, whether at home or at work. Kids never learn how to accomplish unwelcome tasks where they have not been taught the discipline of doing homework or fulfilling disagreeable responsibilities. People find it harder to take care of themselves when they have not developed basic self-care routines, from personal grooming to eating regularly.

Structure allows adults and children alike to internalize the ability to manage their own lives. Now, I’m not saying that it has to be oppressive. Think of structure as your friend, offering you the little routines and habits that make life both easier and more comfortable:

  1. a) Eliminating power struggles

Routine and structure, when they become habits, eliminate power struggles because we know that this activity (getting up or eating meals at “this time” etc.) is just what we “do” at this time of day in our house. So it’s not like someone is “telling us what to do” … which, let’s be honest, few people enjoy.

  1. b) Increasing cooperation

Routines help adults and children build cooperation by reducing stress and anxiety for everyone. We all know what comes next, we get fair warning for transitions, and no one feels pushed around, or that life or others are being arbitrary. The feeling of being in charge of your own life increases your sense of mastery and competence. People who feel more independent have less need to be oppositional.

  1. c) Providing consistency in expectations.

Following rituals like having coffee in the morning; eating dinner at a regular hour; going for a walk in the afternoon, etc. helps slow you down and if you do them as just “part of the routine” they build security as well as connection and cooperation with others.

But when everything is a “fight” or a struggle, someone usually has to “give in” which nobody likes. With a routine, parents are more likely to stick to healthy expectations for everyone in the family, and children are more likely to cooperate because “that’s just the way we do things these days in our household”.

Next time, we will look at Four Basic Needs in Times of Crisis or Change