You’ve probably heard a common myth that it takes 21 days to form a habit.
Yes, it is a myth. This claim originated in the 1950’s out of research a plastic surgeon conducted where he found it took people about 21 days to become more accustomed to their new face. One magazine published this, and then another, and now 70 years later we’re still believing it. According to more recent research, it takes on average approximately 66 days to form a habit (Lally, van Jaarsveld, Potts, & Wardle, 2009).
Relating this to quarantine time, if this lifestyle lasts another 3 weeks, then we will cross that habit-forming threshold. Right now, most of us still can’t wait for the day when we can see our friends and family again and even go back to work. But give it some time and we might become a little too accustomed to our quarantine routines.
As humans, we crave regular routine to help us in our survival. Our regular routine over the past 6 weeks has been quarantine routine. According to A Framework For Reopening Our Province our next few months will be more slow and gradual changes. Even though many of us are excited to get some semblance of normality back, this continuous change over such a short time period will likely still be anxiety inducing for many. Returning to work after extended periods of time is anxiety inducing even without the looming threat of a virus. Just ask anyone who has taken a parental leave of absence. Now combine this action of being afraid to be around people again with the years of post-pandemic economic recovery, and we have a serious recipe for needing some additional mental health supports. While we can’t control this change from happening, we can control how we react to it. Over the next few years, we should be spending more of our effort in training ourselves and strengthening our adaptability and resiliency if we want to get out of this with minimal damage to our mental health.
Being adaptable means that we accept reality has changed, whereas resiliency is believing we have the ability to persevere. If we relate this even to Darwin’s “Survival of the Fittest”, creatures that could adapt to their changing environment were able to build resiliency and were thus more likely to survive rather than simply being the strongest or the fastest. As humans we have evolved the ability to adapt and be resilient, but it may take some practice to strengthen these mental health survival mechanisms if we haven’t used them much in the past. Here are some ways we can strengthen our resiliency and adapt in our now ever-changing environment:
- Accept change rather than avoid or fight it. We are preprogramed to fight or flight from stressful situations, which is super helpful for short term stressors but not so much long-term stressors. For the long-term it is better to practice acceptance. For example, if you’re feeling worried, accept that you feel worried. If you accept your worry for what it is, you won’t then feel angry at yourself for being worried. Acceptance helps us to not feel an overwhelming number of emotions all at once like anxiety, anger, sadness and fear, which helps us move through it much better.
- Build confidence and trust in your abilities. You can’t control crises or changes from happening, but you can control how you react to them. If you trust in yourself that you can handle different situations that life throws at you, then you will feel more confident navigating through any kind of change and will likely react more positively. Practice this by focusing or even writing down your positive abilities that helped you navigate changes in the past.
- Practice hope and optimism. Practice visualizing and thinking about positive outcomes rather than worrying or being afraid of negative outcomes.
- Build a healthy support network. Sitting in isolation watching the news all day is a recipe for poor mental health. Create your resiliency by surrounding yourself with healthy positive supports. Whether these supports are family, friends, a therapist, or an online support group. Surround yourself with people who make you feel positive and hopeful.
Many of these skills can be learned through reading books, attending resiliency workshops, or through individual therapy sessions. Also, as an FYI, this whole pandemic experience will help us to develop better resiliency for our future selves. Think twenty years from now a change in our life will happen and we’ll say “This change is nothing. I remember back in quarantine time…”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Christine Fuda is the Mental Health First Aid Coordinator at Ontario Shores. During the pandemic, she will be blogging regularly around the impact of COVID-19 from a mental health perspective. Send your suggestions for topics to @email.