Losing the 'rhythm of life': Pandemic's disruption of routines affects our sense of self, experts say

Experts say the COVID-19 pandemic's disruption of our daily routines isn't just frustrating — it can also impact our sense of self.

Our daily routines both express and inform our identities, psychosocial health researcher says

Self-isolation during the pandemic has forced many to confront a situation they have never faced before: What happens when most of your routines are uprooted at once? (Shutterstock/panitanphoto)

We have relied on them since we were born, cherished some, resented or rebelled against others.

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the importance — or insignificance — of our normal routines: Morning coffee with a coworker, your child's weekly soccer game. 

"They give us the rhythm of life. They both express and inform our identities about who we are, what we stand for, and who we stand with," said Alex Clark, a psychosocial health researcher and professor in the University of Alberta's nursing faculty.

Routines understandably change as people move through life and priorities shift. But the pandemic and the self-isolation it brings has forced many to confront a situation they have never faced before: What happens when most of your routines are uprooted at once?

"When our routines are disrupted, our sense of the place we have in the world is a little bit disrupted too," said Clark, who is also an associate vice-president of research at the university.

"We feel a sense of discombobulation, a sense of uneasiness," he said, which can turn into anxiety or problems sleeping.

Psychosocial health researcher Alex Clark says our daily routines play a major role in how we define ourselves. (University of Alberta)
Clark said the pandemic can allow people to think about who they are through the routines they value most. It can also, however, amplify behaviours that can be self-destructive if left unchecked.

If you normally drink wine when watching a Friday night movie, he said, and expand that behaviour to all the movies you are now watching to pass the time in isolation, that can create an unhealthy habit.

Last week, the Alberta government announced it is spending an additional $53 million on mental-health and addiction recovery supports amid the pandemic. Most of that money will go toward improving access to phone and online resources, like the province's mental health helpline, and a new community grant program.

People need to safeguard their mental health and take advantage of resources like these, Clark said, since the pandemic will likely worsen existing depression and loneliness.

Continued social development critical for children: expert

Jason Daniels is a cognitive development researcher with the University of Alberta's Community-University Partnership for the Study of Children, Youth, and Families. Much of his work has focused on children's social development and the role technology plays in it.

He said routines are especially critical for children, not only because they provide a sense of structure but because kids who are just starting to define themselves often do so through them.

"As they go out into the world and gain more independence, as they move into school and other types of things," he said, "more and more that sense of identity, that sense of self, is going to be developed through their interactions with others."

Cognitive development researcher Jason Daniels says it is critical that parents help continue their children's social development — not just academic learning — during the pandemic. (University of Alberta)
While school closures during the pandemic has created concerns about how kids can best continue their academic learning, Daniels said parents can't underestimate the potential impact on their kids' interpersonal skills.

"A large part of school is the social learning that takes place," he said.

"The peer interactions, the interactions with teachers are excellent learning tools to learn about negotiation, learn about sharing, learn about conflict resolution — all of those things that are vital social skills are naturally sort of byproducts of going to school," Daniels said.

Parents can help by encouraging or setting up virtual playdates for their children, but also by resisting the urge to schedule every moment of their day, he said. It is critical that kids have time to explore their interests, be creative, even learn how to handle boredom independently.

"If we're not helping them to develop and continue developing social skills, I think that we might see a regression in those kinds of skills that were just naturally occurring as children were able to interact with their peers," Daniels said.

What happens when we leave self-isolation?

Clark said people tend to establish routines quickly, sometimes in as little as two weeks, which means they are already becoming accustomed to new habits they might have to abandon when self-isolation ends.

"Just as we find it difficult to get used to the new routines associated with social isolation, there is also an adjustment process (on) the other side," he said.

In the meantime, Clark said, it is important to continue healthy routines — or form new ones — and remember that enduring the stress of the pandemic is a shared experience.

"With that sense of community, and with all the different options that we now have online, we can find different ways to express and re-enact our identities in these new ways, albeit the world is fundamentally quite a different place," he said.


Jennie Russell

Former investigative reporter

Jennie Russell was a reporter with CBC Investigates, the investigative unit of CBC Edmonton, from 2012 until 2021. Russell specialized in accountability journalism. Her work has been widely credited with forcing transparency and democratic change in Alberta.