Thrown Off Track

The pandemic destroyed our routines and made space for new habits, whether good or bad.

Alli Wasseman barely slept or ate for a week in early June. She’d been doing OK, even though she was overworked with her barista job and grad school applications, before the pandemic. She even enjoyed the first couple of weeks of quarantine after she’d been furloughed from Peet’s Coffee. 

But then, with no routine or anything to do, she started feeling trapped in her Portland apartment. Wasseman was diagnosed with severe anxiety and panic attacks five years ago. It got worse when the pandemic started, and she spent her days lying in bed and worrying about the future. 

“I really didn’t have a routine,” she says. “That allowed my anxiety to fester.” 

Wasseman says she started abusing alcohol and weed to keep the anxiety at bay.

When regular routines are disrupted, as they were for most of us at the beginning of the pandemic, there’s an opportunity to make new habits, according to Elliot Berkman, a University of Oregon psychology professor. Some people who deliberately created healthy new habits for themselves thrived, while others struggled as their old routines disappeared.

“During the pandemic, your whole schedule gets disrupted and changed, and unless you’re very deliberate about reinserting times to be active and form those habits again, they’re not just going to pop back up on their own,” says Berkman, who studies motivation, goals and behavior change.

He says that habits are reinforced by having a consistent environment and routine. For example, he says, a lot of runners before the pandemic would have a habit of running before work, during their lunch break or when they came home. 

Berkman says there’s a close relationship between habit and motivation. “Once you establish a habit, you don’t really need motivation,” he says. “Once you’re in the routine of doing something, you kind of do it without thinking about it.” 

Elora Hanawa, a UO undergraduate, took advantage of the pandemic to make healthier habits for herself. She started running up and down Spencer Butte when the quarantine started in Eugene.

Hanawa, who is a triple major at UO and does multiple extracurriculars, would spend all day on campus winter term. Then the pandemic started, all of her roommates left town, and she was left in an apartment on her own.

She said it was hard for her to make time to work out before the pandemic.

She wasn’t consistent at all during winter term, Hanaway says. “I’d go when it suited me, and I would dread going, but now I actually like going and I get excited to go.”

After several months of exercise, working out is a habit for her and no longer requires motivation. Hanawa says because of these healthy habits, her mental health is better now than before the quarantine.

Gabby Urenda, a Beaverton-based journalist, also has become healthier during the pandemic.  

Urenda was put on part-time pandemic hours in the spring and started working from home. Before the shutdown in Oregon, she would normally work out once she got done at the office. 

But when she started working from home, she says she’d feel too tired after a long day working at a desk in her bedroom to exercise. So she started taking runs during her lunch break, something she couldn’t have done when working at the office. Since then, Urenda says she finds it much easier to find the energy to stay active.

“Losing a routine has led to me trying to find a new one,” she says.

Wasseman, like Urenda and Hanawa, has also now found healthier pandemic habits for her body and mind. After that week in June, where she barely ate or slept, she went home to her family in California to recover. There, she went to an intensive outpatient program to work on her anxiety and her dependence on alcohol and weed.

Wasseman is now five months sober. She says she’s developed better mental health habits, like allowing herself to ask for help from friends and family when she needs it. She’s back at work now and is enrolled in the graduate journalism program at UO.

Wasseman says she learned the importance of having a routine from the pandemic. She says even little things, like waking up at the same time every day or making breakfast every morning, are key to mental health. 

“Those are the little things that keep yourself sane.”