When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in March this year, Bindiya Surtani experienced a bout of anxiety, accompanied by insomnia and heart palpitations. Almost overnight, the boundaries between work and home blurred; the Singapore-based mother-of-two felt overwhelmed at having to attend to her children all day every day for weeks on end, and worried about how the pandemic might affect her family, including her elderly parents who live in Indonesia. “Due to the flight restrictions, we couldn’t travel to see my parents and they couldn’t visit us in Singapore,” says Surtani, who is a an ayurvedic practitioner – a follower of Ayurveda, traditional Indian medicine . “On top of worrying about my family’s well-being, I just didn’t have time for myself any more. I felt like the walls were closing in on me. One afternoon I actually broke down in front of my husband and kids.” To “get back to herself”, as she calls it, Surtani decided to dedicate an hour each day to yoga and meditation – two things she did regularly several years earlier when she was going through a stressful period. “These activities require me to focus on the present, so I have no choice but to put aside any distractions and worries,” she explains. “To do the yoga poses correctly you also have to get your breathing right . And when your breathing is right you feel calmer and less burdened. You have more control over your emotions. It’s the same with meditation – it’s an opportunity to empty your mind, release negative energy and connect with your breath.” How therapists with their own psychiatric disorders see things from both sides Surtani does not call these rituals “workouts”, but rather, “work-ins”, because they involve “journeying inward” to find a sense of comfort and peace. Structure and predictability are important to our mental and emotional health. According to Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist at Dr BL Lim Centre for Psychological Wellness in Singapore, following a structured routine every day can help us feel more stable and secure. When we know what needs to be done, and when we know what to expect, we feel “normal”. Rituals, such as meditation, exercise, yoga, and even prayer, can form part of that routine. When practised regularly, Lim says, they help keep us emotionally grounded and centred. Rituals and routines also give us a framework within which we can evaluate our response to the world around us, says Valerie Ho, co-founder of the Hong Kong-based OMSA, an online platform dedicated to cultivating self-care, well-being and spirituality. “From a place of stability, we are able to come to terms with what we might be facing internally, leaving us better able to manage our emotions and find a sense of clarity when we feel overwhelmed,” she says. A recent University of Connecticut study supports these claims. Participants were required to undertake a stressful task, but before they took it on, one group was asked to perform a comforting religious ritual while the other was sent to a quiet area to relax. At the end of the study, the first group was found to be less anxious, with participants reporting a slower heart rate and fewer anxiety symptoms than those in the second group. These findings were published in July 2020 in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society . Researcher Dimitris Xygalatas, an assistant professor in the university’s department of anthropology, says that comforting rituals are an excellent “life hack” to help us manage anxiety. “We have many ways of doing this; for instance, when we look at ourselves in the mirror before an interview and tell ourselves, ‘OK, I can do this’. Or when we take deep breaths to calm down … Ritual is one of those mental technologies that we can use to trick ourselves into [dealing with anxiety].” The global pandemic has turned billions of lives upside-down. A study done by researchers at the University of Hong Kong, published this May in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health , revealed a high prevalence of anxiety and depression in Hong Kong, with about one-quarter of respondents reporting that their mental health had deteriorated since the pandemic began. The researchers say this is worrying, because coronavirus-related anxiety has been strongly associated with functional impairments, such as abusing alcohol or drugs, having doubts in one’s spiritual faith, extreme hopelessness, and passive suicidal ideation . “There’s no question that our schedules have been thrown out of whack,” Lim points out. “ Working from home , being on lockdown for an extended period of time and being away from friends and loved ones have caused many of us to lose our footing. We find ourselves working late into the night and eating at irregular times. “We’re probably not exercising much either, and we’re not sleeping well because we’re worried about everything. It’s not surprising that many of us feel like our lives have spun out of control. The unpredictability of this ‘new normal’ has left us anxious, irritable and burned out. We feel uneasy, like we’ve lost our handle on things.” Young people in India talk openly about anxiety and depression Sticking to a routine is now more important than ever. Lim says to wake up early every morning and sleep at the same time every night, to exercise at least three times a week , and eat healthy meals at regular times. You should also try to keep to normal office hours if you work from home. The more structured your day, the more balanced and in control you will feel. See where you can incorporate comforting rituals into your life. If you are not keen on meditation or prayer, there are other rituals you can try to soothe your frazzled soul. Ho, for instance, begins her mornings by repeating positive affirmations, which help her set the tone for the day. Before she sleeps at night, she reflects on three things that happened to her that day that she is most grateful for. She also takes regular walks in nature to clear her mind and rubs essential oils of lavender, bergamot and neroli on her temples and pulse points whenever she needs a mood boost. A ritual that Ho swears by is simple deep breathing . “If I’m facing a challenge and feel overwhelmed, I stop what I’m doing and take a few deep breaths to reconnect with my body. This stops my mind from running away and catastrophising.” Surtani says that her deep breathing ritual has changed her outlook on life too, especially since the pandemic began. “Paying attention to my breath has freed my mind of the ‘thought clutter’ that breeds anxiety,” she says.