Your Brain Has Already Made This Normal
I was going through my typical quarantine day — sweatpants on, couch-bound, a Zoom happy hour scheduled for later that evening — when it hit me: I’d settled into a rhythm. I wasn’t chafing against the confines of quarantine the same way I had in the beginning. I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point in the past week or so, I started to think of this strange new life as just… life.
Even in the best of times, change is hard. And right now is certainly not the best of times. When our most basic routines — work, school, fitness, socializing, running errands — disappear, it’s normal to spend some time feeling disoriented.
“If you have a routine, your brain is expecting certain stimuli at certain times,” says cognitive scientist Denise D. Cummins. “Change puts your brain on high alert, detecting all the deviations from what it was expecting.”
But your brain can’t sustain that high alert indefinitely. As you form new routines, you also form new neural pathways—the connections between brain cells that strengthen with repeated behavior. Even in bizarre circumstances, we’re wired to be adaptable. Which is why the novelty of this new way of life has given way to monotony — and why monotony, in turn, is beginning to give way to something resembling a kind of normalcy.
It’s a jarring thought, but it can also be a comforting one: This is already easier than it used to be. And with time and intention, it will get easier still.
Build your quaran-routine
“The process of adapting is actually very straightforward,” explains M.J. Ryan, author of How to Survive Change You Didn’t Ask For. “Something’s different, so we figure out how to live with it. Ultimately, human beings can adapt to everything, good or bad.” In some ways, the brain is a very simple machine, designed to recognize and react to patterns.
That’s how we create habits, which make up the vast majority of our behavior. In terms of energy expended, it’s easier on your brain when you do something you’ve done before. The neural pathways are already in place. There’s no hard-and-fast number for how long it takes for something to become…