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Sleep, Food, Exercise, Routines oh my!

Ok, this title is silly. But what’s not silly are our basic needs. Along with safety and shelter, these basic needs (sleep, food, exercise, and routine/structure) are critical for all of us humans. Perhaps your therapist or doctor asks you regularly how much you’re sleeping or exercising or how your eating habits are. Your therapist might have even asked you that question in the midst of a tearful session or particularly stressful time. Why? Lunch doesn’t have anything to do with why you’re crying, right? Well, yes and no. Lunch is not going to solve your sadness from a breakup or your stress from work. But being underfed can have an impact on emotional regulation, which means not eating lunch might be making those difficult feelings more intense or harder to cope with.


Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs talks about how meeting these basic needs is fundamental to our quest to live successful and happy lives. Maslow uses a pyramid to describe this. At the base of the pyramid are our basic physiological needs and our need for safety followed by our needs for belonging and love. At the top of the pyramid are needs for respect, self-esteem, recognition followed by self-actualization (Maslow’s description for our desire to be the best we can be). Maslow argues that if we don’t or can’t meed our basic physiological and safety needs, we can’t possibly move our way up the pyramid to build healthy, loving relationships and our confidence and self-esteem. See info here for more on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.



Sleep is critical for just about every area of human wellbeing. Humans have evolved and changed through millennia but what hasn’t changed is our need to sleep. Sleep is our time to reset, form memories, process our lives, and rest. Our brains and bodies don’t function at their best if we are unrested. Lack of sleep can increase symptoms from anxiety, depression, PTSD, and other mental health conditions. Being unrested can also impact our ability to process emotional experiences. Most of us have seen a toddler who’s having a tantrum over a minuscule thing when they’ve missed their nap or were up all night. While most adults have emotional regulation skills to avoid tantrums, we are not immune to emotional dysregulation from lack of sleep.



Have you ever heard the term “hangry”? Have you ever been around someone who is hangry? Those old Snickers commercials that say “you’re not you when you’re hungry” aren’t wrong! I might not recommend eating candy for nourishment, but that’s another conversation! Just like sleep, being well fed and nourished feeds our brains and bodies so that our regulatory systems can function as they should.


Routines and Structure

These terms don’t necessarily pop up in explicit ways on Maslow’s pyramid, but they’re important! Most people do better when we stick to generally similar routines and structure. The predictability helps us to feel settled and organized. This becomes even more important during difficult and stressful times! When things are tough and we already feel chaotic and unorganized, sticking to our routines can help bring some stability.


Exercise and Body Movement

I know, I know- you’ve heard how important exercise is for our wellbeing a million times. I don’t need to rehash this too much. But, I will say that exercise is an important part of our routines, our physical and mental health, and our ability cope with difficult times.


These basic components of our lives are our starting points for everything else we go through. Like I said before, none of these things will completely stop or get us out of difficult times- but keeping on top of them can help us help ourselves in difficult times. Things are hard enough, we don't need to make it harder! So, the next time your doctor or therapist asks if you’ve eaten or slept, know that it’s a starting point to help make sure things aren’t harder than they need to be.

Written By,

Alyssa Onan, LPC

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