Anxious Parenting Practicalities Pt. 6: Energy, Part 1 - The "Obvious" Stuff
Well, what a couple months it’s been. Let me just tell it like it is - I hit rock bottom in terms of exhaustion. I flat out, full out, ran out of energy. The worst part is, most of the situation was entirely predictable (well, except for COVID…that was less predictable). Still, like most difficult times in my life, I’ve been able to look back and retrace some of the factors that led to my energy crash, with the hopes that other parents managing family and mental health might recognize these patterns a little earlier than I did. So, with that intention in mind, let’s get started (er…restarted, I suppose).
Energy is everything. In parenting, in work, in relationships, heck, in life in general; energy is something we wish was infinite, and yet is subject to the laws of our very individualized limitations. For me, limitations have always been hard to figure out. I’m a big believer in mind-over-matter, but more often than not, both mind and matter teach me that unlimited energy is unhealthy farce. Looking back on my most recent energy crash, I can see that the problem came less from what I was doing, and more from what I wasn’t doing. In the interest of expediency, here is a quick three-point list of my most glaring energy sinkholes:
I Stopped Paying Attention to Things That Make Me Feel Good (and I stopped doing them)
I’ve learned over time that the old adage ‘a change is as good as a rest’ is an absolute truth. In the context of parenting and mental health, it’s easy to think that doing nothing is the perfect antidote to a hectic day with kids. After all, kids are busy, loud and often raucous, so an evening of utter laziness with mindless television shows makes sense, right? Well, not always.
Here’s an example: I love to swim, and I have ever since I was a kid. In times of stress, I’ve found that getting into the pool (or, more ideally, the lake) works perfectly for relaxing my body and mind. Recently, however, I let myself become too tired to even want to go swimming. Instead of using a swim to recharge when my batteries were at ten percent, I waited until my batteries were fried, and then lamented the fact that I didn’t want to swim.
Key take-away: reflect on what feels good, and do it. Easy to say, hard to do.
I Got Lazy with My Mental Health Maintenance
As I’ve said before on this blog, parenting with a mental health disorder isn’t necessarily harder than parenting without one, but there are several aspects of parenting that can be more difficult if your symptoms are flaring, and maintaining mental energy is one of them. In the case of me and my OCD, regular maintenance work is important because it keeps my CBT and ERP strategies at the forefront of my mind, and it reinforces the neural pathways I’ve built that redirect my intrusive thoughts and urges to perform compulsions. The bottom line is, if I don’t maintain those pathways, they become harder to access, and that means more energy expended to manage OCD symptoms. So, when I look back on the last six weeks and I see no obvious time spent on my exercises, journaling, or mental health in general, it’s not hard to see how my day-to-day functioning and energy levels would start to suffer.
Key take-away: In some ways, mental health is like physical health - maintain it or lose it.
Treats Became Habit
I love junk food. I do. Chips, candy, ice cream…ugh…why can’t junk food be healthy? In the past, junk food has been an indulgent reward after periods of intense work. Sometimes I used it at the end of a busy work week, sometimes to celebrate a big achievement, and sometimes it was a way to wind down after an athletic competition. Regardless of the cause, I wasn’t indulging in junk food every day. The past few months, however, have seen a noticeable decline in my self-regulation, and a steady incline in my daily calorie count.
Now, to be clear, I’m not suggesting anyone should go out and count every calorie they eat. I’m a big believer in the importance of treats, and I believe food is good for more than just the body. That’s just it, though - junk food only helps the body to a certain point. Treats are called ‘treats’ for a reason. From a mental health perspective, the main effects I noticed from too much junk food intake are as follows:
Too much junk food led to inconsistent energy levels, especially if I ate junk food during the day.
I had less peaceful sleeps if I consumed too much sugar at night.
The knock-on effect of continuous sugar cravings made self-regulation harder, especially at night.
I spent a lot of mental energy on resisting cravings. This is a fairly typical feeling, I know, but when you indulge in junk food regularly, those cravings get stronger because your body expects regular input. The stronger the craving, the more energy you spend resisting it, and that means less energy in the tank for managing symptoms and keeping steady through the requirements of daily life.
I dare say that most of these points are familiar to most people, maybe even a bit redundant. That’s the thing, though - I took them for granted, too. We hear these warnings so much that, like many things we hear too often, we start to tune them out. When our listening faculties stop paying attention, our physical and emotional cueing systems take over. For me, that’s exactly what happened.
Key take-away: diet affects mental health, and mental health affects everything.
So, as you can see, this post is largely a reminder to do the simple things right, and do them consistently. That said, I know as well as anyone that the little things are often the first to slip when we get tired. The problem is, the little things are like the first pieces of snow in an avalanche: before long, the appearance of small changes gives way to a torrent of bad habits, the momentum of which is difficult to stop. It’s nothing to feel ashamed of; it’s part of who we are. At some point or another, we all slip, and over the past few months, that’s exactly what happened to me. It’s okay. The best I can do - the best any of us can do - is reflect, and restart. That’s what I’m doing now.
#OCD #CBT #ERP #parenting #writing #author #mentalhealth #Dad