Anxious Parenting Practicalities Pt. 7: Energy Part 2 (the less obvious stuff)
In my last post, I commented on a few (fairly) obvious things that have been sapping my energy in recent months. In this post, we're going to dig a bit deeper into two not-so-obvious drains on my energy (both mental and physical) that I discovered somewhat haphazardly, as well as how those 'drainers' went unnoticed, sometimes for months at a time.
Before I begin, though, let me make something clear: I'm only talking about things that drained my energy. It's unlikely that everything I share will be one hundred percent relatable to one hundred percent of my readers, BUT, here's the key: everyone one of these drainers is part of a larger theme. Read on to find out what it is (yep, I'm that guy).
Drainer # 1: Inconsistent Eating Habits
This one is fairly simple, but it can be misleading. When I say 'inconsistent eating habits', I don't mean that I eat more on some days than others (although that can be draining, too). Instead, I'm referring to what I consume, and when. In recent weeks, my schedule has become busier. It happens to everyone, and there's nothing necessarily bad about it. That said, I've been making less time to properly prepare complete, nutritious meals, and it's resulted in an eating habit that looks something like this:
Breakfast: Coffee and half a fruit/protein smoothie
Lunch: The other half of the smoothie and more coffee
Pre-Dinner: All the snacks
Dinner: Whatever is easy to prepare
Post-Dinner: All the snacks (again)
Can you spot the moment where my diet falls apart? Oddly enough, I couldn't, at least until a good friend recently commented that I was doing most of my eating at a time when my body had nothing else to do with the food besides pack it on as extra weight. Not only that, but the lack of healthy grain and protein intake in the morning often led to lapses in mental and emotional energy during the day. That's a problem for anyone, but for someone managing mental health symptoms, steady energy is important. In my case, the ups and downs in my physical and mental energy made me worried that I was experiencing a relapse, or that I was simply losing motivation to get up and go about my day. Neither of those things are true, but it took a friend pointing out my unproductive eating habits before I realized what I was actually doing to myself. So, good reader, I present you with the same question: are you eating enough, and are you eating enough at the right times? If you're not, consider studying your habits and setting a gradual, reasonable goal for improvement, perhaps with the help of a friend, family member or professional.
Drainer # 2: Doom-scrolling (through an OCD lens)
This is a habit that numerous research and news outlets have been turning to in recent years. Essentially, 'doom-scrolling' is the act of compulsively flipping through news headlines and becoming enveloped in a cycle of jumping from one heart-breaking story to the next. It's a perfectly understandable act. After all, we're all human beings, and stories of suffering genuinely make us hurt sometimes. That said, I firmly believe (or, I should say, I have recently learned) that it is possible to become overexposed to the news, not just for people with OCD, but especially for people with OCD. Here's why:
Let's look at a few of the categories that experts have used to classify intrusive thoughts and obsessions in recent OCD publications:
Fear of directly causing or being responsible for harm
The 'Just Not Right' Feeling
All of those categories have something in common: the obsessions and intrusive thoughts within them focus directly on external stimuli that the mind wants to control, but cannot. When you understand that, it's not hard to see how the news can be like fuel on the OCD fire; almost every headline we see - especially the ones involving tragedies beyond our own communities - are beyond our direct, tangible control. It's not a cause for despair, or for inaction, and it certainly doesn't relieve anyone of any responsibilities, but it is a fact, and it's necessary (as well as incredibly difficult) for each of us to consider how we feel about an issue, decide what we can do within our own means and capabilities, and act accordingly, knowing that no one can be everywhere all the time, or all things to all people. For some, that fact might be easy enough to accept, but for a person suffering from OCD, there are any number of entanglements that may occur. How easy is it for someone with unregulated OCD symptoms, for example, to wake up with a fear of impending global conflict (as we all do from time to time), flip through an Apple news feed, and suddenly become worried that thinking too much about war has, indeed, contributed to the start of a war? Consider, as well, how easy it might be for someone with clinical, undiagnosed OCD symptoms to become stuck in a compulsive thought loop where they believe that thinking the right things, or perhaps suffering vicariously, will either cause or help put an end to the war in Ukraine, or to the utterly heartbreaking mass shootings in the United States, only to discover each morning that the one thing their minds crave - absolute certainty of safety - doesn't exist?
Obviously, thoughts and compulsions alone won't change any of those issues, but for someone with OCD, even admitting that truth out loud - no, even thinking of admitting that truth out loud - might trigger a cycle of obsessions and compulsions. And, of course, what do triggers, obsessions and compulsions do? They take time, energy and well-being away from people, and that's a problem.
Now, let me be perfectly clear about something: I'm not suggesting that people with OCD are victims of the news, and I'm certainly not trying to compare anyone's suffering to anyone else's. What I am saying, though, is that the news affects people in different ways, and some people may need to take a more measured approach to their media consumption. I know I've had to in the past, and I find that I still have to work intentionally to find a healthy balance between being an informed citizen and ensuring that I keep my thoughts and actions rational and productive for my family, colleagues and community.
So, once again, then, what's the solution? Well, first and foremost, I refuse to take the preachy route and simply espouse the idea of 'less doom-scrolling'. Instead, I think it's more practical to borrow some methodologies from CBT: quantify and redefine your behaviour. For example, how much time do you spend perusing the news? Can you identify a specific metric? If you can, try cutting that amount of time half; maybe even into quarters. Then, choose a structured, gradual progression for reducing the amount of time and energy you spend doom-scrolling. If needed, you can also enlist a CBT exercise to manage the obsessions and compulsions you're experiencing because of the news. Those kinds of exercises will also be useful because they'll potentially show you the specific trigger point of your obsessions, thereby making it easier to manage onset incidents and potentially develop exposure ladders (see my previous posts on exposure ladders for more information).
Now, the part that you've (hopefully?) stuck around for: the common element between these pesky yet pervasive energy drainers. It's something that is so obvious it's easy to miss: both energy drainers were part of - no, distortions of - otherwise normal and productive habits. Eating, for example, is an obvious and consistent part of the day, and checking my phone in the morning is a normal part of my daily routine (although I usually check it in the morning for professional communications more than anything). Still, though, that's the key: like a weed that grows by hiding itself within a healthy plant, I developed some energy-draining habits in plain sight, hidden within essential, somewhat perfunctory tasks. I mention this now, not as a call to action for everyone to start micromanaging their habits, but rather with the goal of sharing a misstep I made, and the steps I took to fix the problem.
The bottom line is, we all have the capacity to develop unconscious habits; in fact, many of our daily actions occur on autopilot. That said, in the words of Ferris Bueller, it's important to stop and take a look around every now and then. It's not that life will necessarily pass you by, but it might feel a lot more draining than it should.