Procrastination and Mental Health

November 1, 2015

Procrastination.  Putting things off. It’s a practice I am more than familiar with.  It is the concept that makes it oh so cozy staying in my bed past the sixth snooze alert on my phone.  It is my very best friend when I have articles to complete such as this one, the completion of which I committed to weeks ago but am now only beginning to write just days before the deadline.  Procrastination has allowed me the favor of 1) watching TVLand reruns of The King of Queens for hours on end; 2) shopping for new toenail polish; 3) painting said toenails, and 4) swiping page upon page of Pinterest ideas for crafty crafts…all tasks my friend procrastination told me had to be done (and wouldn’t that be more fun anyway) prior to writing this article.

Procrastination convinces me, an individual with a history of anxiety, depression and a family tree chalk full of other mental health issues, that, damn it, I deserve a life of leisure-that daily chores are to be completed by….well…who knows.  Procrastination dissuades me from looking too much into trivial details.

Ahhhh…and yet it is in the details that those of us with a propensity for struggling with mental health issues would do well to practice a little  (a lot) more vigilance.  My very sweet, intelligent clients over the years know all too well my periodic board (not bored) discussions regarding procrastination, a construct thought by many in the psychological field to be one of the main contributors to mental illness.

That’s right.  Not drugs.  Not the state of the economy.  Not genetically modified foods.  Not even incessant calls from telemarketers.  Nope.  Just good old procrastination.  The thing we have done since way back when we crammed for exams and wrote senior projects the night before they were due to the teacher.  That is the very culprit I am calling out now as a huge influence, a negative one to be sure, on the state of our psyche.  Those of us struggling with depression, anxiety, post partum depression, substance abuse, bipolar, and the like, I am asking you to take special care, tread lightly, when it comes to putting things off.  This is the wolf in sheep’s clothing.  It convinces us that it is okay to hold off one more week on making an appointment to see a therapist.  It seduces us into thinking that refilling our medications will be a seamless task, that waiting until we have only one more pill left is not a problem.  Procrastination lures us into thinking that the loneliness, isolation, bleakness of the day, or the frequent attacks we have that feel like cardiac arrest, will all get better (magically?) on their own, so how about five more minutes on Facebook.

Earlier I mentioned putting off refilling our medications.  Let me expand this example a bit further to better illustrate procrastination’s impact on mental health/illness.  Again, the scenario I see time and again in my practice is an innocent one:  a client puts off getting his bipolar medications refilled Friday so he can have money to go out with friends over the weekend.  Not a terrible idea at first until Monday rolls around…Labor Day.  All doctors’ offices and pharmacies are closed.  “No problem,” he thinks.  “I’ve got a few more pills left.” He drives to the grocery store for milk and bread and – BOOM! – flat tire.  Tuesday is now taken up by getting his tire fixed, coordinating rides to and from work, and paying for a new tire.  He attempts to get his medications refilled Wednesday, but the doctor’s nurse doesn’t call in the prescription right away as he may be due for his annual visit with the physician.  He finds out Thursday that in fact he is due to see the doctor before anymore refills can be written, and by the way, there is a $200 balance on his account that must be paid before he can make an appointment.  The car repairs took quite a toll on his bank account, as did the extra money he spent on weekend fun with friends.  Out of medication, little in his bank account, and anxiety heightened, his sleep becomes more difficult to attain.  Anyone with bipolar disorder knows when the sleep goes, so goes the mental health.  It is a pattern I see time again in my practice.  I would be nothing short of dishonest if I did not also mention again, that this has been my practice a time or two, as well.

M. Scott Peck in The Road Less Travelled talks about procrastination as the time we actually rob ourselves of the very thing we go to see a therapist to get more of:  happiness.  He describes a woman he meets with who cannot stand her job.  She feels not at all in control of her time and, therefore, has noticed an increase in her depressive symptoms-lethargy, isolation, increased alcohol consumption, and problems sleeping.  What unfolds in a few sessions with Dr. Peck is quite simply this woman’s deft strategies for putting off the tasks she doesn’t like to do until the end of the day.  Subsequently, she feels heavy, anxious, unfocused, even while working on tasks she likes, simply because she anticipates the end of her day, which she knows will be consumed by the “unfun” paperwork required of her position.

Dr. Peck helped this patient recognize the power she was exerting on her schedule and the influence her own procrastination had on the state of her mental health.  He showed her that it was her power and influence (driven by procrastination), not her employer’s, that was the problem, but also held the solution.  By working out a different system for completing tasks, quite simply by understanding the tasks she put off routinely taking no more than an hour or two to complete, leaving her the majority of her work day to delve into the parts of her job she genuinely likes.  What followed once this patient put her new schedule in place, was immediate relief from many of her depression symptoms.  Procrastination seduced this woman into thinking putting off the “yukky” tasks would keep work fun.  Most of us unwittingly buy into this sales pitch only to find our conscience and intellect  are still quite active.  We are all too aware of the emotional weight of what we are putting off and conversely are unable to really enjoy the good times when we are actually in them.

What if we are unsure as to the outcome of tackling an unpleasant, possibly conflictual task?  If the end result is not a guaranteed good time or reward, why wouldn’t we put it off?  It may be helpful here to disclose my very personal experience with this very question.

For the last five or so years of my first marriage, to whom I have since referred to in as endearing way as I know possible, my “practice” husband, I absolutely put off facing directly the reality of our very unhappy marriage.  I put off getting some very much needed help for myself, particularly in the area of self-esteem.  I also put off following through on ultimatums given when I learned my husband had quite an unhealthy connection to websites on the Internet.  The illnesses I struggle with-anxiety primarily-became increasingly more difficult to manage.  And yet I procrastinated.  I knew for quite awhile I was putting off confronting the sickness of this relationship, but a part of this decision was the result of fear.  It was the fear of not knowing what the aftermath of such a confrontation would hold.  So I hold him accountable?  So I get counseling?  So I talk with an attorney?  What then? What would happen to my career (as a counselor, by the way)?  What would happen to my financial resources?  Often times we put off tackling tasks, such as going to a counselor the first time, talking with a clergy member or physician about symptoms, personal concerns, or seeking a support group focused on our issues, for fear it won’t work.  It won’t get better.  We won’t get better.

I had a very wise patient tell me during a group therapy session only a few years ago that “it only takes 20 seconds to be brave.”  Think about it.  Like Yogi Berra said, “When you see the fork in the road, take it.”  It only takes 20 seconds to take a deep breath, step forward, ask for help, and glance around to assess the new surroundings of veering to the left or the right of that very fork.

Procrastination, you see, is really our fear.  Fear that we will miss out on fun if we succumb to self-discipline.  Fear that if we address a potentially contentious relationship or issue, we will look dumb or like a failure.  So we put things off.  For the person with alcoholism, bipolar disorder, depression, post traumatic stress disorder, and the like, routinely procrastinating on important tasks, large and small, are detrimental to maintaining our mental balance.  Disciplining ourselves to tackle those tasks first that make us wince will most often open the way for easier breathing, softer shoulders, heartier laughter, and less trips to the cabinet for Xanax, Percocet, Klonopin, and/or liquor.  Oh yeah…and it’s free.  And there are no negative side effects.

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