The Perils of Boredom

I was listening to a podcast the other day. The interviewer and the guest are both recovering addicts. The guest was talking about her recent relapse and how it all started with being bored. As a performer, she often has odd hours free. For her being at loose ends can be an invitation to drink. She will say to herself, what the hell, I can just have a nip.

Though I am not a drinker, this resonated with me. For me, faced with unstructured time and no particular task at hand leads to food. A well-worn pathway in my brain is triggered. One of my first thoughts is: what can I eat? I imagine for some that is a completely alien thought – as thinking about drinking is for me. But maybe it leads to some other self-destructive behavior – online shopping anyone? It got me thinking about boredom and its perils.

When I was a child if I went to my Dad and said I was bored, he had a singularly unhelpful suggestion, “Bang your head against the wall.” It was a quick way of dismissing me. It reflected his belief that being a parent didn’t include being an entertainer. We were expected to solve our own problems and make our own fun. I’m not endorsing that approach. I never used it on my children. But there is a legitimate point: there were always books to read or tv to watch. Sometimes that wasn’t appealing.

So, what is boredom? There are always things to do. Especially as an adult. Household chores await. Projects need starting. Paperwork is piled up. A closet can be cleaned out. Or, I can take a walk or call family or friends. Boredom must be a state of mind then.

Are there people who are never bored? My husband may fall into that category. His work life is so busy and all-consuming, in both time and mental energy, that the little free time he does have is critical for decompressing – exercise, gardening, communicating with our children and his parents. Not much is left over.

But some people who live busy lives can still be bored. Sometimes when I was at work, and my schedule was quite full, I knew I was going through the motions. I wasn’t really engaged.

Maybe that is the key – engagement. Finding activities, people, places, work that engage your brain so it can’t wander off into trouble.

One challenge to that is when you’re between tasks or appointments. Let’s say you have plans at 2:00 in the afternoon and now it’s noon. Do you start a project? Do you kill the time doing crossword puzzles? Do you continue eating lunch well past the portion you need for nourishment? This can even happen at work. There were countless times that I finished preparing for a meeting only to have it postponed an hour. Then what? A trip to the vending machine?

fullsizeoutput_123f
Hmmm – what do I do next? A manicure perhaps?

This might not seem like a serious problem. There are real challenges in this world – many people are burdened with worries about money, safety, health, shelter, etc. But I’m thinking that being bored, being unfulfilled or not engaged, can lead to some of those problems. Just look at what started this whole train of thought – two recovering addicts talking about boredom as a trigger to use their drug of choice.

I know from my years of Weight Watchers that there are ways to disrupt that well-worn pathway to food. There are many other possibilities instead of snacks. The challenge is to stop long enough to change direction. I’ll keep working at it. As with many of life’s trials, I need to adjust my thinking.