Phil Mattingly's Secret to Taming Election Stress
Phil Mattingly, 36, congressional correspondent for CNN, reports all day for the network, files stories for digital, and makes on-air appearances on shows like The Lead with Jake Tapper (4:00 p.m.), The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer (5:00 p.m.), Erin Burnett OutFront (7:00 p.m.), Anderson Cooper 360 (8:00 p.m.), and CNN Tonight with Don Lemon (10:00 p.m.). And he manages to get to the gym and spend time with his family, too. We caught up with him between stories to find out how.
2016 was a crazy year and a crazy election cycle. There were points when I was on the trail for 20-plus days a month, and it took its toll. About a month before Election Day, my mom called me and said in the kind yet blunt way that only moms can: “You look terrible.” I’d lost a ton of weight and wasn’t even trying to manage my health. A couple of months after the election, I realized I needed to figure this out, because it was having a tangible negative effect on everything else.
I got very regimented in how I ate and exercised. The key ended up being getting into CrossFit—something I swore I would never do. Turns out I love the challenge, the energy, and how it carries over into my day. My wife especially appreciates me not being grumpy. And probably most importantly, no matter what happens the rest of the day, I already feel like I accomplished something by hitting the gym. It changes my mind-set and how I operate.
What My Healthy Routine Looks Like
I wake up at 4:00 a.m. every day. I’m one of those weird morning people that most people hate. After I make coffee (with heavy cream to provide calories for the workout), I start reading all the major papers you can think of, fire off a bunch of text messages to a group of sources who are also dreaded early risers, and then I’m out the door by 4:45. I head over to the gym and work out from 5:15 to 6:15. I might phone some sources on the five-minute drive home to make sure I’m in the right place on things. When I get home, I make breakfast for my two boys, who are just waking up, and give my wife a break from our newborn daughter before I head to work.
The gym is really the only hour of the workday when I’m completely off my phone. (On the weekends, I make a deliberate effort to put it down. My wife will tell you that effort is subpar, but it’s a work in progress.) The gym has almost become a safe harbor of time, where I have control when everything else seems to be spinning out of control. I think the chaos [of the news cycle] is the reason I’ve become so attached to my routine—it’s one thing I can control each day.
I don’t follow any specific meal plan, but I try to eat every two and a half to three hours. I keep myself well stocked with Rx, Quest, and Epic bars so I always have something to grab if I’m stuck chasing lawmakers in the Capitol or candidates on the road. I definitely have cheat days, but rarely during the week. The second I go off the wagon foodwise, it’s going to be a minute before I hop back on.
The Stress We Have All Day
We face tremendous pressure both externally and internally where we’ve got to break news, not get beat, and, most importantly, get it right. But the truth is, after three-plus years, you become conditioned to it all—to some degree, your metabolism sets itself to that reality. When news is breaking is weirdly when I feel the most calm. I can focus and identify what I need to do and get it done. I don’t think you exist in this environment if you don’t love it.
Of course, that doesn’t mean things are a breeze. There are bad days, days where nothing makes sense, and days where you feel like you’re bad at your job. Getting beat on a big story you know you should have had is soul crushing.
But the harsh reality is sometimes you just don’t have it all together. You oversleep and miss the gym. You make it to the gym and have a terrible workout. You eat like garbage because you just feel like it. The 24/7 news cycle, or requests from bosses, or public criticism of your work just kind of overtakes you. And that inability to pull it back together can linger for days.
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The biggest, probably most important thing, at least in my mind, is the recognition that it only takes one day—or one workout, or one good scoop, or one good night with my family—to get everything back on track. Figuring that out—and getting myself to that point—is probably the most important aspect of handling day-to-day craziness.
Also, a little perspective helps. I have friends deployed in war zones, friends battling cancer, friends dealing with significant family issues. I’m beyond lucky to have three healthy kids, an unbelievably understanding and patient wife, and a job that sticks me at the center of history every day.
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