Saturday Bonus <> Action Is An Antidote to Anxiety: Why Just Making A List Can Help Lighten A Mental Burden

I’ve had a stressful work situation cycling around lately; it’s an old issue (6+ years) that rears its ugly head every few months and settles in to cause trouble. For the most part, it’s out of my hands. I’ve put blood, sweat, and tears (literally – the blood is the only exaggerated part, and I suspect there has been the odd papercut inflicted while working on this issue) into a project and it occasionally – but repeatedly – hits major roadblocks.

I feel out of my depth. Much of what needs doing doesn’t fall within my skill set. I’ve learned to delegate more and remove some of the stress from my own plate, but ultimately I’m in charge of this project. The buck stops with me, even though I often feel like a helpless pawn in a much larger game.

One day a little over a week ago the situation escalated to the point I felt physically nauseous. Frustration from other involved parties was getting taken out on me, and I felt a gnawing sense that I wasn’t in control of the situation (I’m not!) and that I was letting people down. I dislike conflict and like to feel I’ve given 100% to every task. Yet, here I was face-to-face with this annoyingly familiar challenge…again. And I was virtually helpless to resolve the issue.

Of course beyond this irksome project there were appointments to schedule, other work streams to manage, kids to get to after-school programs and playdates, meals to prep, and laundry to put away. In other words, life had to continue.

I floundered for a few hours. I made lunchboxes on auto-pilot. I sent e-mails and tried to keep going, while mostly I just wanted to curl up in a ball and cry.

I’m familiar with temporary wallowing. I actually find it to be quite useful – a natural way of recovering from stressful situations. But it didn’t feel like the right fit this time. And I didn’t want to be my own cheerleader, either.

So I did what I know best – I spent 5 minutes before my next meeting writing a list for November. Personal, work, and other life items that were on my radar got spewed on the page. Because the unsettled feelings that were stemming from this very specific work issue were infecting my thoughts in all areas of life. In this moment I felt like everything was about to come unhinged.

Years ago I heard someone say “Action is the antidote to anxiety.” After some time to ponder this wisdom, I’d actually change that to read – “Action is an antidote to anxiety.” Sometimes I need to take a nap or lay on the couch and do nothing. Sometimes I need to take a long shower and cry and avoid checking e-mail or making supper.

And other times I need to send that tough e-mail I’ve been putting off. Sometimes I need to call and schedule that meeting, chop up the vegetables, or finally go get those passport pictures taken.

But this day, action simply meant writing a list. Seeing everything in black and white made it all feel…less daunting. Was there a lot to do? Yes. But it was also doable. Figureoutable.

I made it through that day and the next day dawned (slightly) brighter. As for the specific stressful situation I mentioned – it’s only partially resolved, but it’s moving in the right direction (for now, I’m trying to be realistic with my expectations).

I know I’ll fall into this cycle again. Overwhelm, temporary despair, and then resolve to do something to move the dial in the right direction. And often, for me, that starts by making a list.

What action step(s) helps you feel less anxious?

Header photo by Daniel Álvasd on Unsplash

9 thoughts on “Saturday Bonus <> Action Is An Antidote to Anxiety: Why Just Making A List Can Help Lighten A Mental Burden”

  1. Just starting something makes me feel less anxious. I tell myself that I just have to do something for five minutes and if it’s still terrible, I can take a break. I rarely just do the five minutes. And, even if I do, those five minutes generally show me that the thing I’m dreading isn’t as bad as I’ve made it out to be. This “just get started” thing works for me for work projects, exercise, housework, and getting out of bed.

  2. I’ve been dealing with anxiety after covid, working up my mind that I’ll relapse. Now I’m more aware when it’s happening and I do few things to fight the battle. For one, I need to be alone in a quiet room, more noise makes me more anxious. Then I lie down and listen to calm music and meditate for 10-15 min until I feel calmer. It works most of the time but when it doesn’t, I do something easy like cooking, then get back to quiet room again to meditate. Through this process, I tell my brain to stop sending fight signals to my body to prevent real physical symptoms to happen.

    When it’s about overwhelming work or conflict, I do other things like reading or taking a long work, to let my mind off the things although it’s in the background. I also try to think if the issue will matter in 5 years… most of the time it doesn’t. Detaching from the issue helps to put perspective to it in its importance.

  3. Oh my gosh, I didn’t know there was a book called “Figureoutable”! The quote “Everything is figureoutable” is one of my FAVORITES and I’ve actually been saying that to myself in my head these past couple weeks! So ironic. Need to look more closely at that book- Christmas idea for myself?! Have you read it?

    I am sorry to hear you’ve been dealing with this stress/ anxiety. 🙁 That sounds really, really tough. I agree that making a good list definitely helps to corral all the thoughts and worries and tasks swimming around aimlessly in your head! I like to do that, too.

    We have had a lot of “chaotic” feeling stuff going on with these various home improvement projects which has been causing some anxiety for me, too. I mentioned our garage remodel….I spent way too much time last week and this weekend trying to decide what the heck should go in there now for storage or shelving or cabinets or ?? to make it functional and organized. It was/ is stressing me out because I just don’t have time to deal with that!! with holidays and birthdays and other things approaching…but yet my garage can’t really sit piled high with our stuff all winter! So when I started to feel like “omg I’m never going to resolve this, I don’t know what to do” I would tell myself, “everything is figureoutable….” 😉 Just reminding myself that there IS a solution, it WILL work out…chill! 🙂 And I think we *might* be on our way to having some solutions “figured out” now, after playing around with all our stuff out there on Sunday.

    1. I have read the book and really enjoyed it. Full disclosure – there some language in the book, so I can see people finding it offensive if they weren’t prepared!
      But the content was solid and very, very applicable. Lots of aha moments (and I’m realizing I have a lot of quotes from this book in the book of quotes I just printed off)! I think I might go order it from the library again now for a re-read!

      It is so easy to get overwhelmed by house projects – and there is something about a fresh slate/remodel that makes us feel extra pressure to get things just right. Our renos are finally (after weeks of delays) supposed to start tomorrow! The staging is arriving today for the outside work. I’ll be glad to get the new front door out of my living room after storing it there for 2 months!

  4. Writing things down is also an antidote for me. I feel like Gretchen Rubin has used that antidote phrase on the Happier podcast. I like that you changed it from THE to A! Because sometimes you need something else besides action! I haven’t had a true planner for years but just got a new one and it’s helping so much. I was using a bullet journal before, which is great, but not the same (for me) as having a true planner.

    1. I like a relatively simple planner; I’ve done the bullet journal before to track some habits, and when I was doing an elimination diet to record meals. But it takes a bit too much work to stay on top of the formatting (and I want things to look consistent). This year I’ve been using a $4 planner from the DollarStore which has worked remarkably well.

      I think Elizabeth has mentioned that “Action is the antidote to anxiety” a few times on Happier, too. Such a good podcast that also helps me feel less anxious. I listened to the end of an episode today on my morning run 🙂

  5. I can absolutely second all of what you said. Writing a list is – more often than not – my way of getting things out of my head, rearranging and organizing them in the process, and feeling less anxious about whatever I am dealing with.

    I am highly intrigued by this book “Everything is figureoutable”…. which sounds like something I should read. 🙂

  6. Ah, a Brain Dump, as I call it. I actually have notes in Evernote (I type much faster than I handwrite) that are called that. I close my eyes and just start typing out everything that’s in my brain, in random order. It helps so much! Just seeing it all written out – knowing that I can use that information to figure out *what to do next*? My anxiety levels drop. I’m realizing now that I probably should do one due to all the things circling in my head.
    I’m so sorry about the work-related stress … that’s the most frustrating kind of situation, too, where you technically “own” it but the problem is not yours. Sigh.
    I may also have to add “Figureoutable” to my reading list. I’m finishing 1 nonfiction book and have several others to tackle but it sounds quite intriguing.

    1. I woke up this morning with A LOT on my mind and thought – I really need to do a brain dump. I use the Morning Pages website for that. I was in a good habit of doing it more regularly and I think it is a boost to my mental health (it also helps to go back and re-read entries so I can see how almost everything I get stressed about ends up not being a big deal in the end!

      I really enjoyed Figureoutable and think I may re-read it again this year.

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