How a “Feel Good List” Helps Me Manage My Anxiety

It seems that every day there is a new reason to be anxious. Not only are we in the middle of a global pandemic, but we’re also receiving daily news about police brutality, violence, and coronavirus (COVID-19) cases soaring to new heights. It’s a lot.

For me, all of these things have magnified my General Anxiety Disorder (GAD). On most days pre-pandemic, I’d have low levels of anxiety buzzing in the background. Now with everything going on, it seems like my nervous system is always on high alert, and it’s tough to stay calm and focused.

However, I’ve come up with a simple solution to deal with it: a “feel good list.” On top of therapy and medication, this list serves as a way to reduce my anxiety and offers actionable steps when I feel myself succumbing to anxiety. Here’s why you should create one for yourself. 

What is a “feel good list”?

A “feel good list” is exactly what it sounds like: a list of things that make you feel good. I created this after realizing I was having too many moments of anxiety and feeling like I didn’t know what to do to feel better. When you’re activated like that, it’s hard to stay calm and think clearly about what to do next.

“When we are anxious, our nervous system goes off the rails a bit. We are in panic mode, and we often reach for whatever is right in front of us, even if it isn’t the wisest thing to do,” Lindsay Bryan-Podvin, LMSW, author of The Financial Anxiety Solution, tells HelloGiggles. So having a list is a great idea for when our anxiety spikes and our brains and bodies don’t have a lot of reasoning capacity; we can just glance at a list we made when we were in an emotionally regulated place.”

The list isn’t a cure-all, of course—but it’s a way to cope and manage when your anxiety or sadness is overwhelming. When you’re feeling like that, it’s good to ask yourself: What do I need to feel good in this moment? “Anything that makes life easier when we are struggling is helpful. Especially when our anxiety makes us have thoughts like ‘Will I ever feel happy again?’ or our depression says, ‘You don’t deserve to be happy,'” says Bryan-Podvin. “Having a list of things that we do find helpful, fun, enjoyable, relaxing, etc., is a good reminder that we do in fact have the capacity to feel good and [that] the uncomfortable feeling is temporary.”

What’s on a “feel good list”?

Creating a “feel good list” is all about listing things, big and small, that will improve your mood. The good news is there’s no right or wrong answer; your list is completely contingent on your needs and your needs alone. For me, it’s things like petting my cat, listening to jazz, taking a bath, meditating, journaling, and living room dance parties. As you can see, these are very simple things. They don’t cost money. They don’t take a lot of time. They’re just simple actions to take to move the needle upward and shift my mood. 

Once I create the list, I place it on my fridge so it’s accessible and easy to reference. I then choose an activity when I feel my mood shifting. It doesn’t require me to think or be in a problem-solving mode because all of the answers are there. 

“The human brain makes about 20 to 25 thousand decisions per day. Think of it like this: If you go to a restaurant and they hand you a menu with pages and pages of options on it, you can easily become overwhelmed and indecisive,” explains Bryan-Podvin. “Compare that to an experience where they hand you a one-page menu with three entree options, and the latter is easier to make a decision on. Essentially, creating a list is much easier than turning to the internet and googling ‘how to feel better’ and getting thousands of pages of responses, particularly when your mood is already rocky.”

When you create a “feel good list,” you’re beginning to enforce positive coping mechanisms rather than relying on negative coping mechanisms. But remember: It’s important to list things that will help you achieve the life you want to live rather than just listing actions that could derail your goals for a quick serotonin fix (i.e. aimlessly scrolling on Instagram or gossiping with friends).

“This is called behavioral activation. When we are struggling with our mental health and we cope unhealthily—say, consistently watching sad movies in a dark room for three days with wine and little sleep—those types of coping mechanisms will continue to breed more unhealthy coping mechanisms,” says Bryan-Podvin. “When we regularly practice positive coping mechanisms, they become habits.”

How can you create your own “feel good list”?

I recommend getting a pen and paper and physically writing things down. The pen to paper notion allows you to truly contemplate what makes you feel good. The list itself can be as long as you like, whether it’s just two items on your list or hundreds. All that matters is that you list things that you know will help improve your mood or at least bring you into a neutral state. Once you’re finished, you can put it on the fridge, your mirror, a wall, or anywhere that you know you’ll see it frequently. 

As you go through your day, you’ll most likely begin to recognize other things that will make you feel good, and soon it will become a habit.

Having this list reminds me that there are still some small things to enjoy, even when everything else feels so big to grapple with. It’s the one thing that helps my mental health and improves my mood without having to spend tons of money or taking up a lot of time.

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