How lists help me manage my anxiety

Almond milk, sweet potato, Diet Coke – on my shopping list this week. Pick up ID card, do laundry, wash up – things to do today. Chicken chilli, lentil soup, chickpea stew – to cook this weekend.

I love lists. Was that clear? I really love lists. I have notebook after notebook dotted around my apartment filled with them, once useful, now mere relics of past meticulousness.

There are a number of reasons to love a good list. For one thing, it just makes sense. The list is the weapon of choice for people who get stuff done. (Or for people who like the idea of getting stuff done… Wouldn’t it be great if those two things were the same?) When you have things to remember, write them all out, tick them all off, become purposeful and efficient and basically perfect – magic. Draw up a good, ordered list, and life suddenly seems a lot less chaotic.

So really, I judge you if you don’t like lists. How do you remember what to pack for holiday? What your friend wants for Christmas? Who you want to hang out with more? If you can manage to juggle all those items, and more, in your brain all at once, then good for you. I’m pleased. But I also don’t believe you. You may say you don’t care for lists – you may insist, even – but I know about that one notebook you have, at the back of that drawer, buried under all that stuff. I know. I know about the lists.

So yes, lists are useful on a practical level. I have lots to do; I write it all down; I don’t forget anything. It’s a winning formula. But I also have a lot of love for them on an emotional level. I owe much of my sanity (such as it is) to taking life aside, having a couple of stern words, and cramming it, messy and confused as it may be, into a list.

Because life can sometimes seem a tad overwhelming to an anxious mind. It can feel like attempting to build a snowman in a blizzard. Or bail out a boat with a teaspoon. Or carry on doing things when there are simply too many things. Yes, sometimes, when you’re prone to anxiety, there is just too much. Too much going on, all at 100 miles per hour. Too much, too much, too much.

And that is where a list or two (or three or four) can come in handy. When I can’t imagine managing to fit everything I need inside my head, I don’t bother. I write it down. Or type it up. Either way, I don’t bother my brain with it all. My brain is too busy trying very, very hard to focus on the here and now, so I don’t overload it with the rest of the day.

Writing a list is a wonderfully cathartic experience for me. Plucking items out of the disorder of my mind, and transplanting them into the order of a list, has a calming effect. Things rarely seem so bad when on paper, one after the other, waiting to be ticked off. Everything seems more manageable when you’ve managed to scribble it down in a notepad. Or so I’ve found.

And then there’s the process of actually ticking things off. Anxiety is all about the What Ifs and the Maybes – what if I don’t get that done? Maybe it’s all too much – whereas lists are only about the next step. Just that one next step – nothing further. And sometimes I need that. Sometimes I need some help focussing on what I’m doing right now, because my anxious brain is pulling me in a million other directions.

When faced with a list much longer than I’d like, I just concentrate on one thing. I do that thing, ignore the other things, and then, soon enough, I’ve done the thing. So then I do the next thing. And then the next. Before I know it, one thing at a time, I’ve done all the things, because of the list. Which is really rather helpful of it. (And of course if you’re reading this and coping with serious anxiety, the first thing you should put on your list is talking to a professional, who can help majorly with figuring out a course of treatment that’s right for you.)

So yes, I love lists. I love lists because I feel like, really, deep down, they must love me back. I love lists because they help me manage my anxiety. And I love lists because it’s just good sense. I think that was a list.

[Image via Fox]

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