When Life’s Feeling Unmanageable, Turn To Listmaking

One of my best defenses against my anxiety has always been words. Whether I was journaling, writing essays, or using words to explain to someone what I was feeling, I built up a habit of finding solace in the stringing together of the alphabet. On days that were debilitatingly overwhelming and when my words couldn’t fit together like poetry no matter how hard I tried, I learned that this is when I needed words more—not less. 

The unmanageability of mental health can at times feel like our biggest battle to overcome. If we can make something feel manageable, we can feel confident (and safe) enough to work through it. Over time I realized that for me the life raft was built of lists. 

I can make a feeling (or my ability to cope with that feeling) less frantic by inviting reality into the picture. 

How and Why I write out lists

On the left side of a piece of paper I’ll underline the words “Things my anxiety is saying” and on the other half I’ll underline the single word “facts.” The left speaks to my insecurities — that I’m “too much”, that I’m “not enough”, that I’m unable to finish a task or a reach a goal and that I’ll never be able to. The right speaks to what I know about myself — that I’ve lived a lot of life but that doesn’t make me too much of anything, that everyone has hard patches with their self-worth, and more tangibly I list out the ways I’ve already worked to reach a goal, whether it be an email sent or a task completed. 

I’m not solving global pandemics with this trick (although I wish I could), but I can ground myself more with list making than I can with anything else. Paper with facts cannot lie to me no matter how much my anxiety wills my mind to believe it can. 

After a while of writing anxious thoughts down on paper, you may find you can create the lists in your mind just as effectively. 

A few weeks ago, at dinner, I was sitting next to my boyfriend, staring at my cheeseburger and fries, feeling anxiety bubble at my throat and attempt to overtake my mind. I was feeling shame for giving myself what I wanted (the burger). I was feeling anxious that my disordered eating was popping up so unexpectedly (again). I was feeling a lot and the spiral slide I was about to push myself down on was not only present, it was calling my name.

In therapy, I’ve learned about the power of talking to my anxiety and speaking at it with facts (hence the listmaking). In an attempt not to panic, I spoke to my burger. 

“You’re exactly what I wanted for dinner. Having you won’t make me sick. I’m not a bad person for feeling overwhelmed in this moment.” 

That last part is the most important sentence that usually comes from my habit of making lists. The pause in my anxiety gives me the opportunity to voice out loud that it’s a fact that I am not an evil, fractured, broken person. I am layered, yes. I have a complicated relationship with my mental health, also true. But none of those realities mean I have to be a martyr to the moment or can’t build a toolkit to turn to in times of need. 

The lists make it possible to figure out what baby steps I need to take to move through my anxiety instead of wrestling against it. 

Build a list ahead of time

After some time getting to know your mental health, you realize that there’s a pattern of lies your anxiety may tell you about yourself. 

I’ve found it helpful to cue up some lists on my phone ahead of time for those “just in case” days where I may need some extra help.. 

Instead of splitting my note into two buckets, I create lists that speak to one large one—Truths About Me. I’ll add bullet points that speak to my worth, my capability, and the parts of me I love. 

While my lists don’t make my anxiety go away instantly and they definitely don’t work in a vacuum (I also go to therapy and lean on other habits to help me manage my mental health), the listmaking helps me speak truth to fear in a tangible way I haven’t yet found a way to ignore. 

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