Anxious? Doing 3 things may help

Claudia Stack

Photo by Elsa T. on Unsplash

Some time ago, I stumbled upon some effective life hacks for dealing with the paralysis that anxiety can create. At times, especially when my sons were younger, I felt overwhelmed by all the things I needed to do at work and at home. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to do these things, it’s just that there was so much to do. I recall sitting in my classroom after school, after a full day of teaching, feeling paralyzed by the tsunami of paperwork my special education teaching role requires.

I knew I would be there at least until 5pm, and that made me anxious about whether I would be able to pick my kids up from the afterschool program on time, then get everything done at home… dinner, baths, homework, packing lunches, and having some quality time with my family before going to bed, only to wake up and do it all again.

Out of a desperate need to get rolling on something so that I could leave, I would do a small task that wasn’t even related to the hardest things on my to-do list. Something simple, such as putting tomorrow’s date on the board. Just doing that would make me feel I could tackle something slightly harder, such as calling a parent to schedule an IEP meeting. After that, I felt able to deal with administrative emails, and finally to dive into my most challenging tasks--writing IEPs and progress reports.

  1. Doing something small can help you break out of your anxiety and sense of being overwhelmed.

Therapist and writer Dr. Barton Goldsmith wrote in Psychology Today that “Taking action by doing something, almost anything, will help you work through your anxiety...Anxiety will grow if it's not directed into some positive action. ” He includes helping others in the positive action category, and I agree 100% that helping others is therapeutic, but at the time I noticed what was happening I was just trying to help myself move through everything that needed to happen.

Something else that helps me get jump-started is that I am a decisive person. I usually make a decision and move on, and I don’t spend a lot of time wondering how things might have turned out if I had done something different. I tend to believe that there is no perfect outcome, but many possible good outcomes.

2. Putting EVERYTHING on a list can reduce your anxiety so you can actually get things done

It may seem silly, but I write everything on my to-do list, no matter how trivial. At present my list encompasses everything from paying the electric bill to writing a new book chapter. Although organized lists are probably better, I have to admit that mine is not organized. I just put tasks on the list as soon as they occur to me. This helps me in two ways: I don’t worry that I am forgetting something, and I get a sense of accomplishment when I check things off.

A 2017 article in The Guardian “The psychology of the to-do list – why your brain loves ordered tasks” notes that:

A study by professors Baumeister and Masicampo from Wake Forest University showed that, while tasks we haven’t done distract us, just making a plan to get them done can free us from this anxiety.

The same article stresses the importance of making the tasks concrete and manageable. For example, that would mean that instead of writing “send holiday cards” on my list, I would break this down into smaller steps: Get cards printed, purchase stamps, pull addresses together, etc.

3. Keeping your commitments to a realistic level

This could easily come first on any list related to anxiety or stress reduction. In today’s world it’s easy to become over-committed, and as women are caregivers more frequently than men, women are especially vulnerable. Parenting, eldercare, work, volunteering, and even hobbies can make demands on us from all sides. The journal Women’s Midlife Health published a study in 2018 that noted:

Women identified the most challenging aspects of midlife as changing family relationships, re-balancing work/personal life, re-discovering self, securing enough resources, and coping with multiple co-occurring stressors. Within these themes the most frequently reported challenges were: multiple co-occurring stressors, divorce/breaking up with a partner, health problems of self, and death of parents.”

The central commitments of our lives--parenting, caregiving, working-- are also the most meaningful, even though they cause us stress. So I am not suggesting giving up those responsibilities. I am just pointing out that when you are juggling all of that, one volunteer commitment may give you a sense of renewal, but five such commitments may put you on the road to burnout.

Don’t allow people to pressure you into taking on more than you can realistically do without a lot of added stress. If you have a hard time saying no, practice simple a phrase such as “I’m sorry, I cannot take that on at the moment.” Different times of our lives bring different chances to be involved. For example, when my sons were in elementary school I was overwhelmed with parenting, a new job, and the online college courses I had to take to complete my special education teaching license. Although I supported the PTA at their school, I did not take a leadership role. Later, when my sons were in high school, I did have time to step up when the principal asked me to start a PTA and be president for the first year.

This article is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor or mental health professional. General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) affects 3.1% of the population. Please seek help from a qualified professional if your anxiety fits the description below, or if you feel depressed, or if you feel other mental distress.

“Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is characterized by persistent and excessive worry about a number of different things. People with GAD may anticipate disaster and may be overly concerned about money, health, family, work, or other issues. Individuals with GAD find it difficult to control their worry. They may worry more than seems warranted about actual events or may expect the worst even when there is no apparent reason for concern.
GAD is diagnosed when a person finds it difficult to control worry on more days than not for at least six months and has three or more symptoms. This differentiates GAD from worry that may be specific to a set stressor or for a more limited period of time.
GAD affects 6.8 million adults, or 3.1% of the U.S. population, in any given year. Women are twice as likely to be affected. The disorder comes on gradually and can begin across the life cycle, though the risk is highest between childhood and middle age. Although the exact cause of GAD is unknown, there is evidence that biological factors, family background, and life experiences, particularly stressful ones, play a role.”

Source: Anxiety & Depression Association of America

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I am an educator and filmmaker. My documentary films on historic African American schools have screened at film festivals, colleges, libraries, and other venues. In Fall, 2017 I completed SHARECROP and SHARECROP: DELTA COTTON, documentaries that showcase oral history of the South’s “forgotten farmers.” These films have screened at festivals in major cities including London, Atlanta, Detroit.


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