Matthew Cuddeback, LCSW

A common cause of anxiety for many of us is when we are juggling too many things at a time. We are thinking about all the things we have to do and it weighs us down. This act of trying to keep all the many disparate pieces of our thoughts, feelings, and things we need to do often leads to mental disorganization causes us to lose sight of what is most important and can cause us to feel overwhelmed.

When talking to a client who is telling me how they are stressed because of all the things they have to do and it is causing them to feel increasing anxiety, I like to use a metaphor to help paint a picture of what this does. Imagine you are sitting at your desk at work, you have a list of 25 things that have to be done today, and the list is growing. Your desk is a mess. There are papers on top of papers on your desk, a coffee cup, left-overs from lunch, you have binders, papers, folders, and cables scattered all around. You can barely see where the computer mouse is on your desk. Your file cabinet is even worse, you never actually organized and it has become a sprawling mess of documents and notes with no rhyme or reason. Your computer is just as bad, your desktop is littered with folders and documents you don’t even remember creating, and many that are no longer needed. Then your boss comes over and asks you to find a specific document you have somewhere and edit it and give it back to them, today.

This is a highly stressful situation, but what becomes apparent is that the best thing to do is to start somewhere, anywhere, and look for the document. You could stare at everything you have and have to do and feel anxiety, but that’s not going to help. You could look at multiple things at once, check your emails for the document while you are scouring your file cabinet, but you might miss it because you are concentrating on both and not on either. This is how many of us become anxious, we think about all the things we want, should, and have to do and become overwhelmed. What is useful in this situation, is to pick up the first piece of paper on your desk and see if it is what you need, once you see it isn’t, you set that aside in a way that stays organized, and you look at the next document. This isn’t about the 150 things you have all around your desk, it is about the one in your hand and a simple answer of whether or not it is the document you are looking for. One by one, you look through them to find what you need and eventually (assuming you have the document to begin with) you will find the document.

Anxiety is the same: you are stressed because it has been too long since you have seen your doctor and know you should make an appointment, you have to send a reply email to your boss, call your mom back, clean your apartment, get groceries, spend time with your partner, walk your dog, text you sister to invite her to an event, cut your toenails…and cook dinner. This is the same as the messy desk above, all of these things are the documents scattered around your desk. Like the example above, you need to assess what you have and decide the one thing that is most urgent. As you think through them all you see that emailing your boss is the most urgent, so, do it, and only that, focus on the email, write it well, click send. If that was the most urgent, it feels good, you got the most urgent thing done. Then you move onto the next thing and work on that to completion and go onto the next.

What you have done here is cleaned the clutter and disorganization from your mind (or your desk) and that allowed you to make concrete steps to get things done. Not only that, but your mind (and your desk) have been organized in the process and now you can see what you have more clearly. Moving forward, you are going to organize what you have, so when your boss comes in and asks you to get a document to him by the end of the day, you already know where it is, or at least where to find it. Looking at 150 things at once doesn’t work and is daunting, instead clean up the mess around you and prioritize what is most urgent and you will find your anxiety decreasing.

If you are struggling with anxiety, you may benefit from seeing a therapist in Chicago. Contact Symmetry Counseling to schedule an appointment today.