Just One Bucket: How to Keep Anxiety from Sinking Your Ship

Credit: Andrew Montgomery via Unsplash

Imagine you’re in a sinking boat. Water is steadily bubbling up through a hole in the floor. There’s no way to plug the hole or slow the leak. You can see the shore and you know that even if the boat sinks, you can probably swim or doggy-paddle your way to safety. Still, your heart races and you become overwhelmed. But what if in your boat you have a bucket? And what if you commit to removing just one pail of water? Just one. And what if that one bucket of water gets you a few feet closer to the bank?

I haven’t written an article in a while. 2016 greeted me with two months of crushing anxiety. It’s an all too familiar feeling: not sinking, but already sunk and watching as the last air bubbles float toward the surface. My heart quickens, my face flushes, and I fall into full flight or fight. This fight or flight response usually helps us respond to threats, but what if there’s no threat? And what if it happens multiple times a day? It’s exhausting.

Anxiety is normal, just as sadness and anger are normal. But like sadness and anger, anxiety can be so extreme as to be maladaptive. And everyone responds differently to severe anxiety. I sleep. Then I sleep some more. After all, as long as I’m asleep I don’t have to sink into the mire of my own anxious thoughts. As a result, my sleep schedule transforms into a free-for-all. Will I wake up mid-morning or will I finally roll out of bed at dinner? Your guess is as good as mine.

When I finally join the world of the living, my anxiety compounds as a result of my bizarre and often harmful sleep schedule. So I distract myself by sinking into hours of television, music, and a variety of other mindless activities. And again, my anxiety compounds.

During these bouts of overwhelming anxiety, the first thing I lose is my will power. So I keep sleeping and I keep distracting myself and I keep wasting time. For me, sleeping all day isn’t much of a liability. I’m self-employed, which means I’m never late for work. Unfortunately, this also means that my income is propelled almost entirely by my own self-discipline.

When I started writing this it was 2:36 AM and January. I was worrying about my teeth. I was worrying about my bank account, my clients, and my future. Even now I’m worrying about these things plus some. But these are all perfectly normal things to worry about. Anyone with chronic anxiety will understand, however, that the word ‘worry’ doesn’t even begin to describe the real emotional and physical toll.

Every time I come out on the other side of severe anxiety, I think, “Next time, I’ll know that the extreme anxiety ends.” But no matter how many times I come out on the other side, I still manage to lose perspective. I’m unable to even imagine that normality exists, that life is actually okay.

Because when you’re in the thick of it, even small tasks become monumentally overwhelming. But what I do know is that life will be okay if I simply manage to keep myself afloat. Even if it feels hopeless, the one thing I’ve learned is that no matter how anxious I am, I’ll be even more anxious if I spiral out of control. So here are some steps I take (and you can take) to stop from sinking any further into that slimy lake of perpetual anxiety:

Do one thing.

And make it small. One small task may not seem like much, but one small task often leads to a second task. A second task, in turn, tends to lead to a third. And though it doesn’t rid me of anxiety to be productive, just as a bucket won’t keep the boat from leaking, it helps me tread water for just a bit longer.

For this reason, I personally love Duolingo and Khan Academy. A Duolingo lesson is less than 5 minutes. It’s simple, active, and gives me enough momentum to move on to another task.

Leverage the Pomodoro Technique.

Anxiety can make the simplest tasks anxiety-producing endeavors. I recently started using the Pomodoro Technique for work, but I’ve also found it helpful in my personal life. The Pomodoro Technique requires that you commit your undivided attention to one task for 25 minutes at a time. After those 25 minutes are up, you take a 5-minute break. This technique allows me to take life in small, manageable chunks. No matter how stressful the activity, I can commit to it for 25 minutes.

I won’t lie, it doesn’t remove the anxiety. In fact, sometimes I have to resign myself to increasing my anxiety for that set amount of time. But once I finish the unpleasant task (like calling my student loan providers or going to buy milk) I can momentarily bask in a warm sense of relief.

Make a clear to-do list.

Write a list of tasks you need to complete. If it helps, break down each item into its smallest possible components. I understand that it can be anxiety-producing to make a to-do list. But I guarantee that it’s worse to keep everything floating around in your head. After all, a piece of paper can’t inflate a task into an unreasonably overwhelming endeavor quite like your own mind can.

By writing everything down, you can get a real sense of what needs to be done. What doesn’t seem manageable in your head, becomes manageable on the page. It simply provides a little perspective.

Get out of the house.

Anxiety gives me a hair trigger. I’m working on it. But when I’m really anxious, I tend to become really reclusive. This helps me avoid becoming unreasonably annoyed by people chewing, talking, breathing, or generally just being human. It also means I can limit my exposure to anything that might trigger a fight or flight response. Unfortunately, it also means I stop living in the real world. So I force myself to change out of my pajamas, to take a shower, and to live in the real world.

Get coffee with a friend or go for a walk. But live in the real world. Ground yourself. Enjoy nature. Drink a good beer. Allow yourself to sink into a moment.

So… just commit to one bucket.

For today, this article is my one bucket. Your turn.