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Why did I grow up thinking I had to be perfect and do perfect things?

Where did this thought process come from in a 9-year-old child writing creative stories? Wanting to be the best in class, place first in competitions and win awards. Those were the first signs of my anxiety. As a kid, all you’re supposed to worry about is what you’re doing over the summer or if you have extra time at recess. I was worrying about an honors assignment for my teacher and how every answer to every question had to be phrased correctly and written well. I was worrying that if I failed any part of that homework assignment, my teacher would hate me and I would be a disgrace. Sadly this mindset followed me into my late teenage life, and I still feel the need for perfection, but this time it’s a personal goal. I don’t care anymore what others think, but I do care about what I think about myself.

Am I doing something to my own standards? Do I need to try harder? 

These questions buzz through my head 24/7. This is the anxiety that follows me around like a shadow, that makes me feel like I’m never doing my best and that I’m not trying as hard as I could. It’s something that is not easy to get rid of, especially when it’s in your head. Many people in life have expressed that perfection is important, and society pushes perfection on everyone all the time. But what does the fear of imperfection do to someone with depression or anxiety? It makes you feel like you’re not good enough. It makes you feel like you chose to be a failure, that you are a failure. Something as unreachable as perfection should not be influencing us like it has. We change our bodies, our personalities and our uniqueness just to reach the goal of perfection, an undefinable quality that no one has encountered in the history of mankind.

But why do we do this? We continue to push ourselves until we’re at our breaking point. People become worried about every detail of their life because they’re too afraid of what they’re not doing right, and forget to notice what they are doing right already. This endless cycle throws us around in a constant state of questioning if we could be better.

I don’t want to feel like I’m not good enough. I’m sick and tired of being told I need to change to make things better. I am not changing who I am to satisfy the unreachable status of perfection. We are not perfect in the eyes of society, none of us are. But we are different.

We are all unique, and that is the undefinable quality that makes us who we are. Not perfection.

I’m not perfect. I’m just me.

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It all starts with those two blue ticks…

I seem to possess the unique gift of knowing just when to check my phone for those two blue ticks… because they always seem to appear seconds after I check to see if my message has been sent and received…

Received. Read…

Sadly for me, I definitely don’t possess the unique gift of being able to put the phone away after reading those two words. Somehow I find myself staring at the screen for minutes, until the typing…” word appears and I receive a message back.

Did I send a horrible text?

Does this person not like me anymore?

Am I being too needy?

Somehow the basic answers (like: they are just too busy to immediately respond) never seem to reach my mind. No, no, no. My mind is occupied with anxious thoughts that make me question everything I’ve ever sent them, the last time I spoke to them face-to-face and every word in my most recent text message.

Argh. Why didn’t I use an extra emoji? They are gonna think I mean it in a completely different way now…

During this inner-monologue, I’m still staring at my phone. Wondering why I didn’t think this text through some more (which might be the most irrational thought of all.. because I overthink everything, definitely texts!). Wondering why I don’t just delete the conversation. Wondering why I make such a big deal at all.

You see, I know I didn’t send an awful text. I know I did nothing wrong. And I know they’ll respond as soon as they can.

One day, maybe, I’ll be able to text without hesitation and doubts. Until then I’ll have to allow myself some time to blankly stare at those two blue ticks… I’ll distract myself with chocolate and (bad) reality shows, and if any of my friends, family might ever read this: please… please. Don’t leave me hanging too long!

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When you study Shakespearean theater, you learn that tragedy usually occurs following a storm. On the night of Sept. 10, in an attempt to attend a lecture at the 92 Street Y, my then-boyfriend (now husband) and I were caught in a storm of epic proportions. As we took shelter in a nearby pizza place, I joked “This storm is almost Shakespearean.” He just rolled his eyes and when it let up, we continued on our way.

That storm was a prelude to our lives changing is so many ways.

The next morning, a crystal clear, near perfect day gave way to a new reality. As he was working and I was in the subway, the two towers of the World Trade Center were struck. He fled his office and ran as the buildings collapsed covering him in white dust. I had to escaped the NYC subway through the tunnels as my train was half-way between lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. It would be nearly eight hours before I even knew he was alive. No phone. No money. No working ATM service. With no way to communicate with anyone, I roamed the streets of Brooklyn until a cab driver was able to bring me to my mother’ place of work.

Days later and still unable to return to work due to lack of transportation in the city, my mother left for a trip to Europe. As I sat at table eating a bowl of cereal, I realized I was unable to breathe. I thought I had eaten too much or was having a sugar rush. I became dizzy, had tunnel-vision and severe chest pains. I didn’t know what was wrong and as the minutes past, it became progressively worse. My sister drove me to the hospital and I was diagnosed with pleuritic chest pains. I was prescribed painkillers and sent home. Several days later, it happened again. The dizziness was unbearable and I was gasping for air. I had to leave the subway and return to the hospital.

It took nearly two years before a doctor suggested that what I had experienced were panic attacks. She handed me a baggie of sample medication with no instructions. I never took them. I was weary of something that was handed to me with no explanation, no follow-up and two years with of misdiagnosis. After a trip to the book store, I read everything I could on how to get through a panic attacks and thankfully it worked. What I didn’t realize was that while my panic attacks were gone, so much other stuff was still there. I had stopped flying. I didn’t drive. I didn’t take the subway. I had a fear of everything around me. I avoided the unknown including everything I wasn’t 100 percent in control over. After being emotionally paralyzed for so long, we decided to leave NYC for a simpler life in Florida.

Throughout the years, my uncontrollable anxiety gave way to obsessive compulsive disorder and eventually depression. It took nearly 15 years to have all of it under control.

This year, my husband and I attended the funeral of a close friend in NYC. I flew back. I took the subway around New York. Then, I suggested we do the unthinkable. We went to lower Manhattan, got in an elevator to the 102nd floor of One World Trade Center. We looked out at NYC together. In a place that led to years of fear, anxiety and depression, I smiled down on the world finally free.

I love inspirational quotes. They are especially useful if I’m feeling down, stuck, anxious or unmotivated.

Inspirational quotes have also help guide me through the darkest days of my depression and the peaks and troughs of my anxiety, like a guiding light, holding my hand until I came out the other side.

Here are some of my favorites (40 to be precise):

1. “Life is not a dress rehearsal. Every day, you should have at least one exquisite moment.
” — Sally Karioth

2. “Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.” — Carl Jung

3. “If we learn to open our hearts, anyone… can be our teacher.” — Pema Chodron

4. “In the end, just three things matter: How well we have lived. How well we have loved. How well we have learned to let go.” — Jack Kornfield

5. “You must learn to let go. Release the stress. You were never in control anyway.” — Steve Maraboli

6. “If you’re going through hell keep going.” — Winston Churchill

7. “The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.” — Henry Miller

8. “Just when the caterpillar thought the world was ending, he turned into a butterfly.” –Proverb

9. “We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.” — Mother Teresa

10. “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” — Lao Tzu

11. “Everything you have ever wanted is sitting on the other side of fear.” — George Addair

12. “Smile, breathe and go slowly.” — Thich Nhat Hanh

13. “At the end of the day, tell yourself gently: ‘I love you. You did the best you could today, and even if you didn’t accomplish all you had planned, I love you anyway.’” — Anonymous

14. “All our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them.” — Walt Disney

15. “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” — Aesop

16. “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

17. “The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.” — Confucius

18. “Don’t settle: Don’t finish crappy books. If you don’t like the menu, leave the restaurant. If you’re not on the right path, get off it.”  — Chris Brogan

19. “There is no chance, no destiny, no fate, that can hinder or control the firm resolve of a determined soul.” — Ella Wheeler Wilcox

20. “By being yourself, you put something wonderful in the world that was not there before.” — Edwin Elliot

21. “If you can dream it, you can do it.” — Walt Disney

22. “I tell you the past is a bucket of ashes, so live not in your yesterdays, not just for tomorrow, but in the here and now. Keep moving and forget the post mortems; and remember, no one can get the jump on the future.” — Carl Sandburg

23. “Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.” — William James

24. “Limitations live only in our minds. But if we use our imaginations, our possibilities become limitless.” — Jamie Paolinetti

25. “Unexpected kindness is the most powerful, least costly and most underrated agent of human change.” — Bob Kerrey

26. “Each morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most.” — Buddha

27. “Believe in yourself and all that you are. Know that there is something inside of you that is greater than any obstacle.” — Christian D Larson

28. “You have a treasure within you that is infinitely greater than anything the world can offer.” — Eckhart Tolle

29. “Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud.” — Maya Angelou

30. “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” — Henry S. Haskins

31. “Sometimes the bad things that happen in our lives put us directly on the path to the most wonderful things that will ever happen to us.” — Nicole Reed

32. “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” — William James

33. “Don’t underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.” — A.A. Milne

34. “Peace is the result of retraining your mind to process life as it is, rather than as you think it should be.” — Wayne W. Dyer

35. “There must be quite a few things that a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them.” — Sylvia Plath

36. “Don’t be pushed by your problems. Be led by your dreams.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

37. “For fast acting relief, try slowing down.” — Lily Tomlin

‎‎38. “If you don’t like something, change it; if you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.” — Mary Engelbreit

39. “A pleasure a day keeps stress away.” — Ethel Roskies

40. “Every moment is a fresh beginning.” — T.S. Eliot

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This post originally appeared on Reflections From a Redhead.

I honestly could not tell you how many times I managed to mutter the words, “I don’t know,” through the flood of tears. Turmoil had once again settled in. Grabbed a hold. Pulling me back down into a place I loathe.

A whirling mind.

A pumping heart.

A plethora of unwanted tears.

A fight to catch my breath.

Deep in the trenches of panic and fear, and the question I have heard a dozen times over was yet again hung over my head.

“But what do you have to be so upset about?”

From the outside, everything seems wonderful. A beautiful, loving family. A home we’ve built together. An incredible support system. Opportunities for career growth. So, naturally, what in the world do I have to be upset about?

This question tugs at my heartstrings more than any other aspect of my mental illness. The oxymoron of it all is just because I am surrounded by these wonderful people, these comforting things, these remarkable chances, does not in any way negate my anxiety.

My anxiety? It is something that has been a major part of me for as long as I can remember. A mere seven-letter word that took complete control of every aspect of my life. It has crept in through every crack and crevice, into every relationship, into every new experience and into everything that was meant to be enjoyed. A thieving expert, it has stolen every ounce of happiness from the world around me.

My anxiety? It is not something I can simply control. Overlook. Let alone, “erase.”

The truth? There is not always a reason why I feel the way I do. Sometimes, I honestly don’t know why I am upset, why I am anxious or why I am once more finding myself on a closed circuit of “what ifs” and “why nots.” This monster? It can be triggered by anything and everything. That’s what makes it so unexplainable and perhaps unrelatable to those who know me best.

If there is a handful of advice I would offer to anyone close to someone living with anxiety and/or depression (because they often work hand in hand), then it would be this:

Please don’t make those of us facing challenges feel any worse than we already feel.

Please do not interrogate us.

Please do not tell us we don’t have anything to be upset about.

Please don’t add to our guilt and shame.

If you could only step into our shoes for one bout or even just perhaps a few mere moments of our sheer panic and fear, then you would understand being made to feel guilty about going head-to-head with this relentless beast, for yet another round, is the last remark we care to hear.

Instead, try these:

“I might not understand why you are so upset right now, but is there anything I can do to help you?”

“I understand you are upset. Everything is going to be OK. I am still here for you right now.”

“You are OK. I know what you are anxious about is really bothering you. Let me know what I can do right now, and we can talk more later.”

Not sure you can offer the right words? Nonverbal cues can be just as powerful and possibly, even more comforting:

• A hand to hold.

• A shoulder to cry on.

• A tissue.

• A back rub.

• A locking of the eyes while helping us to simply breathe.

• A wiping away of the tear.

The thing is, you don’t have to understand. Because, more often than not, those of us living with anxiety do not either. When our answer is “I don’t know,” we simply ask for your comfort and support.

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I know you have a lot of stress, dealing with a classroom full of students who can be extremely difficult to manage and motivate at times. I know the expectations and demands on teachers continue to grow each year, whether from federal, state, cultural, socioeconomic or others. I also know the recognition you deserve and financial compensation you receive is grossly inadequate for the work you do every day with each of your students. I also know you may not receive consistent support from parents or guardians of the students with whom you work.

Please know not all parents are this way. Some parents want to support you as a person who will have a large amount of influence in their child’s life. With this being said, I am asking for your help in working with a student in your class who faces challenges with anxiety. I know you have every single other student in your classroom to manage, but I would like to offer you a little perspective on a child dealing with anxiety.

1. As their teacher, you may not recognize a child is experiencing anxiety.

Anxiety is when a child experiences nervousness or worry about a particular thing to the point where it interferes with the child’s ability to function, including eating, drinking, sitting or completing work. One child experiencing increased anxiety at school may start crying when he is called on to answer a question. Another child experiencing increased anxiety at school may act out or cause disruptions in class. In both instances, the child is experiencing a fight, flight or freeze response in order to cope with what is happening. Sometimes, these behaviors may seem like rebellion, defiance or just downright stubbornness. Sometimes that may be the case, but there are instances when it is not.

2. The child may not know he or she is experiencing extreme anxiety.

Unless a child is seeing a mental health professional and has been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, the child may not recognize what she is experiencing is an increase in anxiety to a point where it interferes with her work. Even if a child is seeing a counselor for their anxiety, she may not recognize she has been triggered when her response to your question is to stare at you and not say anything (which would be a freeze response). She is not always being disrespectful, but is simultaneously trying to slow down her heart rate, trying to quiet the thoughts in head, trying to avoid crying so her peers won’t laugh at her and a whole list of other racing thoughts in the moment.

3. You have the ability to help my child through increased anxiety or even an anxiety or panic attack.

Please know not all behavior is defiance. Sometimes my child’s anxiety becomes overwhelmingly debilitating for him. Having an open body language when communicating with him may help. Having your hands open, rather than folding your arms when talking to him, can help. Consider the tone of your voice when speaking to him and his reaction to you. Pay attention to his body language in class.

Do you see him squirming in his seat when you’re teaching? Does he fidget when having to stand up in front of the class or give an answer? These don’t always mean my child is experiencing anxiety, but they are some examples of indications my child has experienced an anxiety trigger. Using slow hand movements, taking deep breaths or even slowing down your speech may invite my child to mirror your body language and communication, which would also help him through the anxiety he is experiencing in the moment.

4. Please take a moment and speak with my child individually and let him or her know you support him.

My child sometimes feels like you’re saying he’s stupid because he doesn’t understand the work. I know you may not be saying this to my child, but please understand this is a feeling he is experiencing.

One thing you can do to help my child during these times is to validate his feelings by simply letting him know you recognize something happened in class and you want to see how you can help. He may not initially be forthcoming to you about his anxiety because of embarrassment. Please let him know you are there to support him and that he can feel free to speak to you if he needs to. I know your job is not to coddle or necessarily nurture feelings, but I do believe a few intentional steps by you may yield large success from my child in your class.

5. Would you consider develop adopting a culture of safety for your classroom?

I’m not speaking about safety in terms of fire drills or locking the doors, but rather safety regarding feelings or the mental health needs of my child and any other child. This could be something as simple as you or the school social worker/counselor discussing anxiety with the students and offering ways to manage anxiety. Educating the class about anxiety and how normal it is may actually help in decreasing anxiety for my child or another child who may experience situational anxiety. Some other ideas you might want to include: essential oils, deep breathing, mindfulness techniques and soft music.

I’m not asking you to raise my child or provide mental health treatment to him. I’m asking you to join with me, as we help my child work through any barriers that may arise and affect his ability to learn and be successful in your class. Thank you for the work you do for my child and all children you teach.

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