Coping With Holiday Anxiety

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The holiday season is upon us, and I am already anxious about my upcoming anxiety. It may seem silly, but ever since puberty when I was first diagnosed with depression and anxiety, I have predictably cried during every holiday, especially Christmas. It’s always for different “reasons,” but it’s ultimately the same: holiday anxiety. My family has a lot of October birthdays, and then with November birthdays (including mine) packed in with Thanksgiving and Christmas, I become overwhelmed. I both love and hate this season. It is my favorite and my least favorite.

The first few years after my diagnosis, I was so confused when Christmas day came and I was overjoyed but still always ended up in tears. Sometimes I couldn’t give you a reason, but sometimes, a perceived slight or self-criticism was at the core. Several Christmases I could not afford a lot for gifts. As I have a rather large family and I always want to make donations during the holiday seasons, I decided to buy bags of food for those in need and then give those “gifts” as gifts. I thought it was perfect, as my family loves helping those in need just as much as I do. But when the day came and they opened those envelopes, I was filled both with dread and complete confidence that it was the worst gift I could have given. Now that I’m an adult, I find myself getting emotional when certain traditions aren’t followed. It’s not until after my breakdown that I am actually able to verbalize what triggered my overwhelming anxiety.

Many of us hold the holidays close. Even when we don’t have high expectations, we often have hope — and for those of us with anxiety who must plan and prepare both in actuality and emotionally, it can become overwhelming very quickly. We may think of talking to family we don’t see all year and telling them all the good things we accomplished, only to fear we didn’t accomplish enough. We may try to practice strategies to keep from arguing with that sibling or aunt we always seem to argue with, only to fall into the same cycle year after year. We might think of how we’ve gained weight over the year and will be judged, or that guests will be attending the festivities who we feel we must impress. And nothing goes perfectly, and the strategies we’ve practiced don’t help. When it started for me in middle school, it was that I only really wanted one gift and it never came (or my brother got it instead!). But with the onset of anxiety, I became less capable of being able to steady myself in those tumultuous moments.

If you know someone with anxiety, you might check in with them and help them realistically adjust their expectations for the celebrations. You might talk to them about the people they are worried about interacting with and offer to try to be a part of those conversations to help steady them. Most of all, if they cry or escape the festivities, be understanding. Check in, but give them their space to steady themselves if they need. Let them know that you care, you understand, and you are there for them no matter what.

If you are someone struggling with anxiety during the holidays, know you are not alone! It is your anxiety causing your outbursts, not you, and those who love you are not going to abandon you because of a hard day. You have not ruined everyone’s celebration, and it is OK to be overwhelmed. I learned to take myself out of the hustle and bustle when I get overwhelmed and take private time to calm down. And when you feel like you’ve had enough and have to leave, leave and don’t feel bad about it. Choose someone you trust to tell that you need to leave and to tell everyone goodbye. Don’t blame yourself for leaving. It is your anxiety, not you.

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Dear Anxiety, Here's What You've Taught Me

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I know you can’t help it, no matter what others may say. All you want is to keep me safe, but this world has far too many things you think are deadly. Deadlines, relationship stressors, the bill at the end of the month — they might as well be an AK-47 trained against my temple. You, anxiety, are the panicked deer in the forest. See the unknown about to attack and you will do anything to react. Fight, flight or freeze is your oxygen and my fear.

You have left marks on my body, from the bittersweet love affair I have with foods I can no longer tolerate, to the etchings on my teeth where every night you wear away your worries. Your alert systems are always on the go, and my body battles to keep up with the demands at times. Yet, even in the dark of midnight, you always find the strength to keep wondering, worrying and wearing the night down. I admire your tenacity, honestly, even when I would rather be sleeping.

That tenacity keeps me going sometimes when I might not otherwise. When depression attaches lead weights to my ribs, you are what gets me up in the morning. You motivate me to show up and be a part of the world, even when that feels harder with you around thinking constantly how that world is reacting to me. You help me achieve my goals, get through tasks and see out days with the energy you give me. There are many things I may not have done without your push of “you should” nudging me over the line of doubt.

You have allowed me to know my mind and my body much better than I would have otherwise. I know the rhythms of my mind, what makes it run better and what stalls me in my tracks. I know the importance of air in my lungs, the depth I need to reach to find calm. I know the sound of my heart at rest and the sound of my heart trying to fly in a panic attack. I’m so aware of that because of you, and I appreciate how my body runs smoothly for the most part because of the times you’ve shown me what happens when it fails.

You have taught me how important the people in my life are and why I need to keep them close. You have taught me empathy, understanding and kindness. I can understand when someone else can’t communicate because of the noise in their head, and I know the peace a person needs to come back.

You are part of me. You have taught me lessons, some hard but worth it. You have taught me gratitude. Would I trade you? Depends what day you ask me. For now, I focus on what I can do because of you, what I can do despite you and not what I can’t do with you. That is how I find my peace with you.

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The Unglamorous Reality of My Anxiety Disorder

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An anxiety disorder is not beautiful, nor should it ever be glamorized, along with any other mental illness. Having an anxiety disorder is not something that makes you look “cute and quirky.” An anxiety disorder is not just being scared to call someone on the phone or ask for extra ketchup with your fries. It’s not just being nervous before a final exam or going on a roller coaster for the first time.

No, anxiety disorders are going days without sleep because you are terrified of what your dreams may entail but then having to deal with your own mind as you lay awake for hours. Anxiety disorders are feeling like the pain of your ribs crushing against each other are enough to cause a fire from how much they burn. Anxiety disorders are wanting to scream but not having the strength to let one out. Anxiety disorders are letting out enough tears that a whole new ocean could be created. Anxiety disorders are losing complete feeling in your hands and legs as they sting with numbness. There is nothing, let me say it again, nothing, enjoyable about my anxiety disorder. It is a cry for help, for an escape.

It is not something to respond with by saying, “everyone has bad days” or “it’s just a phase.” It deserves more than, “Why don’t you just try to be happy?” as if it is that easy, as if I haven’t been trying for the past two years. Disorders should not be something others want to claim, degrading others who actually deal with them daily. They should not be brushed off or overlooked but instead given proper attention, care, and treatment.

I decided while attempting to “fix” my own anxiety, I would also want to fix the way anxiety is looked at. We deserve more than, “try to look on the bright side.” We deserve a brighter world, one diligent in aiding those who struggle with mental illness.

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When I'm Told to 'Get Over' My Anxiety

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It is fairly easy to scroll through social media these days and feel disenchanted and despondent with how people are talking to each other. Insults are being thrown like fast balls, insensitivities paraded proudly like trophies, and ignorance blinds us from progress. This is coming from both sides, not just one. In a recent post, I was suggesting we choose kindness over division, especially with our children. There can be so much anxiety in so many people for various reasons. I will admit, I’m anxious. I expressed this in that post, and a family member told me, “Oh, get over it.” This statement from my family member hurt more than anything else. It stung because, as most anyone who lives with anxiety likely knows, there is no “getting over it.”

Anxiety is not something that comes and goes. I wake up with it; I go to bed with it. It is a quiet murmur in my body, like a slow boil in a pot. It is always there; some moments it’s stronger than others. It makes my body hurt. My hands shake, my heart races, my chest tightens, my stomach ties in knots, my body temperature rises, it suppresses my breath, it clouds my thoughts, and it robs me of sleep. I have tools to help me, don’t get me wrong. But more often than not, the only thing that works is sitting in the discomfort and letting my body go through the process.

I cannot “get over it,” because it is never going away. As my husband can tell you, this is not easy to watch. There is no simple solution to watching a loved one physically coil in pain. There is a vulnerability of helplessness that my husband must go through. He also shouldn’t be expected to “get over” watching me when things are very bad. He has to walk through this with me.

Anxiety is not a mountain to climb, with the promise of the decline to be worth the incline. There is no incline with anxiety. It is a constant, unpredictable and arduous path one must carry with them through life.

Please stop telling me to “get over” my anxiety. Please understand, I’m getting through.

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When You Don’t Know the Reason for Your Anxiety

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It’s 4:30 a.m. and I’m wide awake. An hour and a half ago, I bolted awake feeling anxious. There wasn’t even a specific thing weighing on my mind, just this broad, generalized sense of urgency, a feeling that things just weren’t right and I needed to wake up.

I know there will be no more sleep tonight because my mind is already racing, my thoughts bouncing around from one topic to the next. My leg bounces a mile a minute. I try to focus my thoughts, but my brain won’t stay on anything long enough to process it.

There are many times when my anxiety locks tightly to something and wont let go. The thoughts become repetitive and increasingly louder and more urgent. There is no way to focus on anything else. It beats down on me like a hailstorm, cold, wet and jarring. There is no ignoring it because its voice is booming, drowning out anything else going on.

There are other times, though, I cannot even pinpoint why I am anxious. The urgency is still there, though it is surrounded by a dull fog. I know something is eating at me because  I cannot focus on anything else. For the life of me, though, I cannot put my finger on it. Yet my anxiety is in full force just the same.

I’m jittery, uncomfortable, unable to focus. My chest is tight. I have trouble catching my breath. I try to calm myself with breathing exercises, but I cannot center myself. I have this strange burst of energy but no will to use it. My brain has grabbed that energy to fuel its racing. I’m wide awake. My thoughts, like my sentences, are choppy. Nothing quite seems to flow. I cannot focus. I cannot rest. I cannot get comfortable. My anxiety is jarring, like percussion being banged on haphazardly without any rhyme or reason. It is loud and bracing, impossible to ignore.

I feel itchy, shaky, edgy and uncomfortable. I am annoyed and agitated though I cannot even explain why. Some days, my anxiety wraps its head around a thought or concept and will not let go, holding it in a stranglehold, allowing me to focus on nothing else. It will often link itself to other things I am struggling with, making it even harder to cope.

When my anxiety attaches to my depression, it becomes that parrot that repeats all the bad in my life on an endless loop. It asks me what else I could have expected and makes me question how much is ultimately my fault. It is unyielding, unwavering and unforgiving. It eats at me, making me feel inherently and hopelessly a mess. My depression feeds it a steady dose of fuel, so my racing thoughts never seem to slow or falter. My anxiety pushes for me to beat myself up for everything, whether it was my fault or not.

When my anxiety combines with my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I am bombarded by a steady barrage of emotions that threaten to push me into a bad place. One of the most common themes my anxiety clings to that triggers my PTSD is safety. Once my anxiety has grabbed onto that fear, my brain reminds me repeatedly that I am not safe, not safe, not safe, I can no longer concentrate on anything else. Though I try to reassure myself that everything is OK, doors are locked, everyone is safe, it is to no avail. My brain won’t listen to reason. It becomes a battle to fight off an anxiety attack or worse, to be yanked back to those times when I truly was not safe.

One of the most frustrating parts about struggling with anxiety is that nobody truly seems to understand or sympathize. People suggest I just breathe, not realizing it feels like there is a weight on my chest and I can barely catch my own breath. I’m told I should just try to calm down and try to focus. I would love to do that, but I feel like I have no control over my mind at this point. I swear I’ve yelled at my mind a million times, “Stop! Enough!” but it never listens. It has gone on a 100-mile-an-hour joyride along a dangerously winding cliffside road, and I’m just along for the ride.

The worst, though, is when I am asked what exactly I am anxious about or when someone tries to use logic and reason to convince me there is nothing to stress about. Often, I honestly don’t have an answer about why I am feeling this way. I don’t understand it myself. As I try to explain it, my hand shakes and my mind just cannot form the words. I know I’m anxious, I’m restless, that something is definitely wrong, even if I cannot always put a finger on exactly what it is. I know they mean well, want to understand what I’m feeling and try to talk me down, calm me down. But how can I explain my anxiety to anyone else when I don’t even fully understand it myself?

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5 Things I Want My Friends to Know About My Anxiety

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1. Just because I’m not acting “anxious” doesn’t mean I’m not feeling anxious.

There’s this stereotype that if you have an anxiety disorder you’re always panicking and talking fast or crying — some of which can be true, but more often than not it isn’t. Anxiety doesn’t always look like a panic attack. I can be listening to you tell me a story but desperately trying to calm my mind down at the same time. This leads me to tend to not pay attention and forget a lot of what you say. No, it’s not because I don’t care what you’re saying! My mind is racing, and I’m trying to settle it so I can pay attention to you!

2. I’m not intentionally being flaky. Please don’t give me a hard time about it.

Some days I feel great and I’ll make plans with you and hope with everything in me I can follow through , but sometimes I just can’t. Some days I won’t make concrete plans because I know my anxiety could act up. I know this frustrates you, and it frustrates me too. Sometimes the anticipatory anxiety becomes too much. Maybe I didn’t sleep the night before because my mind was racing, so my anxiety is acting up. I’m not flaky. Please don’t make me feel guilty about it. Trust me I do this to myself enough.

3. Please don’t disregard me when I try to reach out.

Reaching out for me is more difficult than you think. Simply saying, “I’ve been in bed all day” or “I just want to feel normal again!” doesn’t mean I’m trying to throw my whole disorder at you. It doesn’t mean I want advice. Sometimes I just want you to say, “I know, it’s OK.” Please don’t just ignore it until I change the subject. That can cause a downward spiral of thoughts about me being “selfish” or “talking about my anxiety too much.” Sometimes I just need reassurance that someone knows I’m struggling and will talk about it with me.

4. Don’t push yourself on me.

I know it can be hard to feel me pushing you away. It’s hard for me too. But please don’t force yourself upon me. Don’t make me feel bad for not wanting to hang out with you. If I hang out with other friends it might just be because I’m more comfortable around them when my anxiety strikes. It’s not you. It’s the anxiety.

5. Anxiety takes a lot out of me.

Constantly being in a high state of anxiety can be mentally and physically exhausting. I might not want to talk at the end of the day because I’ve been constantly trying to push thoughts out of my head and calm myself down. Having to constantly remind yourself to use “breathing techniques” and that “everything will be OK” is so time consuming. It really doesn’t leave a lot of room for anything else. It might seem like I had an “easy” day if I only had one class, but it’s so much harder than that.

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