broken red christmas bauble and shards on wooden floor

An old proverb states, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” While I think that is true, my personal version is more like, “The perfect is the enemy of the happy.”

You see, my anxiety is shot through with perfectionism. If I don’t make the perfect comment to a friend or a stranger, I will stress about it for hours. If the pants I’m wearing aren’t the perfect length, I’ll feel them flapping around my ankles all day. (Happily, sleeves can be rolled up in a perfectly casual way.) If I plan out my perfect day and something doesn’t get accomplished, then I have failed and I can feel the burden of an imperfect future press in on me.

Details like this, a spoken word, an outfit, a schedule, have the power to ruin my happiness.

And this is why for the past decade Christmas has been a day to dread rather than one to enjoy. Because Christmas needs to be perfect, and the perfect is the enemy of the happy.

I have great memories of Christmas from my childhood. Waking up and seeing those glistening presents under the tree, spending the day playing with my cousins, eating the feast my mother cooked for us. No other day of the year could compete with it. It really was the most wonderful time of the year.

Then, when I got married and moved into my own house, I noticed Christmas began feeling a little… flat. I couldn’t understand why. I still went to my mother’s house to be greeted by a beautiful stack of presents, I still visited with family, I still ate a delicious meal. What had gone wrong?

And then I became a mom. And suddenly Christmas was no fun at all. There were presents under the tree, and family, and good food. But I waded through it in misery, wanting to do nothing but go home and go to bed so it could all be over.

Now that I have a better handle on my anxiety and have had the chance to look at it more objectively I can see exactly what went wrong. It starts with this: in my mind, my mother does no wrong. She is the essence of perfect. When I was a kid, I was living in that perfect world. She bought and wrapped the presents, she invited the family over, she made the dinner. All I had to do was enjoy and be happy.

But when I grew up, some of that responsibility shifted my way. I was responsible. It was up to me to make things perfect. Because Christmas has to be perfect. After all, it is the most wonderful time of the year.

For those first few years, the anxiety was minor. Had I bought the right gift? Maybe I should have gotten my dad a new book instead of a golf shirt? Did anyone really enjoy the salad I brought for dinner? I noticed an awful lot of it still on people’s plates at the end of the meal. I thought I looked good in my red sweater this morning, but now, no, it definitely is too tight to wear with these pants.

I don’t even know if I can go into my thoughts once I was the mom who needed to make the perfect day: the perfect presents, the most glorious tree, the well-worded Christmas cards, the homemade treats for family and friends, and on Christmas day, the non-stop wonderland of family, present opening, and food. I would burn my candle at both ends and in the middle, pushing myself to the point of nervous collapse by the end of it all. I couldn’t enjoy anything because I was in charge of making not just the day but the entire month magical for my child and nothing, nothing ended up as perfect as I wanted it to be.

But this year, Christmas is going to be a happy day.

For one, I am on medication this year, and it blunts the perfectionism a little. For example, I realized after I had left the house today that my pants really were too short for the shoes I had changed into. I managed to only be bothered by it three or four times while I was gone.

Two, I have discovered the benefits of “thought-watching.” Thought-watching is kind of like meditation, only you aren’t trying to still your mind, you’re trying to watch your mind from a place of detachment. How it was taught to me is to picture a room with two doors. It doesn’t matter what the room looks like, you can decorate it any way you want to. Then you sit in a quiet place and every thought that comes into your mind you imagine the actual words or a picture of it entering the room. You don’t evaluate it, you don’t judge it, you just watch it. When it feels ready or gets replaced with something else, the thought leaves through the other door.

Doing this simple exercise for just a few minutes each day has helped me gain insight into my own thoughts. It helps me identify the irrational and the impossible thoughts that pop into my mind, the ones that told me I was supposed to be happier than I was or the day didn’t resemble a Martha Stewart magazine as much as I had hoped. Those can’t sneak in like assassins anymore. Sure, they can still be damaging, but at least I can confront them head-on now rather than getting shot in the back by one.

And three, I have a new mantra, “Perfect is a lie.” I made this startling realization just before last Christmas. And I have to admit, last December was a little bit better than the previous years. I’ve been working on believing it more and more since then. Whenever my thought-watching catches that disapproving voice telling me something isn’t perfect, I shoot right back at it. “Perfect is a lie.”

So I say to hell with perfect this year. This year, nothing will be perfect. I will officially be anti-perfect. And hopefully, I may just end up happy this holiday season.

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Thinkstock photo by eyewave

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If I were honest, I never expected myself to struggle with my own appetite. Sure, I had my favorite snacks, and would occasionally eat them just before dinner, knowing they’d spoil my appetite. But that didn’t seem like a problem to me — after all, didn’t everyone do that from time to time?

All that changed, though, with the diagnosis of an anxiety disorder. It was already sufficiently perplexing to find myself caught in such struggles, and it felt like a huge step forward to seek professional help despite the attached stigma. After having to overcome these personal emotional barriers in order to get better, I was taken aback by the side effects of the medications I was prescribed. While I was told there might be a myriad of side effects, such as drowsiness or insomnia, I was unprepared for the impacts of the medicines on my appetite.

Granted, I was hesitant to take my medications because of the anticipated drowsiness, which turned out to be intense. Yet, what caught me off guard was how it stole my appetite. I recall how I described the experience to the people who didn’t understand — it felt as though my guts were a towel, where someone squeezed all the water out of it and wrung it tight, before pulling it taut. While I was told a little food would make things better, the irony was, it hurt so badly, food was the last thing on my mind. This only perpetuated the cycle, until the initial side effects wore off a week later.

Later, I was placed on a different type of medication. This had the opposite effect — while the first stole my appetite, this multiplied it several times.

It started subtly at first — I found myself buying candy, chocolate or chips. It wasn’t something I often did, so I had no qualms doing so. I convinced myself it was an “occasional indulgence.” I began to notice an uncharacteristic increase in the amount of snack foods at home, while realizing I couldn’t help myself — wasn’t I naturally responding to what my body told me it desired? Over time, these manifested in additional weight gain, and I was frustrated as my thighs seemed to burst out of my shorts. Thus, I found myself buying clothes a size larger than usual for a period of time.

Three months, several extra kilograms and a new highest weight later, I mentioned this to my psychiatrist. Thankfully, she was open to changing the medications after hearing about the impacts it had on me.

Even then, tapering off the medicine was not so easy. As the medicine-induced weight gain began to slip off me when I tapered off, I was initially pleased and even amused at how effortless this all seemed. Yet, several months later after withdrawing from the medicine, I found myself at a new low weight, almost without reason. Truth be told, it was equally scary, so I found myself desperate to stem the weight loss. Thankfully, that stopped several weeks later.

Having encountered these things; I found myself approaching the issue of weight and body image through different lenses. Once, I used to take it as a compliment whenever someone mentioned I had lost some weight. Now, I wonder how substantial the difference must have been for the loss to be noticeable on first glance.

I am thankful these days are over, and I have since settled well with a medication that does not seem to influence my appetite or weight. Yet, knowing the potential that things might change someday, here are my takeaways from this experience:

I found myself more aware of the impact appearance or weight-related comments have on an individual. Even as weight loss may be perceived as a compliment to most, it may be misinterpreted by others. Hence, I have learned, and would encourage others, to reserve appearance-related comments from a place of concern, not curiosity. Though I might not have been ready to open up about the truth, I would have loved if people enquired after my well-being, rather than making assumptions that the weight fluctuations were attributed to a particular cause, such as stress at work.

This has taught me in a personal way that not everyone whose weight frequently fluctuates has an unhealthy lifestyle, or an eating disorder. These days, society is beginning to realize eating disorders don’t have a particular “look.” The flipside of the same coin would be that not every individual whose weight fluctuates has an eating disorder.

Though the experience was unpleasant, I am thankful to have learned important things about myself through it — and I hope this gives others a glimpse into the physical impacts one might struggle with as part and parcel of a mental health condition. It’s not just “in my head!”

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I wake with a start and jerk upright. Eyes wide, searching around my room frantically. I crane my head around the edges of my bed. Searching. But for what? A sigh of relief and shame as I realize I only woke up due to my anxiety disorder. A ray of sunlight pokes through the window and spreads across my chest. It desperately tries to reach me. My depression, however, refuses to let the light in. Refuses to let the light shine through. I’m essentially a deep, dark pit.

It gets very discouraging and grim on my worst days. You could tell me world hunger was solved and I would smile, nod curtly and return to the hurricane swirling and raging in my head.

It doesn’t matter. Everyone will die eventually. You and everyone you love. And after exhausting those thoughts, my brain will totally switch gears on me. Did you really lock the door this morning when you left your house? I don’t think so, my dark passenger says to me with the crooked smile I can imagine is on its face. So, how can I destroy your happiness today? Oh, I know! I will torment you by making you think everyone you care about is suffering because of you.

I am at work and it hits me. I can feel the storm begin to surge in my head. I do not think you fixed that problem correctly. I mean come on. Do you really think that is how it is done? Why did you even choose this profession? How did you even drive to work today on your own? Why the hell did you even get out of bed this morning?

I get out of my chair at this point. My head is pounding. My heart is racing. I feel myself losing all control of my emotions, my thoughts, my self… I walk into the bathroom, wave and smile at a coworker and ask them how they are. Then I dart into the bathroom and shut the door and lock it behind me. I look at myself in the mirror in disgust.

Is it nausea? I feel sick. All the while this storm rages in my mind, holding me hostage. It pokes me in my locked cage with thoughts of doubt, self-loathing, shame, guilt, despair and the feeling of being completely and utterly terrified.

On my better days, it goes a little something like this: Alright. Let’s see what’s on my list of things to use against you. Guilt and shame were used yesterday, I’ll put a pin by those two since they are so effective. How about a panic attack?

It starts almost instantly. I can feel it coming.

Wait!” I tell myself. “You will be absolutely fine! You have a wife, family, and friends who love you and care about you so very much! You are not defined by your illness, silly! You and only you can define who you are! I guarantee whatever happened today will pass like every other storm and you’ll rise above this. You. Can. Beat. This.”

Bam. I can feel my heartbeats slow. I can feel the hurricane begin to cease inside my head. My neck and shoulders are killing because of the stress, but I did it. I survived.

If there is anything I have learned from depression and anxiety, it’s that you have to celebrate the battles won. If you don’t you will never begin making progress on dealing with the illness you have.

At the end of the day, my illness does not define me. My anxiety, my panic attacks and my depression consuming my mind like a vast black hole do not define me.

No. No. I define myself.

I get to decide what choices I make. Even when I can’t realize it on my bad days, I always have a choice. I am choosing hope. I am choosing faith. I am choosing love. I am choosing to never give up and let this illness win. I am choosing not to be completely consumed and destroyed by my deep, dark pit.

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My anxiety voice is strong in my head tonight. It’s storming here in Alabama, and it’s supposed to get bad. The lights at work flickered a few times, and the traffic light near my work went out for awhile. My lights in my apartment have flickered a few times, and the street lights outside my apartment went out about an hour ago.

Inside my brain, the storm is raging just as much as it is outside.

“If you go to sleep, the power will go out. Then, your phone will die, and you won’t wake up for work!”

My anxiety screams at me.

“It’s better to just not sleep!”

It yells in a panic.

I try to ignore it and go about my nightly routine. My heart is racing like there is no tomorrow, and I can’t stop moving my hands or my feet. Sometimes both. As I type this and my fingers fly across the keyboard, my foot is also tapping rhythmically, even though there is no music playing. I put my pajamas on and curl up in my bed but that seems to make it worse now that I’m not pacing around my apartment.

I’m trying to be still, but my body needs to move. I don’t want to be alone if the power goes out so I call my closest friend in the area and pray she’ll be able to come sit with me. She always calms me down.

As the phone rings, my anxiety shouts again, “Why are you calling her? You’re such a burden! She’s got a life. She doesn’t have time for you! No one wants to come sit with you so you calm down! You’re crazy!”

The call goes to voicemail, and I hang up not even bothering to leave a message. I text her instead. I still feel like a burden. She’s at work and will be for a few more hours. I tell her it’s fine and pretend I’m not as desperate for company as I actually am.

I stop pacing and try lying down in bed again. I turn on a movie. It doesn’t help. I can’t focus anyway. I make a few posts for Instagram and get excited when they quickly get liked. I post to Facebook. I try the movie again. Still no focus.

So now, here I am. Writing. It’s helping a little. Writing always seems to calm me down. I get my thoughts out and feel slightly more normal. Already my heart is slowing and my fingers are flying a bit slower. My foot on the other hand just keeps tapping.

I pause from writing and put some Stress Away essential oil in my diffuser. I take a big, deep breath, and my whole body stands still for just a second. I breathe deeply again, and suddenly, I think I can process my own thoughts.

I sit back down in bed, and my foot stops tapping as I continue writing. I wish I could think of my oils first and not as a last resort when I’m feeling anxious. I’ve been in this whirlwind for two and a half hours, and I just now turned on my diffuser, which is always my saving grace. I need to remember to tell my friends to remind me to turn it on when I’m freaking out. Maybe eventually I’ll be able to remind myself.

Perhaps, now I can watch this movie. I put on “Twister.” It’s the movie my family and I watched every time it stormed back home. It reminds me of them, and I hoped it would calm me down. It didn’t make me worse, but it didn’t help either.

Writing seems to have helped a bit, along with my oils. I’m glad I’ve learned so many coping mechanisms since I began therapy. At least, I can think of things that might help. One step at a time. I will get through this, and you will too.

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fires in israel

Firstly, let’s just clear something up: I live in Israel, and coping with terror attacks and crises is just part of my daily routine. Over the last few days, there has been a major suspected terror attack going on. Bigger than the usual ones. Suspicious fires have spread around the country, lit in random cities, and then the wind — which is at its worst at the moment — just did its job. Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated, and thousands of people have lost their homes and pets. Entire cities have been completely burned down, not to mention forests and wildlife.

I haven’t seen any coverage of this on the international news, but let’s not take this post to politics. Let’s take it to mental health, because that’s why we’re all here. How does a person with anxiety cope with all this? She doesn’t. She curls up in bed and cries and cries, shaking, terrified of losing everything she’s got — all her diaries, her letters from loved ones, everything she’s ever written, or worse, her dog and herself. She takes her meds, but they barely help; they keep her calm for a few hours, but then suddenly it’s all back. She takes more, and again she’s OK for a few hours. But then she hears the fire is getting closer and closer to her town. She wants to take more pills, but she’s already accidentally taken more than the recommended daily dosage.

She tries to find someone to comfort her. She turns to her friend, but her friend is stressing out just as much as she is and snaps at her. She doesn’t want to comfort someone else when she’s barely coping on her own. She snarls a bunch of swear words, and the girl becomes sorry she even asked. She feels hurt and scared, not to mention lonely. Although the fires are somewhat under control, the girl is still terrified. The little voice in her head keeps telling her that although now it’s calm, it’s going to get worse soon. The voice is telling her that for the second time in her life, she is so close to losing it.

All over the country, people are opening up their homes for those who have been evacuated. The girl knows all she needs to do to be safe is pick up the phone and someone will take care of her — but her anxiety is holding her back. Not letting her move. She’s frozen to the spot and can’t do anything. She’s terrified.

I want to get help, but my anxiety won’t let me.

Lead image via Thinkstock.

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Anxiety’s like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but it doesn’t get you very far.” – Jodi Picoult

Sometimes, I feel a nonstop sense of panic. It feels as though something bad is coming, although I don’t know what it is. This is when I know anxiety has a grip on me. Anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.

I often wonder what it would feel like to not worry. My doctor once said, “Anxiety is an owl looking for a place to roost.” A person with an anxiety disorder can always have something to feel anxious about. People with anxiety feel like they are trying to save a drowning person, who has a grip on them, but they can’t let the person go to save themselves.

Anxiety clings to you and pulls you down. Intellectually we know there is nothing bad coming. Yet, emotionally we are waiting for the next terrible thing to happen.

“Worrying is carrying tomorrow’s load with today’s strength, carrying two days at once. It is moving into tomorrow ahead of time. Worrying doesn’t empty tomorrow of its sorrow. It empties today of its strength.” – Corrie ten Boom

Carrying tomorrow’s load with today’s strength means carrying the worries of things we can’t control. We can’t control the things we worry about and we worry about things that are beyond our control. We use up a great deal of energy worrying and feeling anxious. It can be extremely exhausting. I get most anxious when I am faced with something I can’t control, like the reactions of other people, trying to find a parking spot or driving somewhere and getting lost.

What can we do about living with anxiety? How can we live a full life when we are in a state of worry and apprehension? Here are some tips for coping with anxiety.

1. Learn relaxation techniques.

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This might mean meditation, breathing exercises or muscle relaxation techniques.

2. Challenge your negative thinking.

One of my biggest worries is about my car. I am always sure it is going to blow up or get a flat tire. I manage it by talking myself through the scenario. Will my car actually blow up? No. Cars don’t spontaneously explode. Could I really get a flat tire? Yes, it could happen. Will it kill me? No. It will suck, and I will be OK.

3. Limit your alcohol and caffeine intake.

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Both alcohol and caffeine can make your anxiety worse.

4. Get enough sleep.

When you are sleep deprived, you are more prone to worry. When you are in a state of anxiety, you need more rest.

5. Exercise.

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Something as simple as going for walks can really help to manage your symptoms.

6. Be mindful of what you eat.

Eating foods high in antioxidants like blueberries, almonds, dark chocolate, fish and pumpkin seeds is said to lower the hormones responsible for stress. I don’t know if this is true, but there are no negative effects to eating these things. So go for it.

7. Say no.

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Seriously, say no. It is important not to become overwhelmed by commitments. We lead such busy lives, and we over commit ourselves. Learning your limits and respecting yourself enough to enforce them is a wonderful gift. This might mean staying home on a Friday night when all your friends are out having fun. That is OK. You don’t have to do everything.

8. Keep a journal for times when you are anxious.

This can help to identify what you are feeling anxious about. As you journal and discover what is causing your apprehension and fears, you can uncover the things that are within your control. Then, you can make changes to the situation. Of course, there are situations beyond your control, and you can focus on the things that you can change.

9. Set aside “worry time.”

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I give myself 20 minutes each day where I allow myself to worry about everything. I can stress, freak out and run every situation over and over again in my head. When the 20 minutes is up, I am finished. There is no more worrying allowed.

10. Have an uplifting distraction.

I put in my earphones and listen to happy music, music that makes me feel good or music that has positive memories tied to it. When I feel like it, I dance along. It is almost impossible to feel anything but happy when you are dancing and singing along to “Sweet Home Alabama.”

11. Use positive thoughts to challenge the negative ones.

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It important that these thoughts contain the word “and” instead of the word “but.” The word “but” negates the first part of the sentence. Challenging negative thoughts doesn’t mean erasing them. It means allowing them to exist while acknowledging there are other possibilities. For example, “This is scary and I will be OK,” or “This is awful, and I have some strategies to deal with it.”

12. Ask for help.

If anxiety is running your life, then seek support from friends and family and potentially from a health care professional.

Living with anxiety is really challenging. I get it. It sucks. Thankfully, there are ways to manage your anxiety, and you don’t have to do it alone. Remember to be kind and compassionate with yourself.

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Images by Kira McCarthy

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