A woman seated in front of a Christmas tree

I have a love-hate relationship with the holidays. Sure, now that I have a child of my own there is more to love, but it’s a complicated relationship to say the least. The smells, sounds and sights are a gift to the senses for many. To me, however, these simple truths of the holidays are enough to cause my already daily anxiety to mount into a massive mountain of internal chaos. While the magic of the holidays makes me undeniably happy, the fulfillment makes me exhausted mentally. I told you. It’s complicated!

The holidays are usually filled with many family gatherings, office parties or other commitments where people are usually involved. Many of my friends and family relish at the opportunity to spend time in a large group, having a meal together, reminiscing about old times and sharing their goals for the upcoming year. Just typing those activities out on my keyboard is causing me to have pains in my chest.

It is not socially acceptable to want to exclude yourself around the holidays. I mean calling someone a “scrooge” or a “Grinch” isn’t a compliment. Is it? While I am never one to conform to society’s standards and ideals, I do (deep down) want to spend time with my family and friends around the holidays. I’ve been able to master the holidays, but to some, my behaviors and tricks for coping might come off as rude and inconsiderate. When the guest list tops six to eight people, I tend to shut down, even if it’s only family.

Here are the three things I want you to know about the holidays and my behavior:

1. Don’t take it personally if I don’t eat or drink.

Chances are, even if I supplied some of the food, I won’t eat much. This even goes for my mom’s famous pork roast. It has nothing to do with being embarrassed about eating in public (that was my high school phase) or that I don’t like your cooking. Trust me, I am always hungry. So it’s not that either. It is because my anxiety is causing my stomach to put on an acrobatic display, and I couldn’t handle making it worse. That would surely send me and my anxiety through the roof! Can you imagine if you got sick at a holiday party? That would make anyone anxious. No thank you!

2. I won’t stay in one place for long.

Whether it is at the dinner table or on the couch in the living room, I won’t stay in one place for long. Being stuck in a single spot for a long period of time is not my idea of fun, no matter the surroundings. I tend to feel antsy and overwhelmed. Switching spots lowers this feeling. It’s kinda like the saying, “Fight or flight.” Well, I am always in “flight” searching for the next safe spot to take a rest. I am not trying to be rude or not enjoy your company. The act of moving actually calms me down. Most times, you can catch me clearing the table (even at guest’s homes), doing the dishes, changing seats, taking a trip to the bathroom (for the 10th time in one hour) or pretending to take a call outside. These are all coping mechanisms I’ve learned throughout the years.

3. I might not talk much or talk too much.

If I have little to contribute to the conversation, then I am not trying to come off as if I don’t care. I so wish I could talk for hours about everything and nothing. Sometimes, you can’t get me to shut up. Chances are when I do talk, I use a loud voice, dramatic hand gestures and my tone is filled with exclamations and emotion. Those are the times when I might not make much sense.

I have hard time deciphering my thoughts and sharing them in an intelligible conversation. Rather than being anxious about the possibility of saying something silly, I choose to not engage in small talk. This is why at large gatherings, especially around people I am not acclimated with, I tend to keep my chaotic thoughts to myself.

According to a study from “Entrepreneur” magazine, stress is heightened during the holiday season, even for those who don’t usually struggle. This means for the 40 million people who are living with an anxiety disorder, the holidays bring the bonus gift of more anxiety. Usually I love presents, but this one I could live without. If I act in a socially inappropriate way, then please remember my mind is like a walking traffic jam, trying to navigate the signals that this festive season throws at me.

Happy Holidays!

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I am happy. I enjoy going out with friends and socializing with others. I enjoy working in groups and interacting with customers at work.

Waking up is my favorite part of the day.

Most people would describe me as these things, but that’s not the real me. That’s just what I appear to be.

The person seen is completely different than the person I am inside.

I feel my thoughts racing a mile a minute! About things I have to do today, tomorrow, or next week. About things I’ve said in conversations that may have made me look silly in front of that person. A lame joke or something that didn’t make sense. I have a hard time falling asleep because my mind is always awake. Without my dog next to me every night and the TV on some trivial show I’ve seen a million times, I’d never sleep.

I feel ashamed for the way I am, how I do things, how I figure stuff out. I know these are not true thoughts, but I can’t help but think them.

I am scared of social situations. Even if I know everyone, I get anxious. I prefer to do
projects alone, but my boss doesn’t know that. Even when I do things on my own, I’m
scared I’m not doing them right, that I’m not qualified to be doing this. In reality,
I’m overqualified.

I can’t actively focus on the present. My anxiety forces me to worry about the future, and my depression makes me relive the past over and over again. I overthink every situation and everything that happens or that comes out of my mouth. I may seem well put together to you, but I’m not. I’m not the person you believe me to be, but I am a better person than I think I am. I know how to put on a good show.

I should have been an actor.

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Twitter users started the hashtag #GrowingUpWithAnxiety to describe childhood and young adulthood with an anxiety disorder — these are some of the best responses.

Read the full story.

A friend sent me this earlier today:

“My whole life I’ve been telling myself ‘don’t be afraid.’ And it is only now that I’m realizing how stupid that is. Don’t be afraid. Like saying ‘don’t move out of the way when someone tries to punch you’ or ‘don’t flinch at the heat of the fire’ or ‘don’t blink.’ Don’t be human. I’m afraid and you’re afraid and we’re always going to be afraid, because that’s the point. What I should be telling myself is ‘be afraid, but do it anyway. Live anyway.’”  — Unknown

That quote, combined with a late night anxiety spike, got me thinking. What if, instead of being stifled by our demons, we stand up to them? I know what I’m saying is incredibly difficult, and it will take work. So, maybe the first step is facing your demons, looking at them dead in the eye and saying, “Yes I’m terrified of you. But bring it on anyways.”

Facing them, staring them down, and communicating that yes, you are afraid but also are ready for whatever they can dish out, can take away their power. Just for a little bit, until they retaliate. But for that small frame of time, you may feel free. Because you have thrown off the demons. You have confused them. They don’t recognize this person standing up to them. Where did that other person go? She’s gone. At least for a few moments.

My point is, facing our demons and standing up to them is quite possibly a very large step towards recovery. I did it for the first time tonight, and so far it’s been wonderful. I will endeavor to do it more and more often, whenever I need to, and I suggest you do the same. It may just be the one action that breaks those chains and helps you stand on your own two feet to fend off those demons once and for all. I have faith in each and every one of you. We can do it!

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Doubt is the hidden antagonist that aides in the development of both my anxiety and depression. Doubt invades everything.

I have doubts mostly about my own abilities. Doubts about doing laundry  will I ruin all the clothes? Doubts about driving — will I cause a crash? Doubts about my relationship — how will I wreck it? Doubts about working — are they talking about me? Am I doing a good enough job? Is there something I could be doing better? Is there someone doing better than I am?

I doubt everything about myself. There are times when this doubt freezes me, leaves me jobless and doing poorly in school. I know I can do better, but this constant doubt that runs through my head feels stronger than me some days. And other days, I am stronger. Some days I overcome these feelings of worthlessness and self-doubt. Some days I persevere and complete the tasks the day sets out before me. But some days I don’t. And that is OK. I know I am still a good person. Even though some days this symptom of my mental illness is overpowering, I am still here. I am still alive, and I have many more days to get better at this. And through therapy and medication, I am learning how to better deal with my doubts.

For now, I acknowledge the thoughts and then I push them from my head. I use distractions to live out my day-to-day life. There is this constant self-doubt inside me. Some days it feels like it wins, and some days it doesn’t. For that I am happy; for that I am appreciative of how much growth I have made in recent months. I know I will keep getting better, even when I try to talk myself out of it.

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Another afternoon in the office. I’m sitting at my desk, a Word document open in front of me on my computer. The lines blur, and the words don’t make sense. My brain feels like treacle as I try to process the task in front of me. My heart pounds as I look at this simple paragraph which no longer has any meaning. I feel the palms of my hand get sweaty on the mouse. With my other hand, I grip the edge of my desk, digging my fingernails into the wood. The familiar wave of nausea washes over me as I battle to swallow the growing lump in my throat. My breath catches as I try to slow my breathing.

Suddenly the phone rings and knocks me out of my bubble. I answer, my voice high-pitched and strained. It’s my boss.

“How are you?”

My voice sticks in my throat. Eventually I un-glue my tongue and manage to speak.

“Fine, thank you. Yourself?”

It’s an all-too-familiar ritual. The panic, the mind-blanks, the lapse in concentration. The phone call, the “how are you?” question, and the age-old lie: “I’m fine.”

I’ve lost count of how many times this has happened now. How often colleagues glance at me as I scratch my fingernails across the desk, as I fidget uncontrollably in my chair, as I chew my lip and frown at my computer in an attempt to concentrate. The look on their faces says it all: We don’t want to ask. We don’t want to know.

My boss feigns interest – but I feel like a burden to him. We are all working flat-out, and my mental health issues are just another thing for him to deal with in our busy working life. I’ve tried to explain to him how it feels to be me, how I cannot control what goes on in my head, but he can’t – or won’t – understand. He deals in facts, not feelings. And the fact of the matter is that I am under-performing because of my lack of concentration and mental blocks. I procrastinate too. The tasks facing me feel overwhelming and huge, so I put them off as long as I can. Deadlines get missed, mistakes get made, my boss gets annoyed. And all this contributes to my already increasing anxiety.

The workplace battle is often a silent one. I am lucky enough to have an employer that has been prepared to listen and support me. Our HR team are fantastic and have been open to discussions with me and I hope have also helped managers understand a bit more about how my depression and anxiety affect me. But I still struggle day-in, day-out, in silence. I don’t feel able to grab a colleague when my anxiety is overwhelming and tell them I need grounding. If I admit I’m struggling, I feel like I’m admitting defeat – and admitting defeat makes you vulnerable.

When your condition is invisible, people cannot understand the impact it has on your life. Mental illness is horrible – it sneaks up on you, it follows you around and whispers in your ear – you’re not good enough, you don’t deserve this. It never ceases to amaze me how much you start to listen to those nagging, negative thoughts when you’re in a bout of illness. I wake up every day to these thoughts, and no one but me can see and hear them. Just for one day, I would love to have a little TV screen above my head which shows the outside world what goes on in my head. It would be messy, but it might make people understand a bit more.

In the workplace, any weakness is sniffed as easily as rotting fish. You become an unintentional target of additional monitoring, of micro-management as your boss makes sure you’re constantly on form. That in itself is exhausting. Not being able to express your mental health at work is even more exhausting. I hide it in shame every day. I try to form a wall around me so people can’t see it. But that invisible illness suddenly becomes visible as the cracks start to show. The cracks constitute missed deadlines and obvious errors being made in work. The cracks shine bright and any positives quickly slide into the background. And as you become more aware of these cracks appearing, the wider and larger these cracks get – until you either burn out from stress or admit you cannot cope.

And that’s where I’m at right now. I’m currently signed off work because I reached breaking point. I am acutely aware of workloads piling up and the effect this will have on the rest of the team, and this does nothing to ease my anxiety. I’m supposed to be resting, but all I can think about is how my boss must be perceiving my mental health, how my absence is causing emails to pile up and workloads to increase. I am supposed to be back in on Monday if my GP agrees, but I fear returning to work because I worry about the repercussions.

So I have a choice. I either carry on burying my head in the sand and accept that I struggle in silence or take the brave but difficult route and speak out. And right now neither one looks particularly attractive.

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