Detail of chocolate bar with silver wrapping on a wooden table with a broken portion. Horizontal composition. Top view

One of the inconvenient things about living with anxiety is bursting into tears in public. On one particular afternoon, my car was in the shop and needed an expensive repair. Plus, I was in the middle of moving, so my anxiety was already high.

When the man at the service desk told me how much the repair would cost, the tears welled up uncontrollably. The stress of moving, money and everything was just too much in that moment. I excused myself out the side door and broke down. Overwhelmed with the feeling that everyone was going to see me and think I had lost it, I put my cell phone to my ear to pretend I was on the phone. That way, hopefully no one would bother me.

One person saw me and decided to approach anyway.

He was an older gentleman. I watched him approach with wide eyes, terrified of interacting with a stranger in my current state. Then, I saw he was holding out his hand to me. I blinked away tears and saw in it was a wrapped piece of chocolate.

“It’s going to be OK, honey,” he said. “We weren’t born with instructions for life stuffed in the crack of our asses.”

Suddenly, I found myself both laughing and crying. I took the candy from him and managed to choke out a, “Thank you,” before he walked away.

Since the chocolate was wrapped, I felt safe eating it. I ate it right then and there, letting it melt in my mouth while I processed what just happened. I had never been comforted by a stranger like that before.

Of course, I started to cry more, because I found the gesture touching. I was also laughing a little and moved by a stranger’s kindness. Chocolate and kind words may not have the power to take anxiety away, but they are gestures I will never forget.

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I’ve been diagnosed with anxiety for 20 years. That’s 20 Thanksgivings, 20 Christmases and more birthdays than I care to count. Including step-siblings, I am one of seven kids and five of us have our own kids. Like I said, more birthdays than I care to count. You would think that after two decades, family gatherings would get easier.

My younger sister and four step-sisters live in different states. My brother lives close by my mom and I. During Christmastime, my sister flies down to Florida with her husband and their three daughters. The day she comes in me, my brother, his wife and all our kids go to my mom’s house for a big family dinner.

Don’t get me wrong. I love seeing all my nieces and nephew, as well as my siblings. Yet, with my anxiety, it gets overwhelming fast.

When my anxiety kicks into high gear, I get uncomfortable with a lot of people being around. When I was younger, it was pretty tolerable. However, as our families have grown throughout the last 11 years, so has my discomfort. The noise of seven kids and eight adults (including myself), all the constant movement. And, of course, all the different conversations going on. It’s a lot!

The last couple of years, I have been able to semi-cope. This year though, I am slowly weaning myself off my psych meds. This includes my anxiety medication (under my doctor’s supervision). So the large family gathering is going to be a bit more difficult. Please, remember that during the holidays especially, anxiety runs high.

Here are a few tips to help your friends and family who deal with anxiety cope:

1. Offer them a quiet place to go when you notice them getting anxious.

A bedroom, the back patio (weather permitting) or even the laundry room with a chair will suffice! Sometimes, a quiet spot helps you gather your thoughts and compose yourself.

2. Don’t automatically assume they’re being “rude” or “antisocial” if you see them put in headphones.

A lot of people I know who struggle with anxiety consider music to be calming. When my anxiety is high, I usually tell my husband I need my “therapy,” and out comes my headphones.

3. Don’t harass or tease them if they aren’t joining in on the 50 conversations going on.

Sometimes, it’s just a bit much to handle.

I’m not saying to change the way you do holidays to accommodate your friends and family with anxiety. However, keep these tips in mind to help avoid a potential anxiety attack. I’m sure they will thank you.

Writer’s Note: Do not stop taking your medication unless either your doctor says to or unless you are under doctor supervision.

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For me, part of having an anxiety disorder was learning it doesn’t define me, that it is only a tiny part of me. Granted, there are times when it feels like it engulfs me, but on the radar of life, it can be but a tiny blip. It might take a while to get there, but in the meantime, life must go on. And part of that life includes friends. I have friends both online (thanks to social media and group texting apps) and in real life. The easy part: You can tell your online friends all the things, because they live in your phone or computer. The hard part: They live on your phone or in your computer. What can be missing are those hugs when you need them most, that knock at the door to open it to see one of your best friends on the other side armed with chocolates and DVDs.

In my life, I have found a good mix. But I’ll be honest, it’s been hard. Because anxiety is a part of me, I tend to gravitate towards my online friends — telling them everything, reading their reassuring texts over and over again, listening to their voices on the phone when I call them when I’m a blubbering mess, finding it amazing that they can actually understand my words. And then there are my “in real life” friends, those to whom I am hesitant to reveal my anxiety, because it’s not exactly party or playground chatter. I feel it is something that has a time and a place, and while it isn’t something I’m ashamed of, it is something I would like my close friends to know about me.

It’s interesting how friendships can be made once you leave the nest of a controlled environment and you are forced to navigate finding friends, much like how you might go about finding a significant other. It amazes me how you may be going about your business, doing things that make you happy, and all of a sudden, someone who was once a surface acquaintance weaves into your life and becomes one of your best friends. How, after a class at the gym, suddenly the time seems right to reveal your anxiety, and you take her class because it helps alleviate it, if even for just an hour. And how having her just know can feel like a huge weight off your shoulders.

And then, it’s amazing how your friendship grows and your anxiety becomes nonexistent, until it flares up — and before you know it, you’re discussing it over dinner and while washing dishes together. She doesn’t pry or prod, she simply listens. She doesn’t try to understand, she simply listens. She doesn’t relate it to something else, she simply listens. And because she listens, she sees where you need her to fit into your life puzzle. She sees you need an hour to take her class at the gym, and she’s grateful to have you. And without asking, she makes herself at home in your home. She helps you prepare dinner and clean up and gets your daughter ready for bed. She reads her bedtime stories. And as you overhear them reading, you stifle back tears as you realize you have finally found a friend in this adult world who “gets” you and all of your mixed up puzzle pieces. And for that you are forever thankful.

I hope each and every one of you can find that kind of a friend in your life. Not only do I feel as though it has made the anxiety a smaller piece of me, but it also makes my heart more open to accepting the smaller piece of anxiety. Friendships are so important, and for me, as someone with anxiety, finding just the right friend is like striking pure gold.

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“Hey, what’s up?”

Sometimes, these words can be all I need to hear to make my day. Other times, my heart will start pumping as if something has gone terribly wrong, as if the end of the world is approaching

This is part of my daily battle with anxiety

As someone who’s always struggled with “high-functioning” anxiety, I have learned to cope over time. Taking a second to breathe can sometimes be all I need to get through a tough day. Other times, I need to run away and hide so I don’t have to deal with anything that will make me shake with fear.

Simple tasks like going to a party with my friends can literally drive me into a state of worry that would probably scare most people. I can shake, cry and panic before I leave my house, but as soon as I leave and face the fear of going, I find myself asking why I got into such a state before I left. Sometimes, all I need is a bit of confidence and I can quench my fear, other times I need more support. In ideal situations I don’t panic, but unfortunately this can be far from my reality.

Halloween, funnily enough, is the time of year I feel most comfortable; my mask of being “a normal girl” is finally acceptable to everyone else who is dressing up as something for fun. I often feel like I don’t need a costume as I feel like I’m constantly pretending to be something else, hideing a huge part of who I am. My inner thoughts and my exterior actions often portray two completely different emotional states, a trait that is commonly seen in those who deal with “high-functioning” anxiety.

The strangest thing is, most people don’t know I struggle with this. From the outside, I seem friendly and at times, I can be quite a humorous young woman. I appear organized, I’m always on time and I try to be on top of my workload. I feel I am a person someone one may call a “perfectionist.” I rarely open up and keep my anxiety at bay, but when it pounces, an alter ego, who quite frankly scares me, can appear. Some of my best friends haven’t the slightest notion what I’m going through, I feel my family don’t really understand. “Don’t worry,” they say. “It’ll all be fine.”

“Don’t worry” is, in my opinion, one of the worst phases for someone with anxiety to hear. We don’t worry in a way other people do; it’s not something we’re able to control. If I could change one thing about myself, it would be having the ability to control my mind going off on tangents on the simplest of things.

Is my hair OK? Do I look OK? Oh God, they’re talking about me; no wonder nobody likes me. No wonder everybody leaves me. Oh God, they’re looking at you, definitely talking about you. Your grades aren’t good; why don’t you work harder? Why did I even bother coming today, no one would notice if I didn’t come.

All of these thoughts aren’t baed in truth. They may sound petty or like I’m attention-seeking, but in my case, this is the last thing they are. I just don’t like asking for help. I am not comfortable with the concept of somebody else having to look out for me, but sometimes this is all I need. I am too scared of judgment, too afraid of being left alone, too afraid of losing that support system before I confide in the first place.

In the times when I lose control, it can last months. I could be fine one minute, but end up in tears the next. When I get this low, there is one phrase that can help me get back on my feet.

Three words. Eight letters.

I know what you’re thinking, but I’m not about to go all Chuck Bass on you.

“Are you OK?”

This simple phrase has honestly saved me at times. That feeling that someone is looking out for you can make a day in despair turn into that day of relief you’ve been waiting for. Sometimes all one needs is a prompt to let everything out. Letting someone know how you’re feeling can literally be a life changer. From my own experiences with loved ones and friends, I have learned a lot about my anxiety and as much as I hate talking about it, it really is the best thing you can do. No one will know exactly how you’re feeling unless you open up, even if it seems like the scariest thing you could possibly ever do.

In turn, if you noticed you haven’t heard from a close friend or family member in a while, please check in with them. Asking the simplest things can really allow a person with anxiety (or any mental health battle) to feel like they’re appreciated and cared about. Having support is so important for those with anxiety, the smallest of gestures can really be a game changer, no matter how minuscule it may seem.

To those who struggle, know you’re not alone. You may feel other people may not understand, that it’s not that serious as other conditions, or that no one will notice, that you’re better off keeping everything in. Trust me: I’ve learned the hard way that avoiding your emotions is the easy way out of this one. The sooner you deal with your thoughts and begin to think more rationally, the sooner you will be able to live a somewhat “normal” life. I still get those moments of irrational fear, but after I talk about it, I can control it for the most part. If I need to let it out, I let it out in an appropriate manner. By writing, talking, meditation or therapy, whatever works for you, keep doing it. Beginning this journey, no matter how long it takes, will be the best thing you will ever do. I promise.

If there is one thing in this world you can be truly selfish about, it’s your mental health. Treat yourself when you need to, go outside and get some fresh air, don’t limit what you can be because your mind is telling you otherwise. That thought in the back of your mind might still be there, but try your best to block them out. I know how hard it is and my words may just seem like another person who doesn’t understand, but changing my thought pattern is one of the biggest accomplishments I have ever achieved. The hardest part is actually taking that leap into the unknown and trusting yourself for the first time. Once you begin, with patience and time it’ll all get easier. Even doing the simplest things like answering your phone to unknown numbers, or just even going for a walk instead of watching another episode on Netflix can make your head settle a little bit. It won’t be easy, but you’ll get there eventually. The process can be difficult, but the outcome is worth the wait.

Be brave kids, the fight won’t go on forever; the sooner you face the battle, the sooner it’ll end. At the end of every dreary storm, there’s a rainbow full of color waiting for you.

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While a certain new gadget or that perfect getaway might come to mind when someone asks, “What do you want for the holidays?” this year, we’re asking a different question for people in our community who deal with anxiety disorders:

“What do you really want for the holidays.”

Here’s what they had to say:

1. “To be able to love myself as much as I love my fiancé. And by love myself, I mean look in the mirror and see me as a person…. in all honesty, I can’t imagine how it would feel, to believe him, when he tells me I’m beautiful.” — Monica J.

2. “A real day of rest. Most people think a day of rest is a day off from work, but with anxiety you don’t get a day off. There is a way to help though. A day of rest is not having to go anywhere, not having to cook, not having to clean and not having to do anything that isn’t restful. I want to curl up in bed with snacks and a book all day with no interruptions, but it never happens. If my friends and family would each spend a few minutes helping to make sure I could do that it would be more priceless than any store bought gift I could receive.” — Erica B.

3. “A great gift for me would be for people to realize how hard it can be for people like us and to not be so judgmental!” — Melvin B.

4. “I want people to stop asking what I’m doing for the holiday season. When you have no friends or family, every day is the same.” — Jen J.

5. “I would love to have a peaceful, calm, stress-free time (and mind), with my husband, without a panic attack, feelings of fear or tears.” — Leigh J.

6. “To enjoy the moment as it is, here and now. The food, smells, sights, friends, family and laughter. For my mind not to lead me astray into my worries and fears and cut me off from memories to be made. I wish to genuinely smile again without the anxiety monster attached to my head feeding off my energy, personality and ability to learn and concentrate.” — Kyle D.

7. “To finally quiet the constant conversations going on internally, so I can enjoy life, not kind of have a good time as I worry about the next thing, what people think, etc. Maybe I’ll be full of energy too, so I can do more than the minimum to get by.” — Lauren G.

8. “Some of my friends have anxiety disorders as well and so I’m making them ‘self-care kits’ that include things like tea, coloring pages, journal, warheads, mellow mix CD, etc. Things that I think can help in moments of crisis. Things that can distract and calm and ground. So I think that kind of stuff is helpful, things that show you care and maybe can help in crisis even if you’re not physically there.” — Olivia I.

9. “Peace. Peace from worry. Peace from having to have everything constantly planned to perfection, therefore under my control. Peace from being terrified of meeting new people. Peace from being afraid to make new friends. Peace from thinking I’m a terrible person. Peace from a mind that never slows down and is always looking for something to stress over. Peace from always, always being afraid.” — Rachael C.

10. “I already got it: an open-ended invitation to visit family during the holidays at any time, whether it’s during a large gathering or just myself and my dad and step-mum. On my terms. So that it’s the healthiest and happiest for me.” — Chriss T.

11. “To be able to embrace my social anxiety/phobia instead of always trying to erase it. It’s a part of who I am, and it has helped me to understand myself and others so much more than I could have ever though. Also, being able to reach out to those and understand where they are coming from and going through.” — Elizabeth G.

12. “To find the inner strength to face the fears instead of running away from them no matter how small or big they seem to others. That way I can learn I am not my anxiety and that I am my own safe person.” — Samantha H.

13. “To be able to stop overthinking everything around me, from school work, to people talking about me when they aren’t. I just want a moment of rest from the wild ride within my head. I want to be able to enjoy the holiday without feeling anxious with everyone around me.” — Samantha M.

14. “Understanding and bravery. I hate when people get mad for not being able to make a decision right away. You know, when someone says, ‘Hey, let’s go there’ and I can’t say ‘Yes!’ I need time. And I need understanding that if I say ‘No’ it’s not because I don’t want to go, because I really do want to.” — Kristina M.

15. “My mom’s compassion and sympathy. I genuinely believe she thinks I’m making this stuff up.” — Kristin D.

16. “I want to live in the present. I want my husband to not feel like I could break down at any moment and feel frustrated with me. I want to stop clenching my jaw. I want to be able to fall asleep in less than two hours and stay asleep.  I want to not feel panic first thing when I wake up.  I want an end to nervous digestive issues.  I want to be able to feel compassion for myself. I want to go a whole day without saying ‘I’m sorry.’ I want normal breathing to be something that comes naturally. I want to stop having fake fights with loved ones in my head.  I want a nice, peaceful Christmas.” — Gillian S.

17. “To feel like someone outside of my family truly cares. My family is wonderful, but I need my friends, too, and it feels like they’ve all given up on me because my anxiety has pushed them away. I want them to care enough to call or text just to ask how I’m doing. I want them to realize that when I don’t respond right away, it’s not because I don’t want to; it’s because I physically can’t at the moment. I want them to be patient and try to understand that I am trying to get better, and need their support.” — Nikki H.

18. “A full night’s sleep. A brain that can calm down, and the ability to sit in silence and not think of everything that needs to be done, that I did wrong yesterday and five years ago, and that is wrong with me.” — Stephanie H.

19. “I would love to be able to go out to Christmas parties without panicking and having to leave within the first 10 minutes. If there are more then five unrecognized faces, I panic. I don’t want to feel my airways close and feel like I’m on the edge of crying for no reason.” — Jessica H.

20. “That look from somebody that shows they understand and I’m not as ‘crazy’ as I feel sometimes. That my fight is going to be worth it in the end.” — Katherine W.

21. “I wish I was freed from the restraints my brain put on me, so I could use some of my talents, live out some of the dreams I hardly dare to think about and never speak of, and move forward in life and be a productive member of society.” – Line P.

22. “To get into grad school for psychology, so I can help others now that I’m finally managing my symptoms well (specifically would appreciate working at a residential OCD facility). Oh, I know… I’d also like to gain back confidence lost.” — Samantha M.

23. “Enough courage (…and money) to take a serious step forward next year and do something I’ve always wanted to do but couldn’t because of anxiety. Top of the list would be travel, or maybe go back to grad school.” — Sarah R.

24. “I would like to be able to give my friends and family presents with out being so anxious that they’ll hate them I just don’t end up buying them — and then feeling just as bad that I didn’t get them anything…” — Gabby E.

25. “Mine would be for anyone who is battling any mental illness to know how loved and special they are to their friends and family. Remember yesterday, live for today, and dream for tomorrow.” –Heather C

26. “Adult coloring books!” — Kylee C.

27. “I want to feel happy. Like really feel it in my bones. I want to be so happy it consumes me and there is no other room for any other emotions.” — Louise W.

28. “Independence. To be able to do everything nice that is is my mind and in my heart, to face life and to achieve goals and to not feel like a failure. — Karina H.

29. “I just want to be able to look at myself in the mirror and see this amazing women my family, boyfriend and friends see, because all I see is someone who is worthless.” — Tammy Z.

30. “Just a hug from someone who really cares. In my case my very understanding wife. She saved my anxious heart and life.” — Uwe H.

31. “To make it through my children’s holiday concert without a panic attack.” — Marybeth B.

32. “I wish this holiday to gain more control over my anxiety. To be able to use my coping skills without too much trouble. Also for friends support and understanding. I also wish this on others who are struggling as well. Happy Holidays.” — Kayla G.

What would you add to the list?

32 Gifts People With Anxiety Really Want for the Holidays

One of the struggles many people face is having and living with anxiety. Anxiety can be debilitating, to say the least. It can fill your days and nights with paranoia and obsessions over things you may or may not have said or done that day, restrain you from doing things that the average Joe would typically do with no hesitation and destroy your mental daily schedule you made with nothing but good intentions. It incapacitates you to the point where you miss out on social events with your friends and instead, you lie in bed wondering why the heck you can’t just be normal and go out like anyone else would. Can we not feel like this for just one day?

Something that seems to be taboo among the mommy community is feeling like you aren’t cut out for motherhood or “complaining” — for lack of a better word — about how motherhood is just too hard. If you are a young mother with anxiety and try to explain why your kids were just too much for you to handle today, you might as well have walked the plank as you spoke the words. Go ahead and hand out the pitchforks that will pointed and jabbed at you for admitting that today was a struggle to complete.

These days being happy and collected is “in.” It’s not “cool” to be depressed or troubled, so no one wants to hear about it. God forbid anyone admit their kids weren’t exactly filled with rainbows and glitter today. What a terrible, shameful mother you are.

The reality is anxiety makes motherhood a million times harder than it needs to be. When you’re already sleep deprived and lacking the amount of caffeine needed to even have the energy to match your clothes, anxiety is the beast that awakens before you to remind you that today is going to be hell because you can’t handle all the chattering of tiny voices constantly needing something from you, or the ruckus “Hot Wheels” toys make as they fly off your coffee table and the sounds of blocks tumbling all the way down the stairs.

Anxiety is the ghost that haunts every action you attempt to make as it is in your ear whispering, reminding you that you have too much on your plate and need to give up now. Anxiety is the rope tightening around your neck when you’re already in a hurry and can’t catch your breath long enough to remember everything it was you had to do, so you obsess over the things you can’t recall in the first place. Anxiety is the massive elephant in the room blocking your view from reality when you’re trying to maintain your composure as your children are frantically trying to tell you who hit whom, how it all started and what’s wrong with them now. Anxiety is the reason why you scream in order to stop hearing so many thoughts at once and your kids don’t understand what they said to make you so frustrated.

It’s not something easy to talk about with anyone because you love your children more than anything else is this world but sometimes one more word, one more cry, one more spilled glass of juice is enough to set your entire world ablaze.

You are a constant ticking bomb that need not be tampered with but no one on the outside can see it. They never know what they’re dealing with until you’ve had enough and spontaneously combust. It’s no one’s fault but everyone’s fault all at the same time, and you long to find someone or something to blame for how you unreasonably reacted to someone just trying to be there for you. Someone was just trying to love you when you decided their presence was too much for you and you pushed them further away than last time. One day they’re going to decide not to come back and you obsess over that happening, too. Everything is a regret; everything is an obsession; everything is one thing too much.

Anxiety makes your life a lonely place. It creates your own little world inside the world we already live in, where all the things you are most afraid arrive to remind you they’re still watching you. You know the faces of your loved ones are there but you can’t look them in the eyes. You know people are wanting to reach out to you but when they do, you feel the grip of a thousand hands around your neck. Most importantly, you know a few of those hands belong to your children and they’re dying to have their mommy back.

As mothers, we all sometimes feel like we’re screwing up this thing called “life” for our children. Whether you have anxiety or not, you always question whether or not you’re making the right decisions and handling every situation the way you should. With anxiety, however, those questions never end and are on repeat inside your head on top of everything else you feel you must over-analyze — because if you don’t worry about this, then who will? We need to remember to take a step back when we’re getting to the point of becoming overwhelmed. Excuse yourself from the room and count to 10 or 100 or 10,000. Most importantly, apologize to your children when you have a freak out and make sure they are aware they are not why you’re overwhelmed. Let them know it’s hard for Mommy to handle things sometimes and no matter how frustrated she becomes, it will never affect her love for them.

It’s OK to admit you were wrong. It’s OK to admit you didn’t handle things the way you should have. It’s OK to say, “I didn’t get it right today.” What is not OK to say is, “I give up.” Hang in there because you love them. Hang in there because they are your world. Hang in there because they are the only ones that unconditionally love you, even when you can’t love yourself. Hang in there because we all make mistakes.

No matter what society says, you are a fantastic mother because you are resilient. You are strong. You are fierce. You are going to wake up and tackle this day because you know if you come with less than your “A” game, you’ll never get anywhere. Just because some days are harder for you doesn’t mean you aren’t trying your best. It means you put forth more effort to make your days better. You, my friend, are a superhero.

This story originally appeared on Thought Catalog. You can follow this Kelli’s journey here.

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