I really don’t want to write this article. It’s that time of year when my list of things to do is longer than Santa’s list of naughty kids. On top of writing this I have to put the car in for a service, I still have presents to buy, I have grocery shopping to do, food to make and guests to entertain. I have to clean the house and finalise the details of my upcoming holiday. There’s no denying that everyone is busy with things to do at this time of year, not to mention the expectations we all have to meet in the vain hope of having the perfect festive season.
My problem isn’t really the list though, and it’s not writing this article. I love writing, I love cooking and entertaining. I love holidays and travelling to new places. Why am I so stressed? My anxiety. I have anxiety. I have had it for 10 years. I know it’s rhythms now and as much as I try, I sometimes cannot escape tapping my feet along to it’s beat. It comes in and out of my life in phases. Like summer trends on fleek in January but passé by early April, it takes over my life with a powerful intensity and I can’t remember life being lived in any other way. Days and nights and working weeks pass and suddenly I realise that I’m fine again. Like a spent kaftan in the cool of Spring, my anxiety lays slumped in a laundry basket, waiting to be hand washed.
I feel anxious especially at this time of year. Everything stresses me out, not just the things on that list. I see a plane flying low in take off and immediately worry that it will fall from the sky crushing everyone I love. I imagine the feeling of shock and grief of losing family through a freak accident. I drive across a bridge and hold my breath in case my car plummets to the water below and I have to swim my way out. I drink my morning coffee and wonder if it really is fairtrade and ethically sourced. I imagine the lives of those that grew it. Are they happy? Should I be doing charity work to make sure they are happy? For a long time I thought my concerns were valid. And in some ways they are; bridges do collapse and planes do fall out of the sky. Terrible things do happen to good, happy people everyday. With prescription drugs, behavioural therapy, wine, and conversations with friends, I have had to learn that I cannot stress about that which I cannot control. It sounds simple enough but it’s harder to practice with anxiety sitting on your shoulders and pulling at your hair.
Anxiety affects an astounding 1.3 million Australians from all walks of life and cultural backgrounds each year. That’s a lot of high anxiety circulating around our Christmas parties and dining tables each year. With so many people affected and the statistics constantly increasing, there are a lot of methods that people use to combat unwanted thoughts. If you are an anxiety sufferer or know someone who is, it usually takes a lot of trial and error to find the right approach to deal with anxiety; the initial thoughts, and the emotional and physical responses they create.
Ultimately, I’ve had to change the way I think about my thinking. My mind is a beautiful, complex, creative machine. Anxiety isn’t wrong or bad or something that can be ‘cured’. You learn to live with it. You see it sitting opposite you at the Christmas table chugging champagne and throwing you shady looks. Anxiety has sass. It drunkenly yells over the voice of a kind aunt asking about work. ‘JUDGEMENT, JUDGEMENT!’, it shouts. Throwing it’s head back laughing with glee, it splashes sparkling over your mum’s hand crocheted tablecloth, with no regard for anyone’s sentimental belongings. Seeing it’s own stupid mistake, it glares at you like you are the fool who made the mistake. It holds eye contact and walks with a slow stagger across to you. No one will ever love youuuuu it whispers in your ear, and, with intense dramatic flourish, breaks the empty champagne flute on the table.
One of the most successful strategies that I’ve found is to laugh. Anxiety, you lush! Because it’s ridiculous right?! Yes. Yes it is. A stupid ugly thought that has so much power it makes you feel sick in the stomach and keeps you up all night until your eyeballs fall out of your head? It’s just a thought. A thought is a thought. And on realising how outrageous and completely useless anxiety is, you allow yourself the power to let it go. Because that’s basically all that anxiety is: unwanted thoughts and images in your head. If he tries to give you sass at the dinner table this Christmas, simply say YOU CAN’T SIT WITH US!
I once asked my sister how she cheers my 4 year old nephew out of being a grumpy toddler. She said she just tickles him. Since then whenever my sister or I are pouting with heavy shoulders at the state of the world, we give each other a little tickle. Tickle your thoughts this Christmas. They are being silly.
So my to-do list before Christmas time is long, sure, but I have made sure to remind myself that there is joy in each of the tasks. I refuse to be overwhelmed by the pressure my thoughts can create. And let’s be frank, even if you don’t suffer from anxiety, Christmas has the potential to spontaneously combust each of us with pressure if we let it. But let’s not put the expectations of a ‘perfect’ Christmas on each other or ourselves. If the turkey burns a bit, it’s OK. The store is out of Adele’s new album 25? It will be back in stock soon, don’t worry. The potatoes are taking ages to cook? Listen to some more carols and chill. If we take a positive approach to those ways of thinking and look for the fun, for the good, for the positive, for the humour, for the playful child in all of us, it can be a wonderful time of year.
My Christmas wish for you is to see that once you learn to manage those thoughts and laugh at fear, you are stronger. You are a tiger who has earned her stripes and who will never see the world in an ordinary way. You will learn to live without flat-lining. You will go up and down on the roller coaster of Life and take in all the glorious views along the way.