What It’s Like to Plan Your Kid’s Birthday Party When You Struggle with Anxiety

It’s not about a birthday party at the zoo, so much as doing the small things that add up everyday to a healthy and happy childhood that will impact my kids and let them grow up into amazing adults.

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So called high functioning anxiety doesn’t look like most people’s stereotyped picture of what anxiety is supposed to look like. It’s not twitchy nervousness and jumping in the air like a cartoon character when someone says “boo.” Hell, I don’t even know if “high functioning” is a proper descriptive term. I would hazard a guess that most people diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, like myself, look “normal” in everyday life. If you’re in the middle of a panic attack and can’t function, you are experiencing an acute anxiety situation. That’s not what I’m talking about here.

Even with a supervised medication regimen and ongoing therapy, anxiety sort of settles itself into a corner of your brain, waiting for the opportunity to cause some trouble. In my opinion, the most difficult problem for an otherwise healthy adult with an anxiety disorder is to recognize when your old pal the Anxiety Monster is rearing its head. External catalysts of stress will ebb and flow throughout your life – an overdrawn bank account, a missing set of keys when you’re late for a meeting, the realization that there’s nothing for dinner once you walk in the door with the kids in tow, etc. There are days when we handle these curveballs with finesse. As Bruno Mars would quip, it don’t make no sense, but there are just days when you can handle it, and everything feels ok, even if a bit challenging.

Then there are those other days, when a missing set of keys becomes a life-changing, world-ending, five alarm emergency. And THOSE are the situations that are most crucial to recognize as anxiety in full effect. It gets easier to do over time. The example I’m using here of missing keys is easy to illustrate as something that is probably not going to destroy your life, but in the moment can seem like the worst thing ever. But there are some situations in which anxiety just creeps along, waiting for something to go wrong, and those in my opinion are the most insidious.

Planning a child’s birthday party might sound fun to some people (usually your childless friends), and for others it poses a bit of a challenge. If you’re a bit outgoing and you enjoy planning and organizing social events, you may find this task relatively stress-free, and even fun. I want to note here that I believe this is true even for the anxious parent – anxiety is not a one size fits all diagnosis, and everyone has different triggers. If you happen to be someone who is very focused and well organized as well as extroverted, your anxiety might keep sleeping in the corner of your brain while you execute your party plans with ease. Maybe the missing keys threw you into a panic, but not this situation. Great.

For people like me, however … we can manage to pull off the planning, organizing, and day of event … but it might not be the most pleasant experience. And the anxiety typically looks a lot less like outright panic, and a lot more like over-analyzing, ruminating, intrusive thoughts … basically, it doesn’t look like ANYTHING because it’s playing out in our mind, with few if any externally directed signals that anything is wrong.

Something funny just happened – someone called from the zoo just now to confirm my party details for Saturday. Of course, I was busy writing this post, and my head count lives only in the form of random texts and emails that I still need to compile. So I took a deep breath and told the person on the phone that I think my headcount is about 20, but I may need to call back to confirm later today. She said ok, but I detected a whiff of annoyance in her voice. I really don’t know if that was just my perception, or if she really was a bit annoyed. And logically, I can tell myself that she’s a busy person like anyone else and she doesn’t really care about me or what I say on the phone personally – she’s just doing her job and trying to get through her likely stressful work day like anyone else. But am I now going to obsess all day over whether zoo phone lady is mad at me? Oh yeah, you bet I am! HILARIOUS HAHA.

Everything is going to be ok, because it always is. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is this treatment modality in which you basically ask the anxious person to verbalize the worst case scenario, so that she realizes that said worst case scenario is really not that bad. Ok, that is my really general lay person interpretation of CBT, but I think you get my point. The worst case scenario is that the zoo closes down that day due to some natural disaster, in which case I can be relieved since none of that was my fault! And then I think of a more likely scenario, such as me forgetting something and the party being a disaster because I screwed up somehow.

Ok, I just boxed myself into a corner here, because CBT is not working … that last scenario totally COULD happen. I just need to become ok with that possibility. No one is going to die, but I might feel like I want to die from embarrassment.

Then I tell myself this … a lot of the reason my anxiety is able to rear its ugly head in this situation is because I’m treading into uncharted waters here. My kid really wanted to try the zoo for her birthday this year, so I’m heeding her wishes, even though I’ve never experienced a party at this place. Actually, I’ve never been to this zoo in Bridgeport that everyone talks about and says is so good for kids. When I stop to consider it, I don’t think I’ve ever been to a real zoo before. They have red pandas, I hear. Maybe it will be fun.

I’m tired. Planning and thinking, and talking to people on the phone, all take a lot out of me. I was originally going to write this post about being an introvert parent, when the world of raising kids is so geared toward extroverted people (honestly, all of society is biased toward extroverts, but I digress). I don’t know if this will help anyone, but I hope it does. I guess the spark that keeps me from burning out completely is the knowledge that I’m doing everything I can for my kids. It’s not about a birthday party at the zoo, so much as doing the small things that add up everyday to a healthy and happy childhood that will impact my kids and let them grow up into amazing adults. It may be more difficult for some of us parents than others, but I can at least be satisfied with the knowledge that my efforts will likely pay off in the long run.

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