TAMPA — Elizabeth Glass remembers staying up all night wrapping presents, trying to make the holidays picture-perfect to meet her own imagined expectations.
The next morning, her husband made a flip comment about one of the gifts. Certain she had failed, Glass threw the family Christmas tree out the patio door.
Glass, 49, suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Her 14-year-old son also suffers from OCD and experiences heightened symptoms during the holiday season, though less so in recent years thanks to treatment, Glass said.
She wants people with anxiety disorders to know there are ways to cope.
"There's help out there," Glass said. "Now I don't stay in the house. I don't wallow in my head. I get better every year."
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder affects about 2.2 million American adults annually, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Pressures associated with the holidays can worsen the condition and other anxiety disorders, as triggers become more intense and frequent, said Dr. Rahul Mehra, director of Mental Health Care, Inc. in Tampa.
"Even those of us not suffering from anxiety disorders put undue pressure on ourselves during the holidays," Mehra said. "Someone with OCD, a baseline anxiety condition, is likely going to be affected."
Mehra said symptoms of OCD include unwanted repetitive thoughts and compulsive behaviors. Examples include fear of contamination, fear of losing control, a desire for perfection, persistent negative thoughts, over-eating and under-eating.
Around the holidays, Mehra encourages patients to stay hydrated, avoid alcohol, get adequate sleep and have a full supply of medication prior to pharmacies closing for the holiday. He recommends OCD patients prepare themselves ahead of time for outings. For example, he suggests patients worried about contamination bring a disposable dish to a potluck.
"This time of year it's best to know what your triggers are and do what works best for you," Mehra said.
Christian Maurer, 25, was diagnosed with OCD in 2003 after he became obsessed with washing his hands. His triggers include germs and being around large groups of people. Maurer, of Brandon, said his symptoms can get worse near the holidays. He takes three anti-depressants daily and receives outpatient counseling through Mental Health Care, Inc. His fear of germs has lessened but he still experiences racing thoughts.
"With having family over, it's just too many people," he said. "Once in a while it's too much, and I go off by myself to calm down. I step out of the room for a little while."
Elizabeth Glass said loneliness used to be a trigger for her during the holidays.
She grew up in what she calls a dysfunctional home (her family history includes bipolar disorder) and since her divorce, her only family is her son. In the past, she turned to alcohol to stop herself from obsessing about negative thoughts. She battled a misconception that a less-than-ideal Christmas (the kind in television and movies) was unacceptable.
Now sober, she turns to Alcoholics Anonymous and counselors at the Panos Center, a mental health center near her home in eastern Hillsborough. She takes anxiety medication. To quiet her mind, she focuses on volunteering and meditating rather than shopping and sending cards to acquaintances.
Glass will attend Christmas Eve service at Unity Church in Tampa, then spend Christmas Day at home with her son and their pug, Charlie Bear.
"Getting out of isolation is important," Glass said.
Maurer and Glass said their advice to others is to seek counseling. Mental Health Care, Inc. has offices throughout Hillsborough County offering psychiatric support year-round. If this holiday is tough, the next one doesn't have to be, Glass said.
"Accept the gift of life, don't get caught up in the wrapping paper," she said.