What It's Really Like to Live with High-Functioning Anxiety
You may have heard the term “high-functioning anxiety” floating around, and you may be confused as to how it differs from regular stress or anxiety. Or you may be wondering if you yourself have high-functioning anxiety. So today I’ll explain what high-functioning anxiety is and some general differences between regular stress and high-functioning anxiety, as well as my own experiences with it.
I’ve always been a worrier - that’s just my nature. I’d worry about how I’d feel when I left for college, and what type of college I’d get into...when I was in middle school. I’ve always been over-prepared and high-achieving, because I thought that if I just prepared enough, I could prevent the worst from happening. And that’s where my mind naturally goes...to the worst-case scenario.
When I was younger I had an intense fear of failure which mostly manifested in needing to always be at the top of my class in school. I needed to prove so badly to myself and everyone else that I was smart enough and good enough that I drove myself to the point of panic attacks because I just couldn’t handle everything on my plate and had no time to see friends or take care of myself. I was constantly harried and stressed in the drive for achievement.
But I was constantly rewarded for it - told I was doing a great job by teachers, friends, and family members. I was highly successful in the traditional sense of the word, but only because I was so afraid of failing. My ego would take huge hits if I got less than a B on any test or exam. I was terrified of criticism or of being anything less than perfect. Sound familiar?
What is high-functioning anxiety?
These are typical characteristics of someone with high-functioning anxiety. High-functioning anxiety generally manifests as a type-A personality, someone who is successful, put-together, and driven. But despite these seemingly positive attributes, someone with high-functioning anxiety is often experiencing intense worry, negative self-talk, overwhelm, and fear. This fear does often drive us to perform, but eventually it takes its toll on our lives and on our health.
It finally took its toll on me after I graduated college. I went through the rigorous application and interview process with Teach for America in my junior year of college, because I was terrified that I didn’t really know what to do with my life and I wanted to have a plan. I also knew that only very successful people got into Teach for America, so getting in would also satisfy my intense need for validation.
I got in, and almost as soon as I started the program in the weeks after graduating, I knew I had made the wrong choice. I had wanted to join for all the wrong reasons, but now I was stuck. As everyone reminded me, I had made a commitment and I also had bills to pay and no idea what else I wanted to do, so I stayed. But I also developed anxiety and depression on a level I had previously never experienced.
Making the best of it
In the worst weeks of it, I had a hard time getting out of bed because I was so overwhelmed. I was constantly breaking down in tears, having panic attacks, and was barely sleeping. I no longer wanted to do things I had once enjoyed, like watching TV, cooking, or hanging out with friends. I had a hard time explaining to my now-husband, then-boyfriend, what was happening to me.
I quickly realized I had anxiety (which I had somehow never realized before that point), and I worked on shifting my mindset to manage it enough that I could stay in my job for the two years I had committed to. It took almost everything I had mentally to stay, but I did. I slowly started coming back to myself, little by little, as I adjusted to my new job and lifestyle and did everything I could to make it bearable.
But my high-functioning anxiety still manifested itself in various ways. I would wake up every morning around 4am because I would be filled with the anxiety of facing another day. I struggled with a lot of self-doubt, feelings of not being good enough, and imposter syndrome. For the first time, I had to work on letting go of my relentless drive for perfectionism so I could just live my life.
The path to healing
Luckily, when I finally quit that job a year and a half later I was able to truly heal myself. I started eating healthier, exercising regularly, gratitude journaling, and practicing mindfulness and meditation. I learned a lot of tips and tricks that helped me manage my anxiety when it did flare up, and that’s the reason I started this blog - to share those tips and tricks with you.
So if you are struggling with high-functioning anxiety, know you are not alone. There are so many things you can do to not let anxiety control you. It will always be there, yes, because it’s a natural part of you, but you don’t have to let it take over your life and choices. And I know because that’s how I used to feel - like my anxiety had hijacked the driver’s seat, controlling all my decisions and actions, and I didn’t want it to. For a long time I didn’t even know it was happening.
But now that I do, I feel like I have been able to take back my power. I will always have high-functioning anxiety, but I see it now as a friend rather than an enemy, and I don’t let it control my decisions any longer. I know it’s there trying to give me advice, but instead of seeing its advice as helpful and practical, I don’t listen. Because I know that there are other, far better, ways of living now.
And I know you can get there, too. You can read more of my tips for managing anxiety here.
And know that I’m right here with you through this - I know you can build a truly fulfilling life with high-functioning anxiety, and I hope I can play a small part in helping you do that.
Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you ever want to chat further.