In which I over-share in the hope that it can help even one person
Disclaimer: I’m not a mental health professional and I barely understand my own mental health. I’m sharing my own experiences and my own conclusions. Also, “high-functioning anxiety” is not a recognised diagnosis but that doesn’t make the experience any less real. If this structure helps you to understand it, then great. If it doesn’t work for you, that’s OK too.
A few years ago, I stumbled on an article that described high functioning anxiety and I felt like I finally had the vocabulary to describe what I felt every, single day. A couple of years before that, I’d experienced burnout and in hindsight I realise that was the first time I’d noticed anxiety, but not named it in any way that resonated with me.
I won’t try to explain high functioning anxiety in general, The Mighty’s post does that far better than I would. If you’re interested in learning more I’ve linked a few more articles below too. For me, high-functioning anxiety feels like a constant gnaw to be better, do better, feel better, look better, perform better, and that nothing is good enough unless it’s perfect. And then I can’t assess when something is “perfect” (because it doesn’t exist), so hello anxiety spiral.
It’s a tricky balance because anxiety has helped me and high-functioning anxiety has some positive characteristics. It’s been what’s driven me to a pretty successful career and I’m often praised for it, which creates a particularly unhealthy reward system.
Those positive characteristics are swiftly followed up by a lot of negative ones. For me, I’m sometimes criticised for being “too structured” which can be particularly hard to hear, given that I really don’t want to be like this and I annoy myself most of the time. I also have a competitive hobby which I would like to do at a national level. High-functioning anxiety gives me the drive I need to pursue this, but it’s also the thing that stops me from compassionately examining my progress and areas to improve.
When I learned about high-functioning anxiety in 2016, I found that once I brought awareness to how anxiety affected me, I slowly got a bit more control and space and over time I forgot that it was a thing. And then, of course, it all crept back. Slowly, and over a few years, until I described myself as “getting by on nervous energy and caffeine” last week, and I realised that wasn’t ok.
The extent to which I’d blocked out all of what I learned four years ago has shocked me. I had no idea how to describe how I’ve been feeling recently. I asked around about what to do if your brain constantly craves more information and more to do, completely forgetting that I know why that happens and what to do. I spent hours on Google, trying to find the language I needed to figure my brain out. Finally, I did a Headspace meditation called “stressed out”. I’d been avoiding that particular session because I don’t feel stressed out and stress doesn’t usually bother me, it just makes me focus more, but I felt desperate and I did it. In that session, the phrase “busy mind” came up and that, combined with the micron of mental space I gained from taking 10 minutes to look after my mind, helped me to recall what I’ve learned in the past about high-functioning anxiety.
When I revisited that article yesterday, I was once again shocked by the extent to which it describes me. It’s mentally – and even physically – painful to read, but for me it’s necessary in order to get on top of it again. So I’m sharing it in case it helps anyone else.
If The Mighty’s article comes across as “the most pure, truthiest truth” (the actual words I used) you’ve ever read about yourself, please remember that you’re not alone.
“First, we make the beast beautiful” apparently describes it in a wonderfully compassionate way (I’ve ordered the book, it hasn’t arrived yet):
“Planning a dinner party/holiday/walk in the park/ any kind of event in the next 365 days? [your friend with anxiety]’s phone will be charged, they’ll have remembered Oliver is gluten-free, they’ll have factored in dinner with your mum next month and your couples counselling appointment at 5pm.” – taken from Stylist: What is high-functioning anxiety
This isn’t making fun of the issue – believe me, feeling like this every day is no fun at all – but it makes it more relatable to me and to people close to me who want to understand more, and in a lighthearted way that doesn’t detract from the seriousness of the condition.
If this resonates with you then hi 👋I’m sorry you’re going through this – whether it’s as someone with high-functioning anxiety or as someone who supports another person with it – and I hope this helps you to find the space and words you need. Here are some more articles that explain what I’ve experienced with high-functioning anxiety and they might help.
So, what can you do about it?
I have a Friendly Neighbourhood Mental Health professional who I have a good relationship with, and I know I can see them to help piece things back together if I need to. You might need one of those or a visit to your GP to get access to someone.
However, one thing that I do well is addressing things once I am aware of them, or have given them a name. For me, simply knowing that my anxiety is high at the moment gives me the words I need to manage it, and using Headspace helps too.
I’m also talking about it, where it makes sense. I’ve shared The Mighty’s article with my husband and we’ve spoken about the affect it has on us day to day. I won’t be telling everyone I see about it, but this post is here if anyone wants to learn more.