Meticulous, structured, driven and productive. These are words not usually associated with anxiety and to be labeled ‘high-functioning’ could be taken as a humble brag. However, your high-achieving façade and conflicting inner struggle could be slowly eating away at your well-being and zest for life. Read on to find out if this is you and what you can do to manage it.
What is high-functioning anxiety?
To start with, ‘high-functioning’ anxiety is not a recognised disorder and won’t be clinically diagnosed. It does, however, describe people who experience anxiety-like symptoms while functioning well in daily life. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Scientists have established that some stress or anxiety can be beneficial particularly with motivation and attention. But where you sit on the anxiety spectrum could be doing more harm than good in the long term.
5 tell-tale signs of high-functioning anxiety
1. You’re a high-achiever + have fear of failure
You strive to do well and even go the extra distance to be the best. But your motivation lies in your fear of failure or judgment. You tend to put a lot of pressure on yourself and are a perfectionist in most areas of your life. You may not even recognise your achievements as you keep pushing back the goal posts as nothing is ever perfect.
2. You’re successful and appear organised – but you’re not
Friends and work colleagues describe you as driven and ambitious. They may also comment on your organisation skills and admire your habit of writing lists. However, on the inside you’re feeling like you’re barely staying afloat. You have so many tasks to get done and write lists in an attempt to capture them all but there just aren’t enough hours in the day. You sacrifice self-care and sleep for your tasks.
3. You need to stay busy
You are constantly busy and will always make work for yourself because you have such high standards. But this is where those anxiety-related emotions come in – you are afraid to stop. If you let yourself relax you may start to feel uncomfortable emotions. Allowing yourself to relax is also time wasted. There are other things you could be doing.
4. You’re details orientated + an overthinker
These are two sides of a coin. Your meticulous attention to detail is a positive trait and a great asset in most areas of your life. However your tendency to overthink and over-analyse can lead you to being fixated on a problem or situation. This can lead to obsessive thoughts, rising stress levels and insomnia. It’s likely that you also think of the worst possible scenario and let fear take control. This is your anxiety talking.
5. You find it hard to say no + ask for help
Because you are such a people-pleaser and fear letting people down, you find it difficult to say no, especially at your own detriment. You love to help people and fear disappointing them. With your already busy schedule, you may often overbook yourself and end up bailing at the last minute. When things get too much and you probably need help, you don’t ask for it because that would mean you are incompetent. You don’t want to seem like you don’t have it all together.
Take this quiz to see if you have high-functioning anxiety.
When it becomes a problem
Many of these characteristics are positive. You are motivated, productive, focused and often do well at juggling many tasks and responsibilities. The flipside is you don’t know when to stop and can’t stop. You could begin to run yourself into the ground resulting in burn-out, poor immune function or a disrupted sleep/wake cycle. Being motivated and task-focused is great, but not when it always takes priority over your own wellbeing.
Here are some triggers that you are doing too much:
- Repetitive difficulty falling asleep
- Poor sleep quality
- Digestive discomfort
- Reliance on caffeine to stay focused
- Feeling tired all the time
- Elevated heart rate or breathing
- Muscle tension e.g. grinding teeth
What you can do to cope
First of all, if you experience anxiety regularly, can’t control it or it affects your daily life (including relationships), you should seek help from a professional service such as Beyond Blue or talk to your doctor.
1. Practice mindfulness
This might seem counterproductive and a waste of time, but just 5-10 minutes a day can help to reset your mind and body and enable you to achieve even more in your day with less stress. This doesn’t have to be meditation. Journaling or a coloring book can serve the same purpose. Your mental health should be your highest priority.
2. Be active everyday
Just 30 minutes of exercise a day is a natural stress relief and energy booster. It works to enhance both your brain function and your body. Whether you incorporate high-intensity exercise or yoga, find something in which your mind switches off from everything you need to do after.
3. Sleep like your life depends on it
Because it does. The quantity and quality of your sleep will affect your ability to focus and handle stress in the short term and have damaging health implications in the long term. A late night or an early morning here and there is ok, but try not to make a habit of it. Sleep hygiene is also important, having a good sleep schedule will set you up for more success in all areas of your life.
4. Eat regularly
As someone who is likely too busy to eat, ensuring you don’t skip meals will help you stay focused while reducing your reliance on caffeine. Skipped meals combined with too many stimulants can leave you feeling jittery, scattered and experience digestive pain and discomfort.
5. Focus on your breath
Breath deeply. Doing breathwork or simply focusing on your breath can help to relieve muscle tension and reduce stress. Chances are you took a couple of deeper breaths just reading this. How did that make you feel? Try setting a cue for yourself to take a couple of deep breaths everyday day such as a reminder in your phone or a note in your diary.
6. Realign your thoughts
Pay close attention to your thought patterns. Anxiety involves negative thoughts/predictions e.g. “what if I don’t make it on time?” or “something is going to go wrong tomorrow”. Try countering it with something more positive, realistic or helpful, such as “I’m always on time, it won’t be the end of the world if I’m not”, or “I’m prepared, everything will go well”.
7. Incorporate adaptogens into your diet
Adaptogens are plant constituents that assist your body in its hormonal reaction to stress. They gently enhance your body’s ability to cope with stressors and “adapt” to what your body needs. Including them daily either as a supplement, tea or in cooking can provide incredible benefits in regulating cortisol and supporting your adrenal system. Some of my favourites are ashwagandha, turmeric, astragalus, licorice root, Tulsi (holy basil) and Schisandra berry.
We are fortunate to live in a time where work is being done to break down the stigma around mental health and resilience. We might be good at doing this with others but it can often be difficult to take the advice for ourselves. Accepting that you need help or need to make a change is a giant leap itself. Be kind and compassionate to yourself. You deserve it.
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