High-Achieving. Perfectionist. Overthinker. Hardworking. Accepting.
These are a few words that people use to describe me.
I’ve always felt the need to ‘do more’, fixing the littlest of things along the way. Whether it was re-writing pages on pages of my assignment in college because of one misspelt word or staying up till 5 a.m doing the next day’s work just to ease future stress, I always sensed something was wrong. But it’s easy to shrug off these banal worries when you’re showered with praise.
Little did I know that there was a price to pay for all this ‘productivity’ I brought to the table.
A year into my job, burnout hit me hard. The realisation felt like an 18-wheeler truck slamming into me, and I felt paralysed, anxious about everything around me. My mind played a montage of all the events that had taken place over that year: personal losses, professional insecurity, and much more.
And that’s when a pattern emerged.
Every time I suffered a loss, I buried myself in so much work that I wouldn’t have time to think, thus using it as an escape. After searching hours on end for a reason, understanding the trigger was the first ray of light in a pitch-black tunnel. What followed was lots of unlearning, therapy, and amends made to myself. Slowly, but steadily, I got better and established limits.
My journey with high-functioning anxiety isn’t over yet, and it probably never will be, but understanding how to live with it has made all the difference.
We’re lucky to be living in a world where people are – slowly but steadily – gaining a better understanding of mental health. The words ‘anxiety’ and ‘depression’ carry more meaning now than ever, and many even find that their families are more receptive to such concerns. But there’s still a long way to go, and more mountains to climb! Mental health disorders don’t fit into a box. And some disorders, despite never being made official, continue to exist just out of sight. One of them is high-functioning anxiety.
High-Functioning Anxiety- What Is It?
Imagine playing a video on your phone on loop. It plays and plays, even when nobody’s watching. Eventually, the battery runs out, and the phone, now slow and overheated, ceases to function properly.
To get a definite answer on what it means to have an anxiety disorder, I consulted Supriya Ramalingam, a psychotherapist based in Mumbai, and she shared some useful insights. The anxiety that most of us know about is Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD). It means constant, persistent, and pervasive anxiety that arises with no obvious reason or provocation, and significantly interferes with social and occupational functions.
So, are all kinds of jitters classified as a disorder? For something to be termed a ‘disorder,’ it would have to interfere with a person’s daily functioning. For example, being anxious about a project but completing it on time is termed as mild anxiety. But when you’re unable to complete the project due to anxiety, it falls into the disorder spectrum.
This is why high-functioning anxiety hasn’t officially been termed a disorder yet. It pushes you to excel at everything you do!
You might wonder, ‘“toh problem kya hai” (Any Main Prem Ki Deewani fans in the house?) but what follows can’t be ignored. Burnout, insomnia, and high blood pressure are just a few of the effects that people with high-functioning anxiety experience.
If you’ve felt that you can’t seem to pace yourself and can function only in overdrive, it’s time to take a step back and check if the characteristics of high-functioning anxiety fit into your life.
Disclaimer: The below information is a summation of my personal experiences, and is not a substitute for medical advice. Please consider consulting a professional if you relate to any of the points mentioned below.
What High-Functioning Anxiety Can Look Like
Someone with high-functioning anxiety can look like the poster child for success. Arriving early to places, being proactive, staying organised, focusing on tiny details, helping others, and unwavering loyalty are some of my traits that are rooted in anxiety. There’s a slight line where this crosses into overachieving, and that’s where high-functioning anxiety lies.
- Completing Tasks In Advance
I kid you not, there have been days when I’ve stayed up all night to do tasks that I was supposed to complete the next week. Why? Because I was convinced I wouldn’t have enough time to do them then. Constantly taking the ‘kal kare so aaj kar’ phrase too seriously can point at an underlying problem.
- Nervous Energy
My anxiety is almost palpable when I feel uncontrollably anxious.
It feels like a rubber band, just on the verge of snapping.
Though you may usually be calm, certain days may make you feel like nervousness boiling in a pot, ready to overflow. If you’re able to go about your day normally but feel uneasy and panicky at the end, it’s probably the nervous energy eating at you.
- Losing Time
Do you often reach places 15 minutes early for no apparent reason? Join the club! It’s one thing to be punctual and another to arrive early everywhere. This could mean that you don’t value your time enough and would rather give up some of it to satiate the anxiety of reaching late to places.
- Nervous Habits
Many people have observed that I laugh dryly and play with my hair when I’m nervous or if there’s an awkward silence. Others might also chatter unnecessarily, bite their lips, crack their knuckles, or shake while talking when they’re anxious. Do you have any such habits?
Think about it (or actually, don’t) – if your mind is constantly racing, how will you fit in periods of rest? People with high-functioning anxiety have a hard time going to sleep because their mind is always fixated on an unresolved problem or an assignment that’s due- and if you’re like me, you’ll probably stay up and finish it.
- Sporadic Productivity
The perk of having a creative job is that I can write when I’m in the zone. But I sometimes compulsively procrastinate my day away, only to have a period of crunch-time where I finish the task?
Since I run by timetables, I set times for each task. Despite that, I often found myself distracted by the smallest of things, and then spent the last ten minutes of the allotted time in overdrive, finishing the work.
It may seem okay the first few times because you’re getting the work done, but this inconsistency can be damaging in the long run.
If this happens to you too, it might be worth interrogating.
- Finding It Hard To Say ‘No’
Are you as repulsed by disappointing others as Monica is by dust? Letting others down goes against everything someone with high-functioning anxiety works towards. This means that you could have a hard time saying ‘no’ to extra work, random plans with friends, or just about any request coming your way. Trust me, a lot of time was spent in excruciatingly unlearning this.
- Needing To Be In Control
I’ll never forget that one time when I walked into office two days after a personal loss, pretending as if everything was completely fine, when I was -for lack of a better word- dying inside.
There’s always a need to maintain a strong outer appearance, no matter how bad the turmoil is inside.
If people often find you hard to read, or you hide your emotions to portray normalcy, it could point at anxiety.
Some other symptoms of high-functioning anxiety mimic GAD, where the person may constantly overthink, avoid eye contact, dwell on negative things, feel fatigued, or have a tendency towards substance abuse. Hang in there!
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How To Cope With High-Functioning Anxiety
There’s never ONE thing that will help you deal with a mental health issue. The first step in coping with high-functioning anxiety is to identify what triggers it. Is it the need to be in control? Is it the need to showcase your achievements? Or is it something else entirely? Once you know what causes the anxiety, the code to dealing with it becomes easier to crack.
If you have high-functioning anxiety, you can’t just will it away because it will eventually come back with a vengeance. Here are some ways to cope with it, based on possible triggers.
- Separate Your Achievements From Anxiety
If you feel like your anxiety has pushed you towards achievement, know that it hasn’t.
You can still be a high-functioning individual without the anxiety.
Perfectionism and hard work are YOUR personality traits, so managing high-functioning anxiety will only take away the negative symptoms associated, and you can continue to keep up the accolades!
How do you get started on this? I find visualisation to be the most effective. Think of a Venn diagram, where the circles of anxiety, personality and achievements coincide. Now, imagine separating these circles. Lastly, merge the circles of personality and achievements, and kick anxiety out of the frame. It may sound ridiculous, but repetitive visualisation can work wonders in setting certain beliefs in place.
- Stay Organised
If your anxiety stems from a lack of control, or you find yourself working extra hard for no reason at all, organisation will be your best friend. Create a to-do list every morning, listing down your tasks (including meetings) in chronological order.
This will help you see how your day flows, and you can also avoid adding unnecessary tasks.
You can even do this by week if work permits, so all your tasks are penned down and the need to stay up late doesn’t arise. Once this became a habit, I kicked the feeling of never having enough time to the curb!
- Take Enough Breaks
If you feel like your motor is constantly running, it’s time for some respite. Procrastination can occur when you’re burnt out from working too much. The only solution- some time off! Give yourself enough time for breaks during the day, whether they’re five short ones or two long ones.
A change of place also helps, so consider a workation or taking short trips over the weekend. Once I had enough leaves accumulated (hello, high-functioning anxiety), a nice, long trip to the beach felt so rejuvenating that I almost had to be dragged back home!
- Practice Mindfulness
People with anxiety live most of their lives in their heads, overthinking every situation. But it’s not long before the physical effects of anxiety appear on the body. I felt my chest and throat close up even with the slightest bit of panic. The weight gain didn’t help either, with period cramps getting unbearable and frequent breakouts scarring my skin.
When your mind is disconnected from your body, identifying if weight gain or chest pain is a result of anxiety or a medical issue becomes hard.
The next time you’re feeling anxious, concentrate on physical symptoms. Does your heart race? Do you break out in a sweat? Connect these to your thoughts.
Take time out during the day for deep breathing. Whether you’re at home or in the office, sitting or standing, stretch, relax your muscles and take slow breaths. This will send more oxygen to your brain and clarify thinking, so you’re not stewing in a pot of nervousness. Reconnecting the mind with the body is the best gift you can give yourself!
- Get Enough Sleep
On days where I’ve felt positive and radiant, ready to take on the next day, the night turns everything around. Why? Because my brain decides to play a montage of traumatic events, outcomes of my current worries, and everything I don’t want to think about!
Anxiety feeds off nervous energy, and the lack of sleep is the first to cause it.
Switching off your thoughts is hard with high-functioning anxiety, so meditating before sleep can help clear your mind. You could also download apps like Calm or Insight Timer that help with guided meditation, or play an audio clip with soft ocean or forest sounds. Avoid using your phone right before you sleep and stay off social media for at least two hours before bedtime.
If nothing seems to work, consider speaking to a therapist. There’s nothing more important than rest, and it’s essential to get enough of it at any cost!
- Have A Support Group
For the longest time, I never understood why I was the way I was. I knew I had anxiety, but it never functioned as people said it would. The usual techniques wouldn’t help, and my problems were written off because I seemed absolutely normal at home and work. When I think about it now, so much time was wasted in hiding my emotions, pushing people away, and feeling ungrateful about my achievements. But things changed for the better when I found friends who understood how mental health works. They had been battling issues of their own, which only made them more receptive towards mine.
In that space, I took the effort to talk about my emotions, ask for days off, and research what was happening to me.
Speak to people who have faced mental health issues. While they may not always be able to solve your current problem, just knowing that somebody out there understands you will make all the difference.
- Consider Therapy
Though talk of mental health is accepted nowadays, seeking therapy isn’t. Unlike what people think, therapy is not where your resident ‘pagal’ goes. No matter how big or small the problem is, a therapist can help you work through it. They can be your sounding board and help you identify and manage your anxiety in a healthy way.
Many of us tend to filter our words when we’re talking to loved ones. Even if you have the closest relationship, there’s always a certain element of holding back that happens- whether that’s due to a fear of judgement or trust issues. On the other hand, you have nothing to lose by speaking to a therapist, who is a stranger. Doctor-patient confidentiality prevents them from disclosing what you say to others, so trust that it’s a safe space. If you’re hesitant, book one session at a time and see how it suits you.
Once you see the positive effects that therapy has on your life, chances are you’ll keep going back!
High-functioning anxiety is a constant battle. There are days when I’m compelled to go back to my old ways- some days I win and some days I lose. But the important thing is to not beat yourself up over it. Give yourself the time to heal, chin up, and take each day as it comes!
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