I don’t like the term high functioning anxiety because it sounds like an accolade. Hardly surprising in a World that rewards constant effort. We make judgements on what a person does and praise according to a barometer of busyness.
It is also not a formal diagnosis, more a term to describe people that suffer from anxiety yet appear as movers and shakers. They can appear super successful at whatever they do, excelling in all areas and achieving far more than most people feel possible. Work days begin long before others throw back the duvet and finish with the first twinkling stars. Aspirations are endless and they appear unfazed by high levels of responsibility. Compelled to go the extra mile, they are focused on the details and often strive for perfection. Rarely taking a break, their tanks seem full when others would be running on empty.
But this stella output is powered by anxiety. I know, because this was me. At the time completely unaware that anxious feelings were my driver. This can be very difficult to switch off and harder to recognize beneath the constant activity. Whilst negative physical and mental signals are present they can be steamrolled into the background. That is until they stop you in your tracks. When fear is in the driving seat the destination is never pretty.
So I’m sharing some of the red flags I didn’t acknowledge before I burnt out. Just in case it would benefit you to slow down, listen and adjust.
Unhealthy boundaries. On reflection I had no boundaries. This extended beyond the occasional saying yes when you should say no. I had no parameters set for work, rest and play. This translated into zero self-care. Negotiating the world without boundaries is mentally and physically damaging. When you expose yourself to the world with no due care for self it is a constant battering by the inevitable storms of life.
Driven by fear. Acknowledging your motivation for productivity is crucial. You may be an inspired and highly passionate person who naturally works hard and that is fine. For me, anxiety manifested as a fear of missing out, of not being good enough and not having enough. I was afraid of falling behind or being over taken. These fears were constantly pushing me on with high levels of productivity. Often working beyond healthy limits. It wasn’t until I stopped and examined my thoughts and feelings did I realize just how damaging they were. I now have a balance of rest and productivity and acknowledge that I do my best and it is enough. Fearful comparison is no longer a driver as I stay in my own lane.
Not stopping. Two things stand out here. I would acknowledge the need to stop but override the urge to rest, move around, or get sustenance. It would also feel very uncomfortable to do nothing. I would create space on my to do list only to cram as much as possible onto the white space. At the time meditation would have been torture! I have discovered that much happens in the non doing times, whether that is inspiration when the mind is still or essential recharge to apply myself better when returning to productivity.
Breathing and heart rate. I would often have fast breathing. My heart would also beat faster than normal. Some days it would be so unnatural I thought I had something wrong with my heart and wanted a cardiogram.
Poor sleep. I would often struggle to fall asleep. Once asleep I would then wake early hours and feel ready to start the day. When my sleep suffers I now stop and question what is happening for me. Do I need more down time? Are there adjustments to be made? How can I be kinder to myself right now?
Overthinking. Whilst I would get lots of things done, decision making was a painful process. Rumination is the byproduct of an anxious mind. Too many outcomes that cannot be controlled.
Pain in my body. I would often wake with a pain in my jaw. This was due to clenching and grinding my teeth. My shoulders and neck would ache from muscle tension and stomach cramps alongside little appetite most days. I had regular headaches with frequent migraines. Your body is a brilliant messenger if you are willing to listen. I pay attention to physical signals nowadays and always create a bit of silence to really tune in.
Fear of exposure and the reaction of others may prevent you from reaching out. People with high levels of responsibility often find it hard to step off and seek the support they need. It may suit the people around you to stay on the treadmill. Beliefs about who you are and what it means to have a mental health issue can keep your anxiety a secret. I worked hard every day to protect and project a version of normality. Painting on a smile whilst fighting every urge to flee. Suffering in silence.
To function is to ignore the source of your discomfort and the further you travel down the road the harder it can be to ask for help. It forms part of the masks we wear to keep ourselves from crumbling when falling apart is actually the answer. Because when you are suffering the answer is to disintegrate. When you open up and acknowledge your feelings it already creates space to be kinder to yourself.