High Functioning Anxiety isn’t necessarily an ‘official’ diagnosis but is becoming more and more recognised by professionals as describing those of us who appear to function well on a day-to-day basis whilst concealing high levels of stress and anxiety.
On the outside, someone who has ‘high functioning anxiety’ appears to have it all together. In fact, they seem to do better than just functioning, often the subject of much envy for their seemingly 'perfect' life.
Underneath, though, it’s a very different story. High levels of stress and anxiety mean that they are in a near constant state of ‘fight or flight’, their nervous systems overwhelmed from trying to meet the incredibly high standards they set for themselves.
What others see....
A super productive, mega efficient, hard-working and successful individual - someone who is always ready and willing to help others and rarely says no. You come across as friendly, never complain and people would say that you always ‘get on with it’.
Often high achieving, first to take on the unpopular/complex tasks at work, you might also keep beautiful, tidy home and always look well turned-out.
What others don’t see….
You overthink EVERYTHING! It’s like your thoughts are on a never-ending loop. You need validation from others to feel ok and set yourself unrealistically high expectations in order to ensure that you receive that validation, doing everything in your power to avoid negative judgement.
You feel constantly exhausted and overwhelmed but still unable to say no, the guilt that you feel when you set a boundary for yourself is too powerful.
Overwhelm leads to resentment and often unhealthy coping mechanisms such as over/under eating, drinking too much, workaholism, perfectionism and obsessive behaviours.
You believe that you hold it all together, family, relationships, home - if you didn’t do it, it wouldn’t get done, right?
At the core of this type of anxiety is often deep-rooted shame. This toxic, destructive shame is so painful that we conceal and detract anyone from finding out who we truly are, hence the outwardly 'perfect' persona - if we portray a near flawless exterior, there is little room for criticism, which can feel excruciating.
How can we ease our anxiety as well as easing the pressure we put ourselves under?
Boundaries! Unfortunately, we live in a society that rewards excessive working hours and being accessible virtually 24/7. It's like exhaustion and near burnout is seen as a 'badge of honour'.
Of course, the motivation to work crazy long hours and take on the lion's share of the work at home too is often driven by fear of failure and the need to control, rather than actually doing a brilliant job.
I recommend starting small when setting boundaries. If you wade in shouting that you're not doing any extra work ever again, you'll probably end up feeling horrendous and apologising, leading you to take on even more to prove yourself again.
Gentle but assertive may serve you better - here are some example scripts that you could use when asked to take on a new project/work late/help out a friend...
- "Thanks for your suggestion, unfortunately I'm at capacity right now so I won't be able to give it the attention it deserves".
- "I'm actually taking time out for lunch today so that meeting that you have scheduled will leave me a bit tight for time. Would (suggest alternative time) work instead?".
- "I'd love to help you right now but I'm feeling pretty overwhelmed myself and going to listen to what my body needs - a bit of rest and recuperation. Let's have a cuppa and a catch up next week?"
Of course, putting boundaries in place isn't exclusive to those we set with other people. We have our own patterns of behaviour, thoughts and feelings to contend with too. I'll cover this in more depth in another blog but here are a few suggestions to keep overwhelm at bay - Set yourself time limits on social media. It may sound obvious but we all know that the mindless scrolling fills time but also allows us to dissociate from the present. It's escapism and can be great fun but also feeds comparison-itis, which will only make us feel inferior and feed that sense of failure.
- Timetable self-care into your diary and stick to it! This doesn't have to be a candlelit bath (although it most certainly can be!), even micro self-care activities such as a 10 minute walk, a short meditation, playing a feel-good song or watching an episode of your favourite show can shift your emotional state into a more refreshed, motivated one.
- Not working past 7pm (or whatever time you feel comfortable with maintaining consistently).
- Remember that free time doesn't mean available time! Enjoy that sense of freedom that comes with having nothing planned.
Learn to identify your emotions and be curious about them. That guilt you're feeling when your friend asks you to help them write an essay for uni and you say no? Maybe you have been conditioned to believe that you are only a worthy friend if you are giving or helping in some way. Have your friendships always felt one-sided?
The anxiety you experience when you receive a bit of a blunt email from your boss - are you making assumptions about being 'in trouble'? Could this be an echo of feeling fearful of making mistakes as a child?
Start getting to know YOU a bit better. Not the you that serves other people, think about what you really enjoy, what fires you up and makes you feel passionate, what is YOUR idea of fun. Try doing something that you truly love every week, even better if it is creative or playful.
Practice self-compassion and quieten your inner critic - think about how you would speak to someone you love. Would you tell them that they're stupid, forgetful, not good enough? Or would you encourage them to treat themselves kindly, offer reassurance and forgiveness? Try reframing those self-critical comments and replace them with 'It's ok to feel....." or "I'm doing my best right now".
I'm Rebecca Vivash, a BACP registered counsellor, wellbeing supervisor and consultant. My passion is helping people to understand what is holding them back and enabling them to reclaim their unique brilliance through exploration, education and empowerment.
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