Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve had high-functioning anxiety. Only I didn’t know it ’til now.
Looking back on my life, all the signs were there:
Finishing school assignments days or even weeks before they were due.
Packing my schedule with classes and extra-curricular activities, social events and obligations.
Starting new projects and having a dozen different career dreams, all at once.
Always in control.
Clean room, tidy desk, long lists of things to do.
Fear of the unknown – and situations where I couldn’t predict or control the outcome.
Always thinking, plotting, worrying, planning. My brain racing and whirring, never slowing down.
Then you could have high-functioning anxiety, too.
The high-functioning anxiety trap
If you have social anxiety (which I do from time to time), it’s easy to pinpoint the problem: you can’t leave the house. You need help. Your social anxiety is holding you back.
But when you have high-functioning anxiety (let’s call it HFA from here on), your symptoms spur you on. They empower you to do more, accomplish more, be busier, get more control.
With high-functioning anxiety, you always appear to have a handle on things. From the outside, it looks like you don’t need help. But on the inside, you’re struggling to stay afloat and manage your overworked mind.
And here’s the hardest part:
Society loves you for it!
Friends applaud you for always “having your shit together”.
Bosses hand you more and more work, knowing you won’t say no – and will get it done far faster than anyone else.
The business community commends you for your ongoing accomplishments.
Because people LOVE high achievers.
So it’s rare someone will say, “Yo, maybe you should chill out on a beach for three weeks.”
They’re more likely to say, “Wow, you’re amazing. So…can you help me with something?”
How to manage HFA
So, how can we get a grip on HFA? Here are some ideas:
1. Acknowledge it
Like all life changes, the first step is recognising the problem. And because the people around you don’t think you have a problem, this step is all down to you. Begin by owning up to your HFA. Accept it as a part of yourself. Try not to feel guilty or berate yourself for being anxious. After all, your HFA has probably helped you do some pretty amazing things in your life.
2. Take time out
Dedicate one day a week (or if that’s not possible, an hour or two) to chilling out. That means digital devices switched off. Just you and some scheduled relaxation time. You could read a book in a park, get a massage, spend time meditating…anything that doesn’t add more stress to your plate. The idea is to not really ‘do’ anything. So you might want to avoid going to a gym class or social event during this time, if it feels like just another thing in your already-packed calendar.
3. Scale back
Open your diary or calendar and take stock of what’s ahead. Could you scale back your commitments? Can you take a break from a few responsibilities, even just for a week or two? Be really honest about things that seem important, but are just busy work. And each day, instead of staring at a long list of to-dos, reduce it to 2 or 3 top-priority items. Just focus on getting those done, before approaching the next set of tasks.
4. Restore balance
HFA is a bit of a vicious cycle. It fuels you to do more stuff. But by doing more stuff, you become more anxious. And so it goes on and on and on. Until you collapse from exhaustion! Let’s try not to get to that point (I’ve been there. It’s not fun.) Take a big picture view of your life and try to bring back a little balance. If you’re all about work, carve out some time for exercise, relaxation, time with friends and family, and chilled out hobbies.
A great exercise is to draw a pie chart of your life. Make a big circle on a piece of paper, and split it into different areas of your life: family, friends, work, health, spirituality, community, money etc. Use this template from Smartrecovery.org, which shows you step-by-step how to represent each area. Then take a step back and see where you can spend less and more time to find balance.
Because that’s what life is all about: finding joy in the simplest pleasures. And not letting one part of our life take over. By finding balance, and understanding your HFA a little better, you may find yourself waking up more peaceful and content. And less worried about what lies ahead.