By Ruth Fordyce
Psychologist, The Resilience Centre
Are you a driven person? Do you hold yourself to high standards? Are you rushing around trying to keep everyone happy, but with that gnawing feeling inside that you’re going to drop a ball soon and it will all come crashing down?
It may be that anxiety is actually driving these thoughts and patterns of behaviour in your life.
‘High functioning anxiety’ is not an official category of anxiety when it comes to mental health diagnosis, but it’s a descriptive term that has been showing up on websites and social media for a while now (see here for an example). Most simply put, it means that a person is functioning quite well on the outside, but is struggling with anxious thoughts and feelings on the inside.
The term ‘high functioning anxiety’ is clearly resonating for many people who may not have previously considered that they have a form of anxiety. I think it’s a descriptor that is also helping us all recognise that many successful, high achieving people have underlying anxious traits.
Some features of ‘high functioning anxiety’
- From the outsider’s perspective you are functioning well – for example, you may be doing quite well in your job, you are well organised, seen as a good friend/parent and so on
- You may be described or thought of as driven, a high achiever, a perfectionist
- Your anxiety propels you to work hard to stay on top of things, but internally you are often criticizing yourself, and worried your efforts aren’t good enough or that it’s all going to fall apart soon
- Quite often, no one else is aware that you are anxious – or perhaps only a partner or your closest family member is aware
- You are often thoughtful of others and eager to help, so frequently people think highly of you. You however, find it hard to believe their positive appraisals of you and struggle to enjoy the fruits of your efforts.
I often comment to my clients who have this sort of ‘high functioning’ anxiety that in fact, “everyone is benefiting from your life – except you!”
What I mean by this is that everyone else around you is benefiting from the fact that you are always thinking ahead, planning, preventing problems, helping and organising. However, you are the one missing out on enjoying life and actually feeling good about your efforts. Being somewhat anxious can actually lead to many helpful and productive behaviours, but it’s a matter of keeping it in check so that it does not end up costing you your peace of mind and satisfaction with life.
So what can you do?
- Engage in activities to slow you down – yoga, swimming, learning some relaxation skills, and practicing mindfulness meditation are some good examples. Each of these activities will encourage a slowing of your breathing which in turn lowers your heart rate and decreases the stress responses in the body. These activities can also help to slow down racing thoughts and help your brain to take a short ‘holiday’ from anxious thinking.If you’ve never tried meditation, Smiling Mind is a free mindfulness website and app worth trying.
- Lower your standards – it’s likely that your standards for yourself are a lot higher than anyone else would expect of you. For example, being excessively worried about making any mistakes at work when you are actually quite new to the role, or thinking that letting a friend down once might lead to your friend rejecting you. Everyone makes mistakes, and lets a friend down from time to time. It’s part of being human. If you have high functioning anxiety, it’s likely that you could lower you standards a little, and not a single person around you would even notice! You are still going to be thoughtful and hard working, just with a little more room to breathe.
- Give yourself the same compassion that you would give to a friend – this is another good way to challenge self-criticism and perfectionism. Why are you holding yourself to much harsher standards than you would expect of anyone else? Why are you beating yourself up for a mistake, when you would offer kindness and understanding to a friend in the same situation? Accept and embrace that you are ahuman, just like the rest of us – imperfect, but still worthy of love and value.
- Tell someone – granted, it pays to be wise about who you are going to tell. You need someone trustworthy and non-judgmental. Obviously a psychologist can be of great benefit but I find it also makes a huge difference if just one or two people in your ‘real life’ can also be a support to you. For many people with high functioning anxiety, half the battle is learning that people can love you, not just for your outside ‘success’, but for your whole, messy, vulnerable, self. But they can only do that if you let them in.
Options for getting more help
- See your GP and get a referral to a psychologist
- Do a course online that helps treat anxiety – This Way Up and MindSpot are two great examples
- Start small and check out our Resilience Centre seminar on decreasing stress – it’s just over an hour in length and will introduce you to some practical ideas
- If you are feeling unsure about seeking help or wary about trying some of the steps above, why not do a little reading first.
For example, if you are a fast-paced driven person, the idea of doing mindfulness meditation might seem ridiculous to you. I’d highly recommend you have a look at Dan Harris, author of “Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics” (I love this title!)
If you are looking for more general information about anxiety, Beyond Blue is a great place to start.
If you have high functioning anxiety, I can guarantee that you will be trying your hardest to do things this week that will make life better for the people around you.
But what are you choosing that will make life better for YOU?
Ruth Fordyce is a Registered Psychologist at The Resilience Centre in Sydney. Find out more about Ruth by clicking here.