As mental health professionals identify more and more people—especially females—who require treatment and therapy, early recognition of high-functioning anxiety has never been more important. In this timely article, Laura Fleetwood shares how high functioning anxiety can negatively impact the mental health and wellbeing of the entire family and highlights 5 signs of high functioning anxiety that may help you better identify it in yourself or a loved one.
I wake with a jolt, my mind racing with the day’s schedule and the list of to-dos that need to be accomplished. From the moment my feet hit the floor, I’m going. During breakfast, the girls tell me about their homework for the day. I notice a misspelling on Anna’s paper, and I erase the word and rewrite it myself. Can’t have their teachers thinking we don’t check every assignment. Milk spills on the table two minutes before we head out the door and I lose it.
“DON’T YOU KNOW WE DON’T HAVE TIME?” I yell.
They drop their eyes, feeling they’ve disappointed me once again.
Amid my girls’ tears in the car on the way to drop-off, I replay yesterday’s meeting in my mind. I’ve been stewing about what my co-worker said since the moment she said it. How dare she blame that mistake on me. I plan out exactly what I’m going to say to her, considering every possible scenario to prepare myself. Before walking in to work, I touch up my make-up and expertly apply the cheerful lipstick. Smoothing my outfit, I walk past the receptionist and put on my biggest smile, pretending the chaos of the morning never happened and answering “fine” as people ask me how I’m doing. “It’s a great day!”
I compulsively check my phone and email as the work day moves along. Rather than taking a break for lunch, I decide to plow right on through. Ten minutes before a meeting, a friend pops in to ask me to proofread an essay. “You’re the best, after all,” she affirms, and I politely tell her I’m happy to help. I add the task to my to-do list and hurry to the meeting. Doesn’t look good to be late.
On my planner, I notice a sticky note reminding me it’s Audrey’s turn to bring snacks to school, so I sneak a few looks at Pinterest to find the latest trends in homemade snacks. I realize I’ll have just enough time to do the snack-making before bed, so the girls won’t want to ‘help’ me. Then, I won’t have to sit on the couch next to Justin and pretend to watch the game. That’s always such a waste of my time.
After school, I run the girls to practice and dance, picking up McDonald’s on the way home. I promise I’ll play their new board game, but I have Bible study tomorrow and haven’t done any of the homework. I let them watch TV instead.
During bath time, I listen to their giggles while I scroll through Instagram, making sure to like the posts of the people I’ll see at the birthday party on Friday. I also make a mental note to buy that new curling iron that will save me 20 minutes every day. I stay up late making the Pinterest snacks, brushing past Justin on his way to bed with a reminder to bring the balls to soccer practice. My knowing eyes remind him of the disaster last week when he forgot.
I’m too wired to fall asleep when I finally lie down, so I run through tomorrow’s schedule, twirling my hair until some of the ends snap off. I fall asleep around 1 a.m., praying God will help me get it all done. After all, if I don’t, who will? I slip into sleep believing I had a nice, productive day…
THE COST OF KEEPING IT ALL TOGETHER
High-functioning anxiety is a sneaky beast. It masquerades as perfectionism and high achievement—things that often earn praise and respect—but it has a shadow side that can negatively impact an entire family. Typically beginning at an early age, if left unchecked, this ‘have it all together’ attitude can morph into an actual anxiety disorder like generalized anxiety, social anxiety, or even panic disorder.
As mental health professionals identify more and more people—especially females—who require treatment and therapy, early recognition of the signs of high-functioning anxiety has never been more important. While not a behavioral health disorder, it has real consequences for the sufferer and their family. To help you and your loved ones avoid the pain of a try-hard life, here are 5 signs of high-functioning anxiety that may open your eyes to how you or someone you love may be struggling with this hidden condition.
5 SIGNS OF HIGH-FUNCTIONING ANXIETY
The pressure to be perfect is real, and for some people it’s toxic. Get good grades. Do the right thing. Work harder and never let them see you sweat. I remember crying in college when I received my first and only B. I felt like a complete failure and swore it would never happen again. The thing about perfectionism is that it’s actually a coping mechanism for anxiety and a worry about losing control. So instead of rewarding it, let’s be honest about the toll it’s taking on the ones who seem to be living that ‘charmed’ life.
2. Nervous Habits
People with high-functioning anxiety seem to do well in life. They appear successful, put together, responsible, and trustworthy. Most likely they are the people you run to when you need help or want to ensure something is done right. Because we’re talking about high functioning people, you will likely see their stress leak out in more subtle ways than drinking, addiction, etc. But the stress DOES have to leak out somehow. As a young girl I pulled out my eyelashes, and to this day I twirl my hair and break off my split ends. Nervous habits of all types can be an indicator that someone is stuffing down their anxiety and needs to deal with it in a more healthy way.
3. Racing Repetitive Thoughts & What-If Thinking
Who is the most prepared person you know? The one who is always thinking about worst-case scenarios and how to handle them if and when they occur? From the outside this may seem like a person with practical wisdom, but can often be a subtle sign of internal anxiety. Someone whose brain is constantly churning with what-ifs can have a difficult time shutting off their thoughts to rest—which is vital for a balanced life.
4. Busy Schedule
Have you ever tried to stay busy during a difficult season to avoid dealing with uncomfortable feelings? This is a common way of life for people with signs of high-functioning anxiety. It’s like being on a hamster wheel every day. We trick ourselves into believing that staying busy will solve the restlessness that lives just below the surface. The problem is that our bodies and minds were not created for such busy lives. A person with high-functioning anxiety will often take pride in their busy schedule and wear their busy badge as a badge of honor. However, it would instead be wise to see it as a potential warning sign for burnout.
5. Toxic Positivity, People Pleasing & Difficulty Saying “No”
Someone with hidden anxiety will do almost anything to avoid conflict. Watch for the person who is quick to smooth over frustration, anger, or sadness, deflecting it with humor or constantly reframing hard situations. These tendencies are fine in moderation, but when taken to the extreme they are a warning sign that anxiety is present.
A CALL TO ACTION
The hallmark of someone with high-functioning anxiety is the pressure they feel to hold everything together and excel at it all. Often, this comes at the expense of themselves and their family. Just before my burnout and breakdown in my late thirties, I had a friend tell me that everything I touched turned to gold. While that once would have been the ultimate compliment, it now stabs me in the gut because I know the cost my family and I paid for that kind of ‘success’. A person’s body, mind, and spirit can only take the pressure of living a picture-perfect life for so long. Eventually it catches up.
It can be a shock to realize that the people who seem most strong and successful can be the very ones most at risk for struggles with anxiety. Often it is precisely the characteristics that make them successful that are masking great pain underneath. The good news is that high-functioning anxiety can be managed and even become a turning point to step into a more healthy life.
Take it from someone who’s traveled the road. Be brave enough to seek out resources, information, and services to turn from your hidden anxiety into a new way of living, one of freedom and of joy.
Do you ever feel the pressure to perform or to appear perfect? Do you wear the busy badge like a badge of honor? What steps might you be able to take to protect yourself and others from the burnout that might result from staying on this ‘hamster wheel’?
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