When you have high-functioning anxiety, it may seem like you’re an overachiever — but beneath the surface, you’re a ball of stress.
Anxiety disorders affect 40 million adults in the U.S every year. And while high-functioning anxiety is not a clinical disorder, its effects are still deeply distressing. Those with high-functioning anxiety experience many of the same symptoms of anxiety, including irritability, the inability to focus, and difficulty sleeping. However, high-functioning anxiety is characterized by high energy, rigid perfectionism, relentless overthinking, and constant striving. Sufferers are often plagued with self-doubt, and a fear of failure propels them to persevere through feelings of stress and discomfort.
Take it from me. On the outside, I was an overachiever who excelled in my work. I’d arrive at my desk early and appeared capable and organized with several to-do lists… yet on the inside, I was a big ball of stress and tension.
If this sounds exhausting, consider how it might feel if you’re also a highly sensitive
person (HSP). We HSPs are extremely aware of subtleties and process information more deeply than others. Our nervous systems react more readily to stimulation like sights, sounds, and emotional triggers. Add these characteristics to high-functioning anxiety, and you have a very potent mix.
(Are you a highly sensitive person? Here are 21 signs that you’re an HSP.)
How High-Functioning Anxiety Manifests Physically
Before I understood that I was a highly sensitive person, I didn’t fully appreciate the
potential harm that high-functioning anxiety posed. Left unresolved, it can cause significant physical and emotional distress, putting you at risk of conditions such as heart disease and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
A number of years ago, I moved to a different town, hundreds of miles away from my family and friends, to take up a new job in an unfamiliar sector. During that time, I came down with every minor cold and infection and took longer to recover than most. I ignored my churning stomach, the tightness in my chest, and my racing heart. I would push through and overprepare for meetings, chase perfectionism every day, and ruminate at night so much that I’d have panic attacks in my sleep.
In hindsight, I can see that my highly sensitive nature meant that I was experiencing the effects of high-functioning anxiety doubletime!
Reaching My Breaking Point
As a highly sensitive person, my body and mind are alert to so many stimuli, including sights, sounds, bright lights, strong smells, changes in temperature, and other people’s emotions. The physical symptoms of high-functioning anxiety meant that my nervous system was constantly switched on, causing the everyday stimulants around me to overwhelm and “flood” my system.
Being mentally and emotionally flooded is the very uncomfortable feeling of being overwhelmed. With the external pressures of meetings and deadlines, coupled with rumination and overthinking, I frequently pushed myself to the threshold of overwhelm. Highly sensitive people are more prone to overwhelm, so, looking back, it’s no surprise that my search for perfectionism caused me to hit overload, both physically and emotionally.
When I’d tip into overwhelm, my body forced me to stop by flooring me with another illness. One winter flu turned into labyrinthitis. It was then that I was ready to admit that anxiety was getting the better of me and that my lifestyle didn’t suit my sensitive nature. Born out of desperation to feel better, I became determined to find ways of coping with my high-functioning anxiety. Here’s what I’ve learned.
How to Cope With High-Functioning Anxiety as an HSP
1. Get to know your fears and anxiety triggers.
The high-functioning anxiety mindset is obsessed with a fear of failure, and its nervous energy keeps you moving forward to do more and be better. As HSPs, we are able to think very deeply on a topic. So why not use this skill to identify the fears and triggers that drive your anxiety?
I discovered that the fear at the core of my high-functioning anxiety was that I’m not good enough, and that new experiences and work were my triggers. By understanding that my constant pursuit of perfectionism helped prevent failure — but at the cost of my mental health — I was able to gain perspective and feel comfortable with a good enough result.
Working with a therapist can also help you to work through deep-rooted fears and explore ways of unpicking unhelpful thoughts and behaviors that keep your fear(s) alive.
2. Weigh the positives and negatives of having high-functioning anxiety.
I pursued a career and lifestyle that I thought would bring me happiness, despite the physical symptoms of stress. When I arrived where I thought I wanted to be, I wasn’t happy, because I was living against my very nature. I could say that my anxiety had pushed me to academic achievements, yet it had also caused me illness.
Make a list of the positives and negatives of having high-functioning anxiety. Be honest. What good does high-functioning anxiety bring to your life? Does your job bring high status? Could you find status in another area of your life instead? When weighing the pros and cons, what do you discover?
3. Challenge your (over)thinking mind and ask yourself the benefit of doing so.
I am an overthinker with a tendency to persevere and stew on everything. My highly sensitive nature means that I think and feel very deeply, which is both a blessing and a curse. Remember, though, that you are not your thoughts and that you can learn to challenge your thinking.
After a meeting, for example, when I’m feeling exhausted from active listening, I sometimes ruminate on what I said, how I said it, what I didn’t say, and what other people did or didn’t say. Although thinking in this way may feel productive at the time, I’d argue that, in general, this style of overthinking only serves to stoke the fire of anxiety.
When you notice yourself thinking in a loop, pause and ask yourself if there’s a benefit to thinking so deeply before or after an event in this way? Will this matter in a month’s
time? A year’s time? Although it takes practice, pausing and questioning yourself breaks the cycle of overthinking.
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4. Reconnect with your body through physical movement, like walking or yoga.
As an HSP prone to anxiety, I spend a lot of time in my head. I enjoy the rich inner world of my imagination, my ability to empathize with others, and appreciate all the nuances of emotion. However, spending some time reconnecting with my body has played a key part in my healing process.
Walking combines the perfect blend of movement and headspace, for instance. When I’m surrounded by nature, I soothe my anxiety and nurture my senses. It’s not uncommon for me to lose myself in the experience; suddenly, hours pass by, seemingly unnoticed.
Any movement and physical activity is good for you: It can lower your blood pressure, increase your energy, and improve your mood. So find something you like doing, whether it’s yoga, practicing mindfulness, gardening, running, you name it.
5. Prioritize rest — after all, your overstimulated HSP mind needs it.
Over the years, I’ve come to realize that, as an HSP, I need more sleep than others in order to feel refreshed. This is probably somewhat due to the fact that HSPs are so overstimulated all day long. When anxiety brought on fitful slumber and erratic sleeping patterns, I would spend my days in a sluggish brain fog.
After a few years of this, my inconsistent sleep patterns began to cause week-long migraines and I was forced to prioritize my sleep. These days, 8-9 hours of sleep per night is nonnegotiable. Plus, having sleep issues is common among those with anxiety, so adjusting your sleep patterns is important in order to lessen your anxiety.
With consistent effort to bring more balance into my life, I’ve been able to manage my anxiety and live in tune with my high sensitivity. And you can, too.
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