We all know those people that are always on the go: they never seem to rest, they are always busy doing something and they seem to accomplish so much. Perhaps you are one of those people! But did you know that this could also be a sign of high-functioning anxiety? In this week’s blog and podcast, I speak to therapist and licensed counselor Nancy Jane Smith about the signs and symptoms of high-functioning anxiety and how to overcome it, as well as how to deal with perfectionism, people-pleasing and burnout.
High functioning anxiety is a form of anxiety that you won’t get diagnosed with, but it is similar to generalized anxiety, and also involves gastro symptoms, headaches, panic attacks, racing thoughts and so on. It is essentially a way of coping that pushes you harder and faster, which often leads to perfectionism, people-pleasing and burnout. On the outside, everything may look great, but, on the inside, everything is falling apart, which is why high functioning anxiety is so hard to recognize. In fact, a lot of people aren’t aware that you don’t have to live with this kind of “hustle, hustle, hustle” mentality because they do not share how they feel with the people in their lives.
People with high-functioning anxiety tend to be always on the go; they feel like they can and should do everything. They do not rest well, and have an endless checklist of things that need to be done or achieved. They often feel guilty when they slow down or stop, and are not very good at allowing themselves to enjoy the moment. They tend to be more loyal to their loved ones than themselves, and do not spend much time thinking about their own thoughts and needs. This often leads to people-pleasing, when they focus on what other people need or want rather than their own needs or wants (for more on this, see my blog and podcast episode #75 on people-pleasing), as well as perfectionism, where they feel they are not worthy and have to work extra hard to make sure no one figures this out.
In her amazing book, The Happier Approach: Be Kind to Yourself, Feel Happier, and Still Accomplish Your Goals, Nancy notes how, to overcome high-functioning anxiety, you first need to stop and take the time to face and deal with your racing thoughts. Remember, your feelings and emotions don’t just go away if you suppress them; they will explode eventually. Acknowledge them without judgement or shame, and remind yourself that you are human, not a machine. Don’t just say something like “I should be grateful…” or “at least this didn’t happen…”. Positive statements can make you feel worse or like there is something wrong with you for feeling the way you do, which is definitely not the case! Give yourself permission to experience what you are feeling—learn to lean into the discomfort.
It is also important to take the time to slow down and get back in touch with your body when you experience a moment of high-functioning anxiety. Wiggle your toes, do some yoga exercises, stretch your arms out, or whatever gets your whole body moving! This will help ground you in the moment, getting you out of your black and white thinking and helping you re-center your mind, which will give you perspective. Once you do this, you will be able to observe yourself with kindness and compassion, helping you see the big picture without shame. As you do this, you can go from hating yourself to asking yourself, “what’s one way I can move through this?”.
Part of this process means learning to hear, acknowledge and respond to your inner voices:
- The Monger. This is your inner critic, the voice that always tells you that you are not good enough. It is a “monger” because it spreads propaganda about how terrible you are.
- The BFF. This voice always has your back, but can also get you into trouble! It tries to protect you from your inner critic, but in a way that can be self-sabotaging.
- Your Biggest Fan. This voice speaks to you with wisdom and grace, is always kind and pushes you forward as a team, saying things like “we got this”.
If you are someone who battles with high-functioning anxiety, often these voices are so loud that they never seem to stop, which is why it is so important to learn to be still and calm your mind, self-regulating your thoughts, words and actions in the moment. My SWITCH app is a great tool for helping you do this, giving you a way to deal with the roots of your anxiety and overcome negative thought patterns and behaviors that impact your mental health through the process of reconceptualization (it is now on sale less 50% for a 3-month subscription).
Remember, these voices are a part of you, but recognize that they are just voices, not necessarily your reality. Don’t strike back at the monger with shame. Say out loud what you are hearing in your head. Externalize and evaluate what this voice is saying, don’t just accept it as part of who you are. Ask yourself: what would your biggest fan would say about the situation? How could you use this moment to learn and grow? Be realistic, but also be kind to yourself.
The same goes for helping someone who is battling with high-functioning anxiety. Be kind, listen to what they are trying to tell you, and give them time and space. Let them know that you are there to talk if they need you. This is a very lonely way to live, so just letting them know you are there for them is incredibly important.