If you looked up “overachiever” in the dictionary, you would probably find my picture where the definition should be. I grew up in a suburb of Washington, D.C., and am a product of its fast, almost frantic pace. I went to a top-tier college and graduated Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude.
And, for all of my working years, I have excelled at every job I’ve held. I was often the first to arrive and the last to leave the office. My to-do lists were the most organized (and the most color-coded). I’m a team player, a natural public speaker, and I know just what to say or do to please the people around me.
Sounds perfect, right?
Except 99.9 percent of my colleagues and supervisors didn’t know that I also lived with generalized anxiety disorder. Anxiety affects about 19 percent of adults in the United States each year. While some are frozen by anxiety, I am propelled by it at a million miles an hour. My particular brand of anxiety is “high-functioning,” meaning that my symptoms are masked in overdoing, overthinking, and overperforming.
For a long time, I didn’t recognize that working so hard and caring so much were wearing me down. They seemed like positive traits, not symptoms of a disorder, which is what makes it so difficult to spot.
“No matter how hard I worked or how proud I was of my achievements, the anxious part of my brain would scrutinize, criticize, and patronize me.”
But with high-functioning anxiety, no success is ever enough to quiet the fear. Behind every perfect presentation and flawless project was a mountain of worry. I was plagued with guilt that I hadn’t done enough, or hadn’t done it soon enough, or hadn’t done it well enough. I lived for the approval of others and spent countless hours trying to perform at an impossible standard that my own anxiety had created. No matter how hard I worked or how proud I was of my achievements, the anxious part of my brain would scrutinize, criticize, and patronize me.
And, worst of all, I suffered in silence. I didn’t tell my co-workers or supervisors. My fear of judgement and misunderstanding was too big. The only way I knew how to deal with my symptoms was to try a little harder and never slow down.
Anxiety was in the driver’s seat for the first 10 years of my career, taking me on a terrifying and relentless ride with many highs and even more lows… The train went off the rails a couple of years ago when I found myself descending into a major mental health crisis.
Thanks to therapy, medication, and a tremendous amount of hard work, I have come to accept and own the reality that I live with high-functioning anxiety. Today I recognize my thought and behavior patterns and use practical skills to intervene when I feel myself getting sucked into the anxiety vortex.
The following six life hacks come straight out of my lived experience.
“Mental illnesses are in part biological, and I try to remember to think of my anxiety as I would any other physical condition. This helps me to cut off my worry about how I am feeling at the pass.”
Do you know the symptoms of high-functioning anxiety? If you don’t, get to know them. If you do, understand and acknowledge how they impact you. Anxiety kicks our brains into overanalysis. “Why, why, why am I feeling like this?” Sometimes, there is a simple answer: “Because we have anxiety.” Ruminating over a simple decision, overpreparing for a meeting, or obsessing over a conversation often don’t mean anything more than that my anxiety is acting up.
Mental illnesses are in part biological, and I try to remember to think of my anxiety as I would any other physical condition. This helps me to cut off my worry about how I am feeling at the pass. I tell myself, “I have anxiety and that is OK.” I can accept that today is a little more challenging and focus my energy instead on how I can help myself.
If you have anxiety, fear is your friend. You may not like it, but it’s part of your life. And it motivates so much of what you do. Have you stopped to examine the nature of your fear? Have you connected it back to past experiences that may be telling you that you aren’t smart or successful enough? Why is it that you’re so focused on the approval of others?
In my experience, anxiety can’t be ignored or pretended away. With the help of a therapist, I stopped to look my fear in the face. Rather than feeding it with more anxiety, I worked to understand where it was coming from.
For example, I can recognize that my fear isn’t so much about having a stellar presentation as it is about my need to be liked and accepted. This awareness has taken away some of the power it has over me.
Once I began to understand it, my fear became much less scary, and I was able to make critical connections between the basis of my fear and how I was behaving at work.
“I take walks outside, sometimes during my lunch break. I exercise. I do yoga. And when I feel too busy or too overwhelmed… I do these things anyway. Because I need them, even if it’s just for 10 or 15 minutes”
Anxiety is just as much physical as it is mental. People with high-functioning anxiety tend to live in their heads and find it hard to break the cycle of fearful thinking and feeling. I used to spend 10 to 12 hours at the office every day, and never exercise. I felt stuck, both physically and mentally. A critical component of how I deal with my symptoms today is by reconnecting with my body.
I use deep breathing all day, every day. Whether I am in a meeting, at my computer, or driving home in traffic, I can take slow, deep breaths to circulate more oxygen, relax my muscles, and lower my blood pressure. I stretch at my desk. I take walks outside, sometimes during my lunch break. I exercise. I do yoga.
And when I feel too busy or too overwhelmed… I do these things anyway. Because I need them, even if it’s just for 10 or 15 minutes. Having a healthy relationship with my body gets me out of my head and channels my nervous energy in a more positive direction.
I have learned how to talk back to my fear. When that not-so-little voice inside starts to tell me that I’m not good enough or that I need to push myself even harder, I have developed a few phrases to say back to it:
“Who I am right now is good enough for me.”
“I am doing my best.”
“I am not perfect and I love myself for who I am.”
“I deserve to take good care of myself.”
This tool is especially helpful when it comes to dealing with a challenging symptom of high-functioning anxiety: perfectionism. Having a mantra is empowering, and it gives me an opportunity to practice self-care and to cope with anxiety at the same time. I remember that I have a voice and that what I need is important, especially when it comes to my mental health.
“When I start to obsess and check back and forth, back and forth, I stop. I make myself walk away from whatever is causing my anxiety to rise.”
Anxiety feeds off of anxiety, like a giant snowball rolling downhill. Once you have identified your symptoms, you can learn how to intervene when they appear, and step out of the way before you get rolled over.
I find it difficult to make decisions, whether they’re about designing a brochure or picking out a brand of dishwasher detergent. When I start to obsess and check back and forth, back and forth, I stop. I make myself walk away from whatever is causing my anxiety to rise.
One tool I use is a timer. When the timer goes off, I hold myself accountable and I walk away. If I’ve had a particularly stressful week at work, I don’t follow that with a jam-packed weekend. This may mean saying “No” and disappointing someone, but I need to prioritize my own wellness. I have identified activities outside of work that are soothing for me, and I make time for myself to do them.
Learning how to moderate my own emotions and behaviors in response to anxiety has been key to managing my symptoms, and has decreased my overall level of stress.
One of my biggest fears was telling people at work about my anxiety. I was afraid of telling people around me that I was afraid — talk about a negative thought cycle! I would fall into a black-and-white thinking pattern of either telling nobody or telling everybody. But I have since learned that there is a healthy in-between.
I reached out to a few people at the office whom I felt comfortable with. It really helps to be able to talk to one or two people when you’re having a bad day. This took a tremendous amount of pressure off of me, as I was no longer powering through each day with a superhuman persona of positivity. Creating a small support squad was the first step toward creating a more authentic me, both in my work and personal life.
I also found that my being open worked both ways, because I soon found that my colleagues would come to me too, which made me feel really good about my decision to open up.
All six of these life hacks can be put together into an effective high-functioning anxiety toolbox. Whether I am at work or at home or out with friends, I can use these skills to put myself back in the driver’s seat. Learning how to cope with anxiety doesn’t happen overnight, something that we Type A’s can find frustrating. But I am confident that if I put even a fraction of that overachieving energy into my own wellness, the results will be positive.
Amy Marlow lives with major depression and generalized anxiety disorder, and is the author of Blue Light Blue, which was named one of our Best Depression Blogs.