What It’s Like Inside the Life of a Person With High Functioning Anxiety

Dawn Bevier

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People always say to write about what you know. Well, I know Anxiety. I’ve lived with her for decades, so long that I really don’t even know when our relationship first started. But I do know two things about her.

Fact one: She’s a tyrant.

Fact two: She rules her kingdom by speaking only two words.

What if?

And her subjects react to these words in one of two ways.

The first way is immobility, a paralysis of sorts that keeps some huddled in their beds, on their couches, scared to go out into the world. It’s a sweatpants, pajamas and messy buns type of anxiety, where one cocoons themselves in their homes in an attempt to feel safe in a world that seems fraught with danger.

The second way is much more pleasing to the eye. It’s Anxiety “with her makeup on.” Psychologists have a term for this type of anxiety. They call it “high functioning anxiety.”

And this is the type of anxiety that I have. Sounds like the better end of the spectrum right? After all, I am out in the world, “dealing” with this beast inside of me, and most people never know.

Aren’t I a rock star?

Not so much.

And if you have this type of anxiety, you know exactly what I mean.

What it means to have “high functioning anxiety”

Workaholism:

I never stop working. Never. I am always working on some goal (usually multiple goals if I am honest), some chore, or some bullet point of a to-do list that seems to never end. For example, I am a teacher, mother, and writer in progress. And teaching and mothering can fill every minute of every day. But when you add a two-hour writing obligation into the mix, it becomes a vortex of never-ending motion.

And speaking of obligations, for people with high functioning anxiety everything is an obligation. Everything is a priority. Everything is a task that must be handled in two ways.

It must be done immediately.

It must be done perfectly.

There is no putting things off until tomorrow or saying to oneself “I’ve got plenty of time” to do this or finish that.

Because what if something unexpected happens in the meantime that will require our attention? What if there’s an emergency that might come up?

For example, I’m renewing my National Board Certification as a teacher in the fall. It’s one of the highest certifications a teacher can have. And one of the requirements is that you complete a lot of professional development, meaning you attend workshops or conferences to help you expand your teaching repertoire.

So, I decided to take a self-paced course on how to teach remotely. I started four days ago but I have until June to finish.

I finished yesterday. In three days. Between my daily writing habit, creating online lesson plans (which, by the way, I’m already a week ahead on), and this class, I sat at the computer almost all day for three days straight.

Why?

Because what if I need to take more courses? What if the amount of professional development they expect is more than I have? What if I need to give myself time to complete more development later on (even though I have until next April to do so)?

There is also no “this is good enough” on a work assignment or a household project.

Because what if people look at it and think I’m a slacker”? Or I’m lazy? Or I’m incompetent?

And a lot of people look at these qualities with a sort of envy. “I don’t know how you do it all,” they say. It must be nice to “have it all together,” they say.

But their statements could not be farther than the truth.

Because for people with high functioning anxiety two things never stop: your brain or your body.

Very Well Mind elaborates on the characteristics of those with high functioning anxiety by saying that “beneath the surface of a seemingly perfect exterior,[those who have this disorder fight] a constant churn of anxiety.” And they go on to list the reasons for this anxiety-fueled success as “nervous energy, fear of failure, and fear of disappointing others .”

Needles to say, this cycle of constant motion and fearful thought is exhausting. Because in this world, the number of threats and“what if’s” are endless.

And adding to this exhaustion is another common trait of those with high functioning anxiety: lack of sleep.

Insomnia

The constant work ethic of persons with high functioning anxiety would seem to necessitate rest. After all, without adequate sleep, a person with this nature is more susceptible to burnout, sickness, and irritability.

And people like me know this. But it makes no difference.

We try to get the sleep we need. But the minute we open our eyes in the middle of the night, the minute we hear a strange noise or our pet needs to go out, the minute our bladder calls to us, the “game is afoot” as Sherlock Holmes would say.

Our mind starts swirling with that damned to-do list. We’re already up, right? But we try to lie back down because we know our body needs rest. So, we force ourselves to curl up in our beds and try to go to a peaceful place in our brains to make the “what-if’s” go away. But they won’t.

And sometimes these “what ifs” are different. More positive (in a twisted sort of way). For example, “What if I get a head start on that work assignment now?” What if I use this time to do laundry so I can have more time to write?

So up we go, “back in the saddle,” even if it’s 4 am (which is the time I am up right now writing).

In an article in Healthline, writer Amy Marlow explains her experience with high functioning anxiety by saying, “While some are frozen by anxiety, I am propelled by it at a million miles an hour.”

And while this desire to accomplish often results in increased career success, it destroys something far more important: personal relationships.

Inability to sustain successful personal relationships

People like me with high functioning anxiety frequently find their need to stave off fear with endless work causes their personal relationships to suffer. There are a number of reasons that this happens, but the most important one is the hardest to overcome.

We can never be fully present.

Adding to our endless list of fears, people with high functioning anxiety also worry about the fact that our time spent working on achievement means sacrificing intimacy with those whom we love and care about most.

So we try desperately to do the things we need to do to keep these relationships alive. We sit with our lover, relaxing and talking over a glass of wine. We play games with our children or take them to the park. But the problem is, our bodies are there but our minds aren’t.

And unfortunately, we don’t find our desperate need to achieve erased by the soothing properties of a glass of wine or the gleeful laughter of our children as they romp under a cloudless blue sky. We are, in fact, simply checking another block to stave off failure, in this case, failure to be a good mother or a loving spouse. We are simply waiting until we can feel satisfied that we have done our job as a partner or parent so we can move back to that to-do list I have spoken of so often.

And our lovers try to understand, but after a while, they get tired of seeing the back of our body as we type away on the computer. Our children get tired of hearing “Give me just a few more minutes and then I’ll stop” when they ask us to read them a story or have a tea party. And though the skeleton of these relationship remains, the laughter, connection, and attention that give them flesh, blood, and life often fall away.

And this brings about other fears.

What if they leave us? What if they resent us for our inability to be truly in the moment? What if they decide “Mommy doesn’t care” and give up on their desire to receive love and connection with us?

We try so hard to give each area of our lives our most perfect selves, but when you are juggling a million balls, one is bound to drop. And when this inevitability happens, we detest ourselves because we have failed: the one thing in life we fear most has become a reality.

The bottom line:

I know if you don’t have this type of anxiety, my statements can seem a bit “over the top” or overly dramatic. But to those of us who do suffer from this disorder, it’s real life. No exaggeration involved.

Yet, we continue on in our quest to avoid failure. We pick up the dropped ball, throw it back up, and attempt once more to keep it and all the other balls in the air. Because we can’t stop trying. It’s the nature of the beast with which we live.

So please, if you love someone with this type of anxiety, be gentle. Try to be understanding. They are fighting a demon that never stops chasing them.

Fear.

And that means they can never stop running, take a break, or catch their breath.

And what they need most right now other than a therapist (which they would never go to because it would mean they were failing at life)is your loving arms and support. Because the only thing greater than fear is love.

People like me with this type of anxiety have been waiting to exhale for so long. And love might be just the thing that allows us to stop. And breathe. And get closer to seeing that to the people that love us, we’re already enough just as we are. No “what-if’s” about it.

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Sanford, NC
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