Think of the most busy, perfectionistic, high achieving person you know. They are always focused on something, a project, an activity, an obsession – maybe it’s all of those things at once. They probably won dux of the school in every subject, all the teachers love them and they always have a million things to do each day. They probably have many obsessions; exercise, studying, practicing, being popular. Somehow they have enough energy to do all of those things and still be happy, have relationships, and achieve the best results.
But beneath the surface, things may not be so rosy. In many cases (I can’t say all because there are those rare wiz kids who do it all), these traits are actually signs of a well disguised mental illness. You see it every day; people who are seemingly perfect on the outside, but if you know them well enough you’ll see the glimmer of panic in their eyes every time something goes minutely wrong. This article is about a particular type of anxiety called High Functioning Anxiety, which I have personally been suffering from since I was a teenager. I didn’t realise this until I was diagnosed just two years ago. As an attempt to end the taboo that surrounds mental health illnesses, I am going to tell my story and explain what it feels like.
Feeling stressed is a common and normal response to being under pressure. In a healthy person, stress usually passes once the stressful situation is over, or the ‘stressor’ is removed. ‘Anxiety’ is when the stressful feelings don’t subside, and continue to exist for no comprehensible reason. Normal stresses become increasingly overwhelming, and abnormal stresses shadow the mind in a constant attempt to take over.
We often stereotype depression and anxiety disorders with the same image; a person crying in a corner, pulling their hair out, or locking themselves in a dark room to escape the outside world. We categorize these illnesses in a way that is obvious, by recognising the physical symptoms, and associating these with anxiety and depression. But ‘high functioning anxiety’ is different. By its very nature, ‘high functioning’ can be described as ‘working normally’ or ‘working well’. This creates the misconception that a person with high functioning anxiety is less mentally ill, or has an easier life than someone with another type of anxiety disorder, which entirely is untrue.
The condition is invisible from the outside, until it consumes a person entirely. When it sneaks out, it converts into nervous habits: nail biting, fidgeting, sweating, and hair pulling. Later you might see it in their Facebook messages, or hear it in their nervous laughter. This is when it’s getting so bad, the power that enables them to hide their disorder is weakening. This is potentially the biggest fear of a person suffering from high functioning anxiety; becoming known, and essentially un-functioning.
In my case, anxiety became too severe to handle this year with the stress of too many commitments, university study and exams. I struggled with the exact same thing in both year 11 and 12. For some reason I thought being at University would be better, but I was wrong. At first things were fine, I was participating in several extracurricular activities, catching up with friends, and was reasonably happy – but that didn’t last long. Assignments started pouring in, everything became overwhelming and I felt more isolated than ever.
During first semester, I started each day with a plan, a series of lists, and unachievable goals to complete. People didn’t understand how I could be so busy, and why I couldn’t rearrange my schedule. Little did they know that stopping my plan for just half an hour to do something caused me to feel indescribably awful and physically sick. Study, high marks and being perfect were all that mattered.
Anxiety often causes a person to feel out of control, especially in high functioning anxiety. You’ll see a glimmer of panic in their eyes when a plan changes, when anything changes. It may be just one scenario that pushes them over the edge. For example, when my anxiety is bad, the fear of losing control becomes gradually worse and I become very easily stressed when little things change. If you know me, you’re probably thinking ‘but Maddie is such a naturally well-organized and extremely studious person?’, which is true. Even before I struggled with my mental health I was a child who enjoyed a good to-do list. Embarrassingly, even my imaginary games were planned and I would get very upset if anyone tried to change them. Of course these weren’t necessarily bad traits. But when anxiety took over, the pressure I put on myself became too heavy for me to handle.
A day without a plan was enough to make me crumble. Free time, and empty spaces suffocated me, because I couldn’t bare to be alone with my own thoughts. I would even plan my weekends; wake up, exercise, study, eat snack, text boyfriend, spend time with pets, make smoothie, exercise again, study until bed, sleep at 1am then wake up at 5.30 to repeat. So I removed everything I could from my life that would distract me. I saw my friends less, saw my boyfriend less, and locked myself away to study all day, every day. The pain I felt when I failed to do these things involved physically shaking, crying, and hyperventilating, as well as emotional feelings of intense grief and frustration. When my anxiety is bad, this pain follows me around wherever I go, and there’s no easy way to stop it.
Anxiety is also frustratingly impossible for me to switch off. When I’ve been obviously struggling with anxiety, many friends have said to me, “try taking a break once in awhile”, which sounds easy enough right? Yes I could take a break, spend a day at home, reading a nice book, having a bubble bath or a rejuvenating nap. These are all relaxation activities, which seem like the obvious solution for someone in stress. But for those activities to cause a feeling of peace, the people must be able to calm themselves. Otherwise you’re just sitting there as stressed as you were before, but this time you’re holding a book, in the bath or lying restless in bed. It’s the same feeling, now with an added prop which frustratingly won’t make you better like everyone says it should.
High functioning anxiety is about feeling an overwhelming amount of energy and stress, so much that you force yourself to find ways to channel it. When my anxiety is bad, I am always looking for the next outlet, something to focus my never-ending energy on; making schedules, making lists, exercising, writing, studying and whatever else it might take to drain the penetrating thoughts in my head. I often find myself in a crying mess at night, because the worst-case scenario just went through my head at high speed and felt so real I can’t breathe. I won’t reply to my friend’s text messages because I’m not mentally ready, and I know if I open up my essay long message I will freak them out and they’ll think I’m crazy or I’ll scare them away.
Anxiety is a thief. It robs you of any peace you may have received from particular activities, and everything becomes a challenge, and you don’t even know why. All of a sudden, the lecture theater, the toilets, or in my case the silent study area of the library is a terrifying place. You hold back tears as you near it, in the hope no one will see the condition you try so hard to conceal. Things you love, become your worst fear, and things that make you feel better make you want to be sick.
However, this doesn’t mean anxiety is not treatable. Mental health illnesses never truly leave us, but they can be managed. For the past three years I have tried every treatment you can think of and I’ve discovered things that work for me. The first step to finding these things is accepting that you have a mental illness. It’s not just normal stress, and it won’t go away. Like feeling happy or sad, anxiety can happen just as easily, and at times more easily. Acceptance is the first step to self management of this kind of disorder. Begin by calling it by its name; Anxiety. For me, I found learning the science of the disorder very helpful too. It enabled me to understand what’s actually happening in my brain, and realise I wasn’t going completely crazy.
Learning to say ‘I need help’ is the next crucial step. Realise that you deserve help, and although you may not have it really bad, know it’s ok to seek treatment. I remember feeling very guilty when I first made a philologist appointment. I thought ‘why am I doing this, surely I don’t need it?’ Learning to confide in a trustworthy friend is just as important as a professional in my opinion, especially because my anxiety makes me very dependent upon others. Because I was so trapped in my mind, I couldn’t see how bad I was. With the help of my close friends and boyfriend, I was able to take the step to getting help. I now see a psychologist regularly, I confide in my close friends and left those who didn’t support me. I’m not going to lie and say getting help was easy, but for me personally I wouldn’t be the same person without it.
Anxiety changes you. It can make you depressed, physically sick and an awful person to be around. I learnt that just because I was ‘functioning’, it didn’t mean that I was happy, or that I shouldn’t have slowed down and taken a deep breathe to realise the state I was in. Right now in my life I’m still struggling with my anxiety, but I’m a million times better than I was earlier this year, all because I knew what to do. Don’t let ignorance stop you. Learn how to get better by following those steps; acceptance, seeking help, and confiding in those close to you. Finally, never let high functioning anxiety fool you into thinking that you’re fine… or let someone make fun of your obsessive list making. They have their own troubles, and at least you can smile knowing they’re nowhere near as organized as you.