Why we need to talk more about high functioning anxiety

The term “high functioning anxiety” clicked immediately for me when I first heard it. According to Very Well Mind, high functioning anxiety, while not a recognized diagnosis, is a term used to describe people who live with anxiety but are able to function reasonably well in various parts of their life.

While you might think of an anxious person as someone who skips out on opportunities or fails to follow through on their commitments because of anxiety, for those who consider themselves high functioning, it has the opposite effect.

In my experience, anxiety propels me forward—it pushes me to take on more commitments, to work harder, and to prepare more. Ironically, my anxiety is one of the reasons that I am so successful. It is also the reason that people do not realize I have anxiety—because I continue to perform well, and it makes me work hard to cover up the fact that I am anxious.

Though I have had anxiety my entire life, I had no idea until relatively recently. I continued to lead a successful life. I was a high achiever, so my parents and teachers had no reason to think that there was anything wrong with me. I did not see anything in books or movies that told me what I was feeling was anxiety. I thought that everyone lived in a constant state of nervousness and worry, but that you were supposed to keep that inside and not talk about it.

There is comparatively little recognition or support for high functioning anxiety because it is generally an invisible mental illness and because people who suffer from it continue to benefit those around them.

I was listening recently to an episode of Self Helpless, one of my favorite podcasts in the mental health space, and Taylor Tomlinson mentioned how it feels like no one cares about your mental health until you are fully breaking down. As long as you are still working and benefiting them, you are not going to get a break, even if you say that you are not doing well!  

I had never heard someone verbalize this, but it is how I have felt my entire life. A few times, I have even caught myself wishing that something terrible would happen in my life just so that people would stop expecting so much from me and I could take some time off without guilt.

Any time that I have sought professional help or talked to friends and family when I am feeling particularly anxious, they have said that I seem to be doing fine. Because I am doing well at school or work, staying organized, and keeping up with my relationships, nothing is wrong.

When I first went to therapy in college after going through a traumatic experience., my sessions were ended after only a few weeks. My therapist told me that I was doing very well in my classes and was even keeping up with my numerous extracurricular activities. She thought I didn’t need any more help. In truth, I was using school to escape my problems.

Then, in grad school, I was facing a larger workload and was feeling more stressed than normal. I remember talking to some of my extended family members about how my anxiety was pretty bad. They basically told me that anxiety is a part of life, so I better get used to it. One of them also said that people in our family cope with stress by drinking…yeah, not so helpful advice.

My anxiety continued to build and towards the end of grad school, I sought professional help as I started to experience severe anxiety, panic attacks, and what I now realize was burnout. I saw a number of different psychologists and psychiatrists who gave me different diagnoses and medications. What ultimately “worked” was leaving my program, moving back home, and recuperating for a few months (along with some strong anti-anxiety medication).

It is still astounding to me that so many medical professionals were stumped by my problems. I still clearly remember the most dismissive and frankly traumatizing thing that was said to me during this time: “people like you aren’t supposed to be here.”

We cannot treat certain mental health issues as not real, simply because the people suffering continue to function as productive members of society. If someone says that something is wrong, we need to believe them. As I heard recently on another great mental health podcast called High Functioning, your struggles are valid and legitimate, regardless of your level of productivity.  

As someone with high functioning anxiety, I now realize that no one at work or in my life is going to give me break. It’s not because they are terrible people but simply because they cannot tell that anything is wrong with me. This was a powerful realization because it helped me understand that I am the only one who can give myself a break.

While I hope that the stigma around mental health will be further broken down, and that we can recognize high functioning anxiety as a real issue, understanding this has given me the power to take control and do what I need to do for myself. I am not going to wait for anyone else to recognize that I am suffering.

-M

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