You’ve heard the stats. Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia, with one in three women experiencing it in their lifetime.*
But while it’s often linked to paralysing panic attacks and withdrawal from daily life, sometimes anxiety has the opposite effect; a nervous energy that keeps pushing you forward at a million miles an hour, its symptoms masked by smiles and success.
Sound familiar? Here are seven signs your high-achieving life might be shrouding high-functioning anxiety – plus expert tips to keep calm and carry on.
1. You have a chronic fear of failure
“High-functioning anxiety tends to be underpinned by a fear of negative evaluation or failure,” explains Dr Jodie Lowinger, principal clinical psychologist at the Sydney Anxiety Clinic. “This can create an ‘all or nothing’ way of thinking. It’s a sense of ‘If I’m not perfect, I’m a failure.’ Or ‘If I’m not brilliant, then I’m terrible.’”
While these thought processes often lead to greatness, they can also stir up inner turmoil. The more you achieve, the higher you set your expectations, resulting in a vicious cycle of perfectionism. The stress bubbles away just beneath the surface, but the second things get out of control, a more serious panic attack or breakdown could erupt.
2. You’re addicted to being busy
You’re the last to leave the office, pack your weekends tighter than a bandage dress and despise island holidays. You joke about how you can’t relax, but your hectic schedule is also a cover-up for angst: what will happen if you suddenly stop and are left alone with your thoughts?
According to psychologist Jacqui Manning (The Friendly Pyschologist), we all need to hop off the hamster wheel. “In today’s fast-paced, highly connected society, we wear busyness as a badge of pride, but everyone needs some time out. Just 10 minutes with a cup of tea, a quick walk or even taking two deep breaths will get the endorphins going and help relieve stress.”
3. You have aches, pains and nervous habits
Psychologists and doctors agree: our physical and mental states are inextricably linked. So that niggling headache or shoulder pain might represent more than you think. Anxiety manifests in myriad ways, says Dr Lowinger, “as a by-product of the ‘fight or flight’ reaction”. Think muscle tension, increased heart rate, shallow breathing, hyperventilation, knots in your stomach and diarrhoea.
High-functioning anxiety sufferers tend to do a good job of keeping these symptoms hidden, but nerves can also spill out in habits and tics: foot-tapping, nail-biting, hair-twisting and lip-chewing, to name a few.
4. No is not in your vocabulary
One syllable, two letters – that you struggle to utter. Women are particularly prone to “Yes” syndrome, but those with high-functioning anxiety can take it to new people-pleasing levels. You put enormous pressure on yourself and hate the idea of letting others down, linking back to that fear of negative evaluation. Your strategy: taking on more and more, stretching yourself thin and putting the demands of others above your own well-being.
Dr Lowinger, who also runs corporate coaching company Mind Strength, helps high-flyers find strategies to use these qualities – high standards, concern for others – for good. “We don’t necessarily want to get rid of our anxiety, she explains. “We just want to use it in helpful ways.”
5. You don’t sleep easy
Sure, you function well during the day, but all that internalised anxiety is likely to creep out at night. “A common symptom is waking up at two or three in the morning and not being able to get back to sleep,” says Manning. To calm a racing mind, she recommends switching your phone to flight mode – not only will it reduce exposure to slumber-thwarting blue light, but also help you unplug and unwind.
6. People describe you as stoic and hard to read
There are those who broadcast their stress with the prowess of a PR guru, making their hefty workload and frantic schedule known to anyone within earshot; and then there’s you. You get on with the task at hand and keep your worries under wraps, earning yourself a reputation as stoic and uncomplaining.
Admirable, yes. Beneficial, not always. If nobody knows you’re distressed, the status quo will remain. Plus, constantly shielding your emotions makes it harder to form meaningful connections. Next time you feel a ball of stress rising in your stomach, remember, it’s ok to show you’re struggling.
7. You make overthinking an artform
Do you dwell, stew and fret? “Worry is the ‘what ifs?’ of the future, while rumination is the ‘shoulds and shouldn’t haves’,” explains Dr Lowinger. Those with high-functioning anxiety disorder often fall into this pattern because of their analytical minds.
The solution is one you’ve heard before, though have perhaps tried to resist given your ever-racing brain: mindfulness. The hype is backed by science, with a new study in Psychiatry Research revealing that of 89 participants with anxiety disorder, those who practised mindfulness meditation had “sharply reduced stress hormone and inflammatory responses to a stressful situation”.** Sign us up.