Stress for Success: Dealing with High Functioning Anxiety

You know those days when things are all sort of alright, right up until they’re not? When you can hold things together, right up until you reach some sort of “breaking point?” And then suddenly you’re on the ground crying for no reason for fifteen minutes while your cat just stares at you judgmentally… Needless to say, I have those days. And, though I’d like to blame myself for them, there might be a different culprit: high functioning anxiety.

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But then, what is high functioning anxiety? How is it different from other forms of anxiety? And, if any of this seems relatable, how are you supposed to deal with it in a high-stress environment? Dealing with this is hard, and in university, it gets harder. And while I’m not here to provide a cure (spoiler) I might have a solution that can help.

The Interesting Combination that is High Functioning + Anxiety

High functioning anxiety, sometimes termed ‘hidden anxiety,’ is a variant of general anxiety. It usually doesn’t seem like it exists – you can handle pressure, finish assignments well and on time, and so on. But, instead of being motivated by want or gain, you’re motivated by fear. That is, of course, a pretty simplistic explanation. But it’s the gist of how this works.

Now, this can manifest in a number of ways – working especially hard on assignments out of a fear of failing, going to all kinds of social outings out of a fear of losing friends, and so on. And maybe that doesn’t sound so bad, but take the consequences of those things – not sleeping, not relaxing, not eating properly – and a dangerous situation emerges.

But, because this kind of anxiety is hidden, chances are people won’t detect anxiety. They’ll just see a so-called ‘try-hard’ with bad habits. In my own experience, making my high functioning anxiety known usually involves actually mentioning it. It can seem to simply be school stress, or being busy, or some other mundane reason. Misconceptions are common and numerous. One of them is mistaking high functioning anxiety for general anxiety.

High Functioning and General Anxiety

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(Someone so, so punny like me might say there’s a rainbow of different kinds of anxiety)

What makes high-functioning anxiety different from general anxiety is, from what I understand, the need to do stuff. Not just normal stuff, but things you might have anxiety about. I, for example, have your average social anxiety when it comes to social things, and high functioning anxiety when it comes to school.

With the social anxiety, the name of the game is avoidance – not getting into uncomfortable situations, not doing things about which I get anxious. It’s about getting super nervous about doing something. So, if presented with, say, a party, my answer would be a very quick no. Translate that into university, and it may become avoiding a class because of Anxiety Reasons.

High-functioning anxiety works in an opposite way. In a social situation, that means fear of missing out. In a university situation, that means overworking, or when you’re not working, feeling guilty about it.

Take a homework assignment for example. Say you’ve got to write an essay, and it’s due in two weeks. High functioning anxiety means you will probably a) feel terrible about not starting it and finishing it right away, b) will spend way too much time on it (we’re talking staying up all night writing, not taking breaks, etc.) and c) pretty much be unable to handle the idea of it not being totally perfect.

So, basically, it’s the sort of anxiety that says, ‘hey, sacrifice your health and well being because You Must Pass.’ Not healthy, right? Well, maybe there’s some way to lessen the negative effects.

A Not-S0-Simple Solution?

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(Trying to overcome anxiety)

The downside of this is that barring official help, there’s not a whole lot of official instruction on how to deal with anxiety. Popular solutions are going to be different for different people, and unfortunately, may not fully work for everyone. But, don’t be disheartened. Because there must still be some rule of thumb that may help.

See, rather than focusing on the whole ‘cure my anxiety’ stuff, I think it’s important to look at how to stay healthy with high functioning anxiety. Which, believe it or not, may not be that hard. Now, while I recognize that bringing this all down to one solution is in no way going to help everyone, I think it still might be of some benefit.

So, what’s my way of dealing with high functioning anxiety? Making schedules, and sticking to them. Plan out your readings, plan out your time to write assignments, and if it helps, even plan yourself some relaxation time. This provides a little relief to the two Big Things about high functioning anxiety: overworking, and feeling guilty about not working.

With overworking, making a schedule means you limit your time to work on assignments. Of course, give yourself enough time to finish things well. But don’t spend all night on a paper. Don’t do it. Instead, work for the time you’ve allotted yourself, get as much done as possible, then move on for the day. And, if your scheduled time isn’t enough, then just adjust your calendar. The idea here is to not end up spending a whole night awake trying to finish a paper.

With feeling guilty about doing nothing, well, if you’ve scheduled a time to work, and you’ve followed your schedule, then you’re allowed to relax! Having done all you’ve scheduled for a day, you can (attempt to) rest assured that you’re not wasting time by doing whatever you enjoy. It’s a harder thing to rationalize, I get that, but it does certainly help a bit.

You Got This!

The central message here: high functioning anxiety is hard to deal with, unique, but not totally unbeatable. If my solution doesn’t work, then look into other ways to handle things. In the end, you got this!

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