My “Stress” Was Actually High-Functioning Anxiety

“Anxiety is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but it doesn’t get you very far.” ~Jodi Picoult Many years ago, I worked in the technology sector in Austin, Texas, which is a big “tech town.” I was incredibly focused on building my career and earning a higher and higher salary. I also have two daughters, who were in elementary school at the time. I’m divorced and am the primary care giver for them. Like so many divorced moms, I was doing a lot. I would run through a mental list of daily to-dos from the time I woke up and continue to do so throughout the day. I didn’t want to forget anything. I was juggling home life, work life, and trying to have a personal life too. Overwhelmed? You bet I was. I frequently felt like I was rushing from one thing to the next, all day long. Rush to get the kids and myself out the door in the morning. Rush to work. At work, I would be focused on getting everything done so I could be out the door in time to get home to make dinner and help with homework. I usually also had some sort of housework to do in the evening. I rushed to get my daughters to bed on time and hoped I would have enough time for some “me time” so I could actually relax and have some quiet time before bed. But, I’d already be thinking about the list of things I had to do the next day, and the cycle would start all over again. What I thought I felt was stress. We all hear the phrase “I’m so stressed out,” particularly when we have a lot going on. That described me perfectly. I was constantly busy, so I was constantly stressed. Or so I thought. What I actually was suffering from was high-functioning anxiety. High-functioning anxiety isn’t a specific type of anxiety, but rather a term that refers to anxiety where the individual is still highly functioning, with the anxiety “just below the surface.”  Think of high-functioning anxiety as hidden anxiety, where others may not realize someone has anxiety at all. Individuals with high-functioning anxiety are often very successful and tend to be high achievers. Their anxiety doesn’t prohibit them from accomplishments. In fact, their anxiety may be part of the reason they are successful. Their anxiety drives them to do more in both their personal and professional life. To outsiders, they will appear put-together, competent, and often appear calm. But on the inside, those with high-functioning anxiety spend a lot of time overthinking and ruminating. They are afraid of failure and worry about what others think of them. This described me perfectly. I had never heard of high-functioning anxiety and had a perception of those with anxiety as people who are fearful, wide-eyed, and maybe even shaky or jittery. I thought that people with anxiety couldn’t function “normally” and that their anxiety would perhaps even be debilitating. I didn’t think that anxiety applied to me at all. But I am high-achieving and successful, and anxiety is a big part of what got me to where I was at that point in my life. I didn’t realize that I had anxiety, and no one else would have either. That constant mental to-do list I mentioned? That was me overthinking. And it wasn’t just my daily to-do list that I was overthinking, it was everything. I overthought regarding my daughters and their school work. I overthought about what needed to be done in terms of housework. I overthought about other people and their motivations, why they said specific things or why they didn’tsay things. My mind was constantly going, chattering away. I had my sights set so high, particularly as it pertained to my career, that I was afraid of failure and thought the mental obsessions at work were me just “pushing myself” or me doing a good job. Truly, I thought that the way I felt was part of what gave me my edge, and that people I thought of as less successful were people who were lazy, or didn’t spend time thinking enough about how they wanted to be and how they wanted to get somewhere in life. The problem is that those with high-functioning anxiety are just as at risk as others with an official mental health diagnosis of an anxiety disorder. They are prone to mental and physical fatigue, and could be likely to use alcohol or drugs as a coping method. And I did get mental and physical fatigue. In fact, I wound up developing a severe autoimmune reaction that was triggered in part by the anxiety. I had been operating at a heightened state for so long that my body and nervous system could no longer cope. My body just “gave out.” That illness was a huge wake up call for me and led me down a path to healing myself that I never could have anticipated. I took a holistic approach to healing that included a radical diet change, journaling, and energy healing. I also started to do a lot less. I let things go because I had to. It took me about a year and a half to heal my body and along the way, it was my mind that healed too. I started to really assess who I had been and the path I had been on, and frankly, how unhealthy I had been in my mental churning and preoccupations. I still didn’t realize that I had been in the throes of high-functioning anxiety (I stumbled upon the concept later), but I did realize that I didn’t want to be the person that I was before. I wanted to be at peace. If you suspect that you have high-functioning anxiety, know that you can heal also. One healing technique I often use, still to this day, is the “feet on the floor” method, which is a very simplified but highly effective alternative to meditation. It can be done either sitting or standing. With your feet on the floor, focus on feeling your feet touching down. Feel your entire foot as much as you can: heal, sole, ball of foot and toes. Still focusing on your feet, take a few deep breaths. When you feel your feet on the floor, you become very present to the moment and get out of your head. This technique brings you into the moment and can help calm you down, particularly when you feel yourself spiraling with racing thoughts. Plus, this technique is super sneaky. You can do it anywhere and no one knows you’re doing it. You can be sitting at your desk at work, standing in line at the grocery store, etc. and no one around you will have any idea you are using this technique. The more you practice feeling your feet on the floor, the more often you’ll automatically do it without having to remind yourself to do it. Once you feel yourself start to get anxious, you’ll use the technique almost like second nature, because you’ve trained yourself to do it and it is so effective. Another way to manage your high-functioning anxiety is to make abstract art that represents how you want to feel instead of anxious. You don’t have to consider yourself an artist to use this technique. A simple blank white sheet of paper and some markers are all that are needed. Just let your hand flow with colors, shapes, and patterns that represent how you want to feel. If you do happen to be artistically inclined, you could draw a self-portrait or you in some scene or setting where you feel calm and joyous. When you’re creating art, you’re accessing a totally different part of your brain than you use when you’re in the midst of anxiety. Being artistic is a way for you to tap into another part of you that is outside of the anxiety. Plus, it can be very cathartic to create. Use these two techniques often, plus focus on making small changes and know that it will take time to heal. You’ll have good days and bad days. In working through your anxiety, focus on the good feelings when you have them and tell yourself that you want more of them. They will be your anchor. About Heather Rider Heather Rider, known professionally as The Energy Synergist, is an anxiety specialist. She is a former overworked, overstressed perfectionist. While working in the Austin high tech industry, she developed a severe autoimmune reaction that was triggered in part by high-functioning anxiety. She now works with high-achieving, high-stress women who are ready to shift out of anxiety without the use of pharmaceuticals, using nontraditional, holistic approaches to healing. www.theenergysynergist.com. See a typo or inaccuracy? Please contact us so we can fix it!

The Simple Tools That Have Saved My Mental Health

“Think of the world…you carry within yourself and set it above everything that you notice about you. Your inmost happening is worth your whole love, that is what you must somehow work at, and not lose too much time and too much courage in explaining your attitude to people.” ~Rainer Maria RilkeMy twenties taught me many things about navigating the outside world as an adult. Ironically, the biggest lesson was learning to pay close attention to my inner world. I turned thirty years young this year. Being on the cusp of a new decade feels momentous. Over these last ten years, I have struggled with depression, anxiety, and a crippling lack of self-confidence. On more than one occasion, I have looked down the dark abyss that awaits anyone with mental health issues. I even underwent counseling and therapy, sought recourse in medication, opened up to friends, and plunged myself unapologetically into the “self-help” universe. As I share my own battle, this frankness and willingness to be vulnerable may come as a surprise to some. Even in the modern world, the stigma of mental health illness remains omnipresent. We are conditioned to just “deal with it as a passing phase,” “snap out of it,” or, “toughen up.” Men, especially, are forced into a unidimensional version of masculinity—any outward display of emotion is a weakness. We are indoctrinated with the notion that illnesses of the mind are illegitimate and unworthy of public discourse. Despite limiting beliefs around open conversation, very few are spared from mental illness in their private lives. Once others see a possibility for dialogue, they begin to share too. Showing your bleeding wounds to another human being requires courage. But authenticity is infectious. We might inspire others with our determination to remain vulnerable and ask for help. Over these last few months, several friends and acquaintances have shared their personal struggles with me. Every time another person tells me they feel overwhelmed by their brains, my heart breaks a little. Incessant dark thoughts and emotions have taken over their daily lives. The problem of mental ailments, like depression and anxiety, is that unshakeable feeling of helplessness and hopelessness. You feel that there is no way out and, no matter what happens, the bad feelings will never go away. This distorted version of the truth presented by our brains convinces us that we have no agency. I know that numbed, broken version of one’s self that emerges as a result of these illnesses. But things can get better and, sure, it is not instantaneous; recovery may require several approaches. Today, I want to share what I have learned through my own experience. Wisdom is nothing but the ability to offer a piece of yourself to another human being. I wish I could reach out to every person in the world who is suffering from a mental health problem. I want to tell you that there is hope, lurking even within the shadows. To summarize the common tools that have helped me feel better, I list three. And remember, none of these take time: they actually make time—better use of your time. 1. Meditation A few years ago, I started meditating daily. It has changed my life. I started out with cynicism (like many people): How can I sit so still when I feel so empty and tired? How will I quieten my constant mental chatter? Don’t I first need to feel calm to even think about meditation? Does it even work? The response to all of the above questions and any others that are keeping you from meditation is: just do it and keep at it. Yes! You don’t need all the answers beforehand. You don’t need to be spiritual. You don’t need to join a retreat, become a yogi, or spend hours. You don’t need perfection, you need practice. Find a quiet place, close your eyes, put on earphones, and follow a guided meditation. Or if you prefer, do one yourself. And let go of the worry about doing it right, there is no such thing! It is time you take for yourself, and what can be better than making yourself a priority? Meditation helps refresh my mind-space amidst the darkest spells. It has brought me closer to my inner self. It has led me to observe my thoughts, not alter, judge, or arrest them—just observe them like traveling clouds. Meditation has taught me to look inward and enjoy the stillness in my core, despite all the worries and anxiety in the foreground. Honestly, just try it; you’ll find it addictive once you begin to build the muscle of meditation. Remember to stick with it though—meditating is a habit, a journey and not an intrinsic skill. No one is “made” for meditation, we all learn it. So be patient with yourself. 2. Mindfulness Writer Eckhart Tolle talks about the tendency of our minds to forever escape the present moment. We are too much in the past or too much in the future. In his life-altering book The Power of Now, he says all our worries, fears, and anxieties stem from this predisposition. Mindfulness is the practice of grounding of one’s self in the now, in this moment: this breath, just as it is. Easier said than done? I agree! Also why I believe that, like meditation, mindful awareness is a practice, a discipline. That said, each one of us has experienced mindfulness presence without realizing it. Every time a sunset, a panorama, a movie, a song, or a loved one takes your breath away and you are suspended in bliss—you are mindfully present. You are nowhere else but in that moment of joy. Doing this even without the positive stimulus is the challenge. A key element in mindfulness is acceptance or surrender: not adding to the suffering of a moment by wishing it were otherwise. When we resist reality, our present life-situation, we unconsciously build up resistance to what is, the “is-ness” of this moment. And resistance isn’t bad—on the contrary, resistance is what we can use to become mindful and present! However, surrender does not mean inaction; it means accepting what exists as true before deciding if action is necessary. Reaction is impulsive, mindful action is deliberate and, in my case, wiser and calmer. Preventatively drawing my attention to the present, at regular intervals during the day, has helped me strengthen my awareness. Sometimes when I am walking, I quietly try to observe my physical body, my breath and my energy. My aliveness. Mindfulness means becoming the witness: noticing that you’re noticing. Thoughts will pop like bubble-wrap but if you don’t engage with them, don’t build a story or try to use words and labels, they will slide away. Focus on the sensations, the feelings you’re feeling; not the noise in your mind. The witness inside is the mindful, true Me. When I glimpse that dimension, free from mind and outer body, even for a split second, I know I am free and at peace. 3. Self-love and gratitude Like many, I grew up with a brittle sense of self. Growing up I was the model student. Yet, in my teens and early twenties, I began to spiral into shame and self-hate. As I navigated different cultures, countries, languages, and expectations over the last decade, I often found myself feeling stuck. I felt inferior, unworthy, inadequate, different and “foreign.” Feeling like an outsider only reinforced my innate lack of self-esteem. I still struggle with those feelings of not being good enough, tall enough, smart enough, successful enough, handsome enough, rich enough, white enough, and the list goes on. I have to remind myself, consciously and repeatedly, that I am enough. No matter where I live, what I do or look like, I am complete and I am okay. Self-love might sound selfish and egotistic. But in fact, the most important person in your life is you! You need to be okay to help and love others. Self-love means being gentle to yourself, not insulting yourself when you fall or make mistakes. I had to learn to take care of myself as I would a close friend or loved one. It doesn’t come easy because we are raised in a culture where putting your own sense of self last is virtuous, a thing to be proud of. I believe we all need to learn ourselves, just the way we are. I would go so far as to say, that is the whole game. It’s a tricky one to win, but we ought to keep trying. Start simply: Check your thoughts when you pity yourself or put yourself down (yes, you know that negative self-talk where your brain tells you how slow/fat/ugly/poor/lonely/unloved/silly you are!). When we can look at ourselves in the mirror and feel genuine love for the person we see—true deep affection for our whole selves, with all the bad and good —that’s unconditional self-love. I told you, it won’t be easy, but it is rewarding. When you can be fully you, life is simpler. While self-care has taught me to appreciate myself, exactly as I am, daily gratitude has helped expand that compassion to a wider range of things. Every day I give thanks for being alive, healthy, able-bodied, young, loved, taken care of, with comforts (food, water, shelter, money), luxury, and freedom. Gratitude radically changes my perspective—from focusing on deprivation, on what’s missing, it throws light on what I do have. It can make us connected to reality in a more balanced and harmonious way. Gratitude, for myself or life, has helped me come unstuck when everything feels wretched and uphill. — Growing up is a process, life a constant journey. Along the way, these practices are helping me understand that I can feel better and be better. Ultimately, we all wish to experience joy and be at peace with ourselves. This is a reminder for me and you—to reach out and proactively work towards our own well-being. Talk and share with others. Stay open. Next time things aren’t going well, try to meditate or maybe focus on the present moment. Or give thanks for all that you do have and be kind to yourself. Speak to a friend or a specialist. And if it helps, read this again. About Tejas Yadav Tejas Yadav is a writer, scientist and amateur photographer. He enjoys a good coffee, traveling to new places and learning foreign languages. Currently, he lives in Paris, France. See a typo or inaccuracy? Please contact us so we can fix it!

When You’re Tired of Trying: Lessons in Mindfulness from a Woodpecker

“The antidote to exhaustion isn’t rest. It’s wholeheartedness.” ~David Whyte Crouched down in a cold clump of leaves in the woods, I watch a woodpecker. Persistent, unbothered, moving up and down a tree next to me. It is methodically tapping its beak bit-by-bit looking for something to eat. I watch and wonder… Aren’t you tired of this relentless pursuit? Tired of smashing your face again and again with the odds stacked against you? How fleeting disappointment must be for you. Not me. I take one bump and the disappointment reels through me. I desperately seek ease, my eyes always halfway gazing elsewhere looking for relief, wondering when I can stop trying so hard. My mother used to talk about her own persistent struggles like “smashing your head into a brick wall.” But you, my woodpecker friend, don’t seem to be struggling or frustrated. You simply move on moment by moment in pursuit, unbothered by the repetition of trying again and again. Not worried about what happens next, what the outcome of each tap against the tree is. This is your life, the persistent pursuit of nourishment moment by moment. Tap, tap, tap—look for food. Tap, tap, tap—try again. Tap, tap, tap—no time for disappointments. Tap, tap, tap—that would be silly, counterproductive to living. Today I sit and watch you. It’s early morning and my body is already buzzing with stress. My baby crying, children fighting, another night without sleep. I am six months postpartum with baby number three, and I have been struggling to adjust to my new life. All my energy has gone into trying to cope, provide for, and nourish my growing family. I am supposed to have it together at this point in my life, I should have made some progress by now. I wasn’t supposed to have to try this hard. I teach people how to manage their stress through art, the daily grind is my muse! But today I can’t step out of my own fog. I can’t prescribe myself time to create and breathe, I am just too tired. We hear the word “grind” a lot these days. A collective acknowledgement that daily living in the western world is full of bumps, abrasions, and sparks. The notion that not all stress comes from the big dramatic life moments of life and death, pain, and suffering. Much of it comes from the momentary energy we put into trying to shape and survive in our day to day lives. The details of my life’s challenges are specific and particular to me, but most of us can relate to this feeling of a boiling point—where we can’t take it anymore, where the stress is too much, and we are tired of trying. Each of us dances between our own tiny stories of struggle and joy in a day. Sometimes coffee isn’t enough. Sometimes more sleep can’t help. Sometimes it feels like all my trying is only making it worse. Like there is no influence, no mark I can make in this world, or in my life. Sometimes all my therapy, self-help books, and good advice are just beyond my reach. Sometimes I am locked in a moment where showing gratitude feels like a boulder I just can’t lift. It’s so hard to pick yourself back up when all you want to do is close your eyes and find some quiet. Usually, I am the kind of person who thinks that change is always possible, that my pain is fleeting, that improvements can always be made. That it’s my duty to try and make the world a better place. My husband and I joke that we are constantly tweaking things searching for a better flow in our lives. We are always informing each other that we have made a new change for something in our home, moving a pot from its old drawer to a new one, trying to make new systems for managing the chaos of laundry, children, and our lives. We just keep trying. We each hold a sincere belief that with each new tweak it will improve things for us. It’s easily one of our best attributes as a couple, we are both persistently interested in bettering ourselves, our lives, and our community. We know that we have agency and influence in our world, so we try to use it for good. But it’s also a trap. A set up for disappointment. Call it attachment, call it the grass is always greener. Whatever you call it, the outcome is the same: You become swept away looking for something better, more, or just different. All this trying and lifting and doing can be a setup just weighing us further down. And then before you know it, you find yourself on the verge of tears, fleeing your life, huddled in a cold clump of leaves in the woods with no resolve or ounce of resilience to be found. And this is the morning I found the woodpecker, the morning I fled my house in exhaustion. Tired of feeling like I can’t catch up. On this day I was tired of enduring the grind of wanting more. So, I sought refuge in the bluff behind my house. I closed the door and walked away from my family and the stress, setting the intention to find a place to just be still in the woods, hoping it would offer me some peace. And this is the morning where things shifted for me, where the woodpecker came to me showing me how to be in between each tap of its beak. You, my persistent woodpecker friend, have come at just the right moment… Tap, tap, tap, the persistent woodpecker calling to me. I watch and I listen. It’s showing me how it’s done. To keep showing up in each moment. Tap, tap, tap, a genuine presence. Tap, tap, tap, just try again. Tap, tap, tap each moment born anew. What if I never get it right, never quite arrive, never work it out? But what if it’s actually just about showing up again and again, finding little treasures in the moment and continuing on? No past resentments, no future longings. Just a willingness to show up each day and try, and try, again and again and again. I watch and listen to the woodpecker. I watch and see that it doesn’t stop and wallow in disappointment when it works so hard without reward. It moves on persistently trying because it has to, because that’s what living is. Tap, tap, tap. It felt like the woodpecker was here to show me how to be. Reminding me that with each moment I feel amiss, that all I need to do is show up again to the next. That this grind is temporary, that I can feel it, notice it, and come to the next moment fresh and continue to try. I don’t need to endure the grind; I can use my influence and agency in this world and keep trying to find the nourishment I need to thrive. Each moment is a new beginning, a new chance to shape my world again. So, I took a breath and decided to do what I know helps me be present and whole—I created. I walked for a while and then hopped off the path… and that’s when all the magic began (and just for the record this is always where it happens, in that moment when we hop off the regular route and move to the land of curiosity.) I found something I had been longing to find all summer and fall. Wasp paper. A bird had found an old wasp nest and torn it apart. Tattered little bits of the former hive were strewn about. It felt like a gold mine. It was a piece of magic right in my hands. So, I breathed. I tinkered. I made a few installations with all of the wonders around me. I tried. I showed up in this little pocket in the woods. I let my thoughts and stress fall to the foreground, and I found my breath. I tried again looking for stillness. I let go of the desire to brood, to wallow, to hold onto the fretting that occupied my morning. I found my breath and I just tried to be in the woods with these treasures. I spent time with them, slowed down, and played with their arrangements taking a few photos. As I began to create with presence, I could feel a shift happening inside me. I was shaping the world around me, and as I did, I could feel my inner landscape being shaped to. I felt relief. I felt my fog lifting. I began to feel calm, but my gaze was already tempted to move to what was to come next. The temptation to be anywhere but now, is a constant lure. Then I reminded myself that today I showed up, in this moment here and now, I actually did it. I remind myself that it’s the act of showing up, not the outcome that’s most important. I release myself from future progress. Today I showed up in this pocket in the woods and made something. Tap, tap, tap because that’s what living is. About Rachel Rose Rachel is an expressive arts educator who teaches people how to use creativity for self-care, awareness, and wellness. Her training and research have focused on a variety of mediums including the visual arts, creative writing, storytelling, nature, and music all through a lens of mindfulness. In her own practice every creation begins through the exploration of an emotion and emerges as a symbolic story. Learn more about her supports at www.workshopmuse.com See a typo, an inaccuracy, or something offensive? Please contact us so we can fix it!

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