‘Anxious yet efficient’ – Making sense of my high-functioning anxiety.

Psalm 94:17-19

17 Unless the Lord had been my help,
My soul would soon have settled in silence.

18 If I say, “My foot slips,”
Your mercy, O Lord, will hold me up.

19 In the multitude of my anxieties within me,
Your comforts delight my soul.


As soon as I drove through my school gates, I felt my stomach do a backflip, my heart started racing and the most ridiculous early morning headache developed. I knew what I was feeling but I did not want to give it a name.

I felt like I had a million tabs open in my brain. Each tab refusing to be closed. Each tab demanding my attention and not only that…demanding my excellence. And indeed, no matter how overwhelmed I may feel, somehow, someway, I still get the job done. I still fulfil my role as Head of Department, with the circular uninspiring paperwork; I still teach brilliant lessons, I still plan meticulously, I still meet my doctoral deadlines, I still deliver great speaking engagements, I still serve as a deacon in church, I still serve on our worship team, I still remain a daughter, sister, friend, colleague, I still create content. I still keep going.

I don’t respond to stress emotionally, however, my body will respond on my behalf. Last week, my body was screaming for me to slow down. I didn’t want to, but I had to due to clear signs of stress-related sickness. Given what my body has been through, I could not afford for these psychosomatic flareups to be the norm. God forbid! So, I did exactly what I know how to do best, I prayer journaled. It was in my written outpouring to God, where my scattered senses had no other option but to be still in His presence…that I realised that I was being ‘efficiently anxious’.

Efficiently anxious people appear to be coping with their daily lives and responsibilities. You are admirable, people are inspired by you, you are what success looks like. They call you driven and excellent. You never miss a deadline. You never do the bare minimum. In fact, you are always willing to serve and help others. Your social schedule and life are incredibly busy and bursting at the seams.

What others might not know (and what you would never freely share) is that beneath the surface of a seemingly perfect exterior, you are battling a constant tide of anxiety. They call you an overachiever and sometimes you even hail yourself, yet they will never know the struggle (anxiety) experienced to achieve that level of success!

That anxiety may look like what I described at the start. It may be the physically sick feeling that we get when we are nervous. It may look like an absolute fear of failure and missing the mark. It may look like the fear of disappointing those that we believe rely on us. This type of anxiety ignores the signs to slow down and pushes your body to the limit. This type of anxiety worries about what people will say if you take the day off…because you look ‘fine’.  This type of anxiety is high-functioning anxiety.

If you ask most people who know you, they probably will not have a clue that you struggle with anxiety every day. But deep down, you know that your anxiety sets restrictive parameters for you.

High functioning anxiety is not listed in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t real and shouldn’t be taken seriously. Part of the difficulty in making high functioning anxiety an official diagnosis is because being ‘functional’ is subjective. Also, a disorder is meant to impair your functioning, and those with high functioning anxiety can push past their anxiety to still function as ‘normal’. As a result, the key difference between high functioning anxiety and a recognised anxiety disorder is that while all the symptoms of anxiety may be present, even panic attacks, the person is still high functioning.

Positive and negative characteristics of high-functioning anxiety

I did some research to help me make sense of high-functioning anxiety and have compiled some of the most salient characteristics. I have divided them into positive and negative qualities:

Positive high-functioning anxiety characteristicsNegative high-functioning anxiety characteristics
You are an overachiever  Perfectionism – Perfect is ideal. Good-enough is tolerable.  
You are organisedYou are constantly busy  
You are proactive and plan for all eventsYou sleep out of necessity and not to rest. In fact, sleeping is effortful!
You are extremely helpfulYou struggle to say no without feeling guilty  
Your attention to detail is phenomenalYou constantly overthink and ruminate
You are passionate and ambitiousYou struggle with uncertainty
You appear outgoing, calm, collected and are great to be around.You procrastinate to avoid/cope with your anxiety and then go-hard (overkill) on the work before you (e.g. watching 10 hours of Nollywood before actually doing some work)

If these characteristics sound familiar, then high functioning anxiety may have something to do with it.

Many people have a specific image or idea of what it means to experience anxiety.  The typical image is of someone who has no desire for their usual lifestyle behaviours, cannot work or maintain relationships etc.

However, anxiety can look and feel different from person to person and there are different types of anxiety. The covert hidden-nature of high-functioning anxiety can make us feel like we don’t need help or that we are not worthy of help. In most instances, we play down our anxiety and convince ourselves that there is nothing wrong, and that we just don’t know how to deal with ‘stress’. We label ourselves as workaholics and perfectionists, to mask the reality that we are anxious. We continue to self-silence our struggles, believing that no one could possibly help us.

There is help…

Thankfully, for the believer, even when we feel that no-one can help us. We have a Divine Helper – God, The Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit teaches us all things (John 14:26). This week I have been asking the Holy Spirit to show me how to achieve excellence in new ways…even if it does not look like what I am used to. The Holy Spirit is so kind, patient and gracious with my tantrums of inadequacy and perfectionism and reminds me that I have been graced for this.

Even when we feel out of control, we serve a God who is in control. Even when it feels like our grip is slipping on the things, we hold dear, the deadlines, the responsibilities, the endless tasks, and my goodness the emails…His mercy will hold us up! So, we return to the scripture from the beginning of this post:

Psalm 94:17-19

17 Unless the Lord had been my help,
My soul would soon have settled in silence.

18 If I say, “My foot slips,”
Your mercy, O Lord, will hold me up.
19 In the multitude of my anxieties within me,
Your comforts delight my soul.

Pause. Seek the Lord right in that anxious moment. The temptation for efficiently anxious people is to ‘carry on’, but in those moments we must PAUSE and submit our self-sufficiency to the All-Sufficient God!

Practical support:

Lifestyle changes:

  • Social media breaks (regular)
  • Colouring, painting, or drawing
  • Cooking
  • Dancing
  • Exercising/Stretching
  • Focusing on the positive aspects of your life
  • Going for a walk
  • Indulging in your favourite food (Magnum 😊)
  • Planning a day to do nothing and following through with it
  • Practicing gratitude
  • Sitting down for a few minutes
  • Spending time with a friend
  • Spending time with your dog or cat
  • Praying
  • Sleep hygiene (get a sleep routine in place)
  • Watching a comedy or funny online video
  • Watching the sunset or sunrise
  • Writing and journaling

Speaking with a Professional

A mental health professional can help you identify the specific coping strategy and lifestyle changes that can help you manage your symptoms. Although it can be difficult, make sure to be as honest as possible about the symptoms and challenges that you face. Together, you and your mental health professional can work toward developing customized coping strategies.

Mental health support

For additional support your first port of call should be your GP. Alternatively, try one of the following resources:

  • Anxiety UK: a charity which specifies in helping those suffering from anxiety.
  • The Samaritans: a charity providing support to anyone in emotional distress.
  • Mind: a charity that makes sure no one has to face a mental health problem alone.
  • CALM: helping to reduce stigma and reduce rates of male suicide.

Scriptures for anxiety:

  1. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.” Philippians 4:6-8.
  2. “Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” Romans 8:26-28.
  3. “… casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.” 1 Peter 5:7.
  4. “But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” Isaiah 40:31.
  5. “For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” Matthew 6:32-33.
  6. “You will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on You, because he trusts in You.” Isaiah 26:3.
  7. “Come to Me, all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30.

References:

9 Surprising Symptoms of High Functioning Anxiety. (2018, October 10). Alicia H. Clark PsyD. https://aliciaclarkpsyd.com/symptoms-of-high-functioning-anxiety/

Bible Gateway passage: Psalm 94:18-20 – New King James Version. (n.d.). Bible Gateway. Retrieved 5 October 2020, from https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm%2094%3A18-20&version=NKJV

Chand, S., Ravi, C., & Manepalli, J. (2014). Anxiety Disorders in Older Adults. Current Geriatrics Reports, 3(4), 273–281. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13670-014-0105-6

Self-care for anxiety. (n.d.). Retrieved 5 October 2020, from /information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/anxiety-and-panic-attacks/self-care-for-anxiety/

What is high functioning anxiety and is it real? (2018, October 29). SACAP. https://www.sacap.edu.za/blog/applied-psychology/high-functioning-anxiety/

Why Optimal Arousal Levels Lead to Better Athletic Performance. (n.d.). Verywell Mind. Retrieved 5 October 2020, from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-the-yerkes-dodson-law-2796027

4 thoughts on “‘Anxious yet efficient’ – Making sense of my high-functioning anxiety.

  1. Danielle says:

    Wow.. so well written and soo true. I literally felt like
    I was reading something written about me. God bless you Kanayo. You are a rare gem for real

  2. onyemowo69 says:

    I saw myself presented to me in written script. Thank you Dr Kanayo. It’s difficult to stop these habits because they have become routine. But I’m now intentional and God helping me, I’ll fimd that balance; harmony that is so needed in my life. God bless you real good

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