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Anxiety

6 Daily Hacks That Help Manage High-Functioning Anxiety

Written by Amy Marlow | Published on 2017. május 24.


If you looked up “overachiever” in the dictionary, you would probably find my picture where the
definition should be. I grew up in a suburb of Washington D.C., and am a product of its fast, almost
frantic pace. I went to a top-tier college and graduated Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude. And, for all
of my working years, I have excelled at every job I’ve held. I was often the first to arrive and the last
to leave the office. My to-do lists were the most organized (and the most color coded). I’m a team
player, a natural public speaker, and I know just what to say or do to please the people around me.

Sounds perfect, right?

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Except 99.9 percent of my colleagues and supervisors didn’t know that I also lived with generalized
anxiety disorder. Anxiety affects about 18 percent of adults in the United States. While some are
frozen by anxiety, I am propelled by it at a million miles an hour. My particular brand of anxiety is
“high-functioning,” meaning that my symptoms are masked in overdoing, overthinking, and
overperforming.

For a long time, I didn’t recognize that working so hard and caring so much were wearing me down.
They seemed like positive traits, not symptoms of a disorder, which is what makes it so difficult to
spot.

But with high-functioning anxiety, no success is ever enough to quiet the fear. Behind every perfect
presentation and flawless project was a mountain of worry. I was plagued with guilt that I hadn’t
done enough, or hadn’t done it soon enough, or hadn’t done it well enough. I lived for the approval
of others and spent countless hours trying to perform at an impossible standard that my own anxiety
had created. No matter how hard I worked or how proud I was of my achievements, the anxious part
of my brain would scrutinize, criticize, and patronize me.

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And, worst of all, I suffered in silence. I didn’t tell my coworkers or supervisors. My fear of judgement
and misunderstanding was too big. The only way I knew how to deal with my symptoms was to try a
little harder and never slow down.

Read more: How I opened up at work about my depression »

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Anxiety was in the driver’s seat for the first 10 years of my career, taking me on a terrifying and
relentless ride with many highs and even more lows ... The train went off the rails a couple of years
ago when I found myself descending into a major mental health crisis. Thanks to therapy,
medication, and a tremendous amount of hard work, I have come to accept and own the reality that I
live with high-functioning anxiety. Today I recognize my thought and behavior patterns and use
practical skills to intervene when I feel myself getting sucked into the anxiety vortex.

The following six life hacks come straight out of my lived experience.
1. Recognize your symptoms for what they are

Do you know the symptoms of high-functioning anxiety? If you don’t, get to know them. If you do,
understand and acknowledge how they impact you. Anxiety kicks our brains into overanalysis. “Why,
why, why am I feeling like this?” Sometimes, there is a simple answer: “Because we have anxiety.”
Ruminating over a simple decision, overpreparing for a meeting, or obsessing over a conversation
often don’t mean anything more than that my anxiety is acting up.

Mental illnesses are in part biological, and I try to remember to think of my anxiety as I would any
other physical condition. This helps me to cut off my worry about how I am feeling at the pass. I tell
myself, “I have anxiety and that is okay.” I can accept that today is a little more challenging and focus
my energy instead on how I can help myself.

2. Make friends with your fear

If you have anxiety, fear is your friend. You may not like it, but it’s part of your life. And it motivates
so much of what you do. Have you stopped to examine the nature of your fear? Have you connected
it back to past experiences that may be telling you that you aren’t smart or successful enough? Why
is it that you are so focused on the approval of others?

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In my experience, anxiety can’t be ignored or pretended away. With the help of a therapist, I stopped
to look my fear in the face. Rather than feeding it with more anxiety, I worked to understand where
it was coming from. For example, I can recognize that my fear isn’t so much about having a stellar
presentation as it is about my need to be liked and accepted. This awareness has taken away some of
the power it has over me. Once I began to understand it, my fear became much less scary and I was
able to make critical connections between the basis of my fear and how I was behaving at work.

3. Reconnect with your body

Anxiety is just as much physical as it is mental. People with high-functioning anxiety tend to live in
our heads and find it hard to break the cycle of fearful thinking and feeling. I used to spend 10-12
hours at the office every day, and never exercise. I felt stuck, both physically and mentally. A critical
component of how I deal with my symptoms today is by reconnecting with my body.

I use deep breathing all day, every day. Whether I am in a meeting, at my computer, or driving home
in traffic, I can take slow, deep breaths to circulate more oxygen, relax my muscles, and lower my
blood pressure. I stretch at my desk. I take walks outside, sometimes during my lunch break. I
exercise. I do yoga. And when I feel too busy or too overwhelmed ... I do these things anyway.
Because I need them, even if it’s just for 10 or 15 minutes. Having a healthy relationship with my
body gets me out of my head and channels my nervous energy in a more positive direction.

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4. Have a mantra, and use it every day


I have learned how to talk back to my fear. When that not-so-little voice inside starts to tell me that I
am not good enough or that I need to push myself even harder, I have developed a few phrases to
say back to it:

“Who I am right now is good enough for me.”

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“I am doing my best.”

“I am not perfect and I love myself for who I am.”

“I deserve to take good care of myself.”

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This tool is especially helpful when it comes to dealing with a challenging symptom of high-
functioning anxiety: perfectionism. Having a mantra is empowering, and it gives me an opportunity
to practice self-care and to cope with anxiety at the same time. I remember that I have a voice and
that what I need is important, especially when it comes to my mental health.

5. Learn how to intervene with yourself

Anxiety feeds off of anxiety, like a giant snowball rolling downhill. Once you have identified your
symptoms you can learn how to intervene when they appear, and step out of the way before you get
rolled over. I find it difficult to make decisions, whether they’re about designing a brochure or picking
out a brand of dishwasher detergent. When I start to obsess and check back and forth, back and
forth, I stop. I make myself walk away from whatever is causing my anxiety to rise.

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One tool I use is setting a timer. When the timer goes off, I hold myself accountable and I walk away.
If I’ve had a particularly stressful week at work, I don’t follow that with a jam-packed weekend. This
may mean saying “No” and disappointing someone, but I need to prioritize my own wellness. I have
identified activities outside of work that are soothing for me, and I make time for myself to do them.

Learning how to moderate my own emotions and behaviors in response to anxiety has been key to
managing my symptoms, and has decreased my overall level of stress.

6. Create a support squad

One of my biggest fears was telling people at work about my anxiety. I was afraid of telling people
around me that I was afraid — talk about a negative thought cycle! I would fall into a black-and-white
thinking pattern of either telling nobody, or telling everybody. But I have since learned that there is a
healthy in-between.
I reached out to a few people at the office whom I felt comfortable with. It really helps to be able to
talk to one or two people when you’re having a bad day. This took a tremendous amount of pressure
off of me, as I was no longer powering through each day with a superhuman persona of positivity.
Creating a small support squad was the first step toward creating a more authentic me, both in my
work and personal life.

I also found that my being open worked both ways, because I soon found that my colleagues would
come to me too, which made me feel really good about my decision to open up.

All six of these life hacks can be put together into an effective high-functioning anxiety toolbox.
Whether I am at work or at home or out with friends, I can use these skills to put myself back in the
driver’s seat. Learning how to cope with anxiety doesn’t happen overnight, something that we Type
A’s can find frustrating. But I am confident that if I put even a fraction of that overachieving energy
into my own wellness, the results will be positive.

Amy Marlow is living with major depression and generalized anxiety disorder, and is the author
of Blue Light Blue, which was named one of our Best Depression Blogs. Follow her on Twitter
at @_bluelightblue_.