The stigmas surrounding mental illness tend to carry some unfortunate negative connotations. After talking with several college students about the first thing that comes to mind when they hear the word “anxiety,” I found that the mass majority believes anxiety to be an excuse to be either lazy and medicated or a situation that is entirely mentally debilitating. This is interesting given that anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in the U.S. and if the statistic holds, around 12-14 of those 30 students I talked to are dealing with some form of an anxiety disorder.
While the term “high-functioning anxiety” is not necessarily medically correct, it is the best way to generally describe the type of anxiety many people (ESPECIALLY college students) deal with on a regular basis. The major difference between general anxiety and high-functioning anxiety is that those with high-functioning anxiety are able to push through the symptoms and sometimes use them to their advantage in order to appear as if nothing is wrong.
High-functioning anxiety looks like calm perfectionism and crystal clear achievement on the surface, while immediately below is full of white-capped fear, crashing self-confidence, and constant nervousness rippling further out with each gasp for validation. High-functioning anxiety is like a broken life-jacket that carries you through the currents, forcing you to move and stay above the water while you still feel a permanent anchor welded to your ankle.
It seems counter-productive to ever thank a mental illness for helping shape someone for the better while it’s practically causing them to drown, but finding the good in the things you can’t change makes going through the motions a little easier.
I do want to say thank you to my high functioning anxiety for making me a better student, but seriously, not for everything else.
I have to give a thank you to high-functioning anxiety giving me the habit of being an over-achiever, but not for the mental torment it takes for me to get there. Often I get so caught up on the high from obtaining the desired outcomes of perfectionism that I forget to look at the struggles of how those outcomes happened. High-functioning anxiety makes the sleepless nights, hyper-vigilance, and obsession with staying constantly busy seem normal despite the wear I feel on my body every day.
When you’re constantly striving for an almost impossible level of perfectionism, you do weird things like making a list of words to decide which one works the best so your professor won’t point it out and make you feel like you’re such an idiot that you don’t deserve to be in the room. Or worrying yourself sick knowing you have something to get done, but procrastinating because you know it won’t be perfect when it’s finished, so why even bother?
High-functioning anxiety is counting the stairs as you walk up them to distract your mind from the chaos of panicked thoughts, hoping that guy behind you isn’t walking too close because he wants to steal your wallet.
It’s avoiding eye contact and constantly looking at your phone to avoid saying something stupid in a social situation. It’s tapping feet, clicking pens, and hair twirling during an exam because failure is not an option. It’s considering a B a failure.
It’s doing anything to channel the nervous energy—picking your cuticles until they look terrible and then constantly worrying about the fact they look terrible, running your fingers through your hair, biting your lips until they bleed because you want to speak but you’re terrified of being judged for your opinion on coffee flavors.
High-functioning anxiety is the constant struggle of wanting to slow down, but not having the ability out of fear of failure. It’s having someone use the wrong tone of voice with you and spending the next two days trying to figure out what you did to elicit it. It’s a gut-wrenching, paralyzing fear that overtakes your body when you have to walk in front of people but forcing yourself to do it anyway because you really need to go to the bathroom and those people are only going to notice you for a split second.
High-functioning anxiety forces you to be an unhappy perfectionist, makes you constantly work to distract yourself from the internal chaos of dealing with irrational fears of rejection, disappointment, and failure, and pushes you to deal with the trauma of whatever is necessary to get that high of feeling accomplished.
High-functioning anxiety makes you a great student, but a miserable human being.
I’m glad am able to handle all the mental pressures and emotional turmoil that accompanies anxiety despite how incredibly hard it is on my body. Like many others who deal with some intense cases of high-functioning anxiety, we try to hide the issues as well as we can. We don’t want anyone to hear the little voices in our heads that are constantly screaming out our largest insecurities and fears that go with having an extreme case of NEEDING self-validation in an A. We don’t want anyone to see the multitude of lists and maps that give us comfort. We don’t want anyone to notice that we’re picking a hole in our shirt because we’re about to have to answer a question out loud, and because that loose string isn’t supposed to be there so we can’t leave it alone.
We don’t want anyone to see these things because we don’t want to recognize the problem ourselves. We don’t want to accept that the amount of pressure we place on ourselves is not normal because that would discredit all the work that goes into being high-functioning in the first place.