The Myth of High-Functioning Anxiety

It’s time to stop wearing busyness as a badge of honor.

Courtesy of Marie Maerz / Shutterstock
Courtesy of Marie Maerz / Shutterstock

Anxious behavior is rewarded in our culture. Being high-strung, wound up, frenetic and soooo busy has cachet. I ask someone, “How are you?” and even if they’re kicking back in a caravan park in the outback with a beer watching the sunset, their default response is, “Gosh, so busy, out of control, crazy times.” And they wear it as a badge of honor. This means that many of us deny we have a problem and keep going and going. Indeed, the more anxious we are, the more we have to convince ourselves we don’t have a problem. We suck it up when we feel anxious and soldier on until, well, we tip over the edge and our anxiety turns pathological and medical. Depression, on the flipside, is frequently stigmatized, while anxiety is sanctified as propping up modern life, which ironically sees depression treated as a legitimate illness, and the anxious left in a cesspool of self-doubt and self-flagellation for not being better at coping with life. And so we buy each other Keep Calm and Carry On mugs as though that’s something you can just do.

For years I saw my life as a stacked spiral of dominoes. Until I realized a Jenga stack was probably a better metaphor. I was wholly convinced that if I removed my bull-at-a-gate approach, even just a few struts, the whole structure would topple. I was told to “back off.” To “just relax.” I dismissed such notions because they only induced further anxiety. I felt I’d be nothing without my anxious drive and when I felt it sag a bit I’d panic. I’d sturdy things again with a stern talking-to. “Fire up, Sarah.” I’d rev up my adrenals with punishing runs and double-strength coffee. I could not let this whole game fall over.

Many of us with anxiety don’t look like we’ve got a problem because outwardly we function ludicrously well. Or so the merry story goes. Our anxiety sees us make industrious lists and plans, run purposefully from one thing to the next, and move fast up stairs and across traffic intersections. We are a picture of efficiency and energy, always on the move, always doing. We’re Rabbit from Winnie the Pooh, always flitting about convinced everyone depends on us to make things happen and to be there when they do. And to generally attend to happenings. But beneath the veneer we’re being pushed by fear and doubt and a voice that tells us we’re a bad husband, an insufficient sister, we’re wasting time, we’re not producing enough, that we turn everything into a clusterfuck. Sure, we look busy, but mostly we’re busy avoiding things. So we tie ourselves up in stupid paper-shuffling-like tasks that shield us from ever getting around to the important stuff. Or the tough stuff.

And, yep, we’re the ones who send out random texts suggesting we all catch up for dinner next week. We’re also the ones who cancel at the last minute. And who simply do not pick up the phone for days (weeks?) when it gets too much. We go underground. We remain single for decades. And everyone just assumes we’re too busy and high-functioning for such things. In such instances, we’d love everyone (someone?) to see that we absolutely do not have our shit together. And to come and tell us they’ve got this one. Even for five minutes. The more anxious we are, the more we’d really love someone to come and take the load off us and help us cope for a bit. This presents us with Cruel Irony #1:

The more anxious we are, the more high-functioning we will make ourselves appear, which just encourages the world to lean on us more.

And Cruel Irony #2:

The less you sleep, the more anxious you get, the less you sleep . . . and so on.

Indeed, ironic. And in a not-so-fair kind of way. Yet this is all medical fact. Neuroscientists at University of California Berkeley have found that sleep deprivation fires up the same abnormal neural activity seen in anxiety disorders. Worse, the already-anxious are more affected by this mimicking pattern. “These findings help us realize that those people who are anxious by nature are the same people who will suffer the greatest harm from sleep deprivation,” said Professor Matthew Walker, one of the researchers of the study. I remember reading Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner describing this sad spiral in some journal or other a few years back. He gave it a name: Ironic Process Theory. He said that trying to sleep by attempting to eliminate negative thoughts upon hitting the pillow, or trying not to panic about how you haven’t slept in three days, or whatever mind control you’ve been told to try, only succeeds in triggering an internal monitoring process that watches to see if you’re succeeding. Which keeps you awake. I’ve worked on my insomnia from all angles. And, yes, I’ve tried chamomile tea. And sleep meditations. And I know some of you are busting right now to suggest I try melatonin, or counting sheep backward, or earthing mats. To which I would reply that Valium and a pick-axe to the head fail to take the edge off when I’m in one of my sleepless ruts.

But I had some spacious thoughts about it all recently. When we’re babies the mortal terror of the vast, seemingly unsafe experience of life outside the womb is overwhelming and leaves us on high alert and unable to sleep. Our parents must, night after night, hold us tightly and rock us gently, to get us to drift off. Over time, the holding, the rocking, the reassurance of a full tummy, warmth and everything else the baby books advise our parents to do, make us feel safe and supported, and we learn to trust life, and to self-settle. Well, most of us do. Some of us, though, do not learn how to self-settle, or have had reason to unlearn this ability to trust later on down the track (we’re abandoned, abused or a younger sibling rocks up and takes away the attention). We feel unsupported and unsafe and so we must remain hyper-vigilant. At night, we simply can’t shut down our thoughts and fears. We can’t rest easy and trust that the stove is off, that the noisy neighbors will eventually quiet down, that work stresses can be put on a shelf for eight hours. We have to stay “on.” We are on our own. We feel this acutely and, oh, it hurts.

Thinking about insomnia this way has helped things a lot. Rather than feeling I have a hopeless, helpless affliction, I can see I just need to find a way to feel held. To feel that everything fits. That everything is going to be okay. That life has this one, my little friend. I think this is the better journey. What do you think?

Excerpted from First, We Make the Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson Copyright © 2018 by Sarah Wilson. Reprinted by permission of Dey Street, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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