The Enigma of High-Functioning Anxiety: What you see isn’t what you get
It started on the way to Home Depot. My hands started to tremble. Then, my legs started to feel somewhere between numb and weak, followed by my arms tingling and pressure between my eyebrows. As I walked into the garden center, the world started to move too quickly around me, or my body was moving too slowly — I wasn’t exactly sure which and I never know how to overcompensate to make the world right again. I clung to the cart and pushed through the plants looking for what I needed but struggling to focus on anything really, thinking about what set the panic attack off. It was an email. I broke my own no-email-on-the-weekends boundary right before I left and not only read my email but answered one.
One email that was an agnostic work email, but someone was unhappy and I hate to see people unhappy. For the people-pleaser in me, that is a trigger.
As unthreatening as the email was, the relentless internal inferno of emotions had begun. I started thinking of everything I needed to do for work now that I had started answering emails. Then I started thinking about how I don’t exactly know where my job is going right now and I started to hope that if there is a post-pandemic change that I’ll like it. And speaking of work, am I even following my purpose anymore? I have been working too much and feel guilty for discussing self-care when I haven’t been practicing it myself. Which led me to think about my life in general. Then a recent, specific episode of extraordinary heartbreak (unrelated to work) crept in. And the heartbreak and excessive overthinking took over until it covered me head-to-toe like molasses and it was hard to move forward.
I thought about calling a friend but knew that if I uttered even a single word I’d burst into tears and I was too embarrassed for that.
By the time that I left the garden center, I was sweating. Breathing was increasingly difficult and I was pretty sure that it was a thousand degrees outside and oh my God was sweat actually running down my face and please tell me I’m not actually panting and I can’t look the cashier in the eye because I’m afraid the lump in my throat will manifest itself into tears.
I breathed into each moment and took baby steps to get home. Open the car door. Put the plant in the car. Turn the car on. Back up out of the stall. Inhale. Exhale. But not too deeply that you lose your composure.
I walked into the house and went through my bedroom to go to the bathroom. When the relative quiet of the room hit me and I wasn’t able to use the sensory overload to distract me, the tears came. Then the sobs. Then the moments when I begged the Universe to make the excruciating pain in my chest stop.
Then the exhaustion and the calm.
Cue the guilt for not being able to control my own emotions as so many people have told me I should be able to do.
But that’s not what everyone else saw.
They saw a lady walking through Home Depot. She bought some mulch and a few flowers. She may have been a bit rude not even giving the cashier eye contact and if she ran into someone, she may have acted like she didn’t even notice. But just a normal woman, albeit a little spacey and unapologetic.
Her family saw her come into the house. Say “Hi” to them and the dogs. Baby-talk to the puppy, and then head into the bathroom. Then, she went back outside to get the flowers out of the car.
Make no mistake about it, just because we can function through anxiety does not make it easy to function with anxiety. Just because we can function through anxiety doesn’t mean it doesn’t impact us at our core. Just because I can look normal doesn’t mean that there aren’t days where it brings me to my knees.
I’ve learned who I can and can’t go to during these times of stress because it is incredible to me how many people still feel like anxiety and other mental health issues mean that they’re either not “bad enough” to warrant empathy and if they really are that bad, the person should be in a hospital getting “bettter.” And so, the stigma continues. Since I’ve had it my whole life, I’ve had lots of time for people to say all the wrong things to me.
“Stop being nervous.”
“Just transform it.”
“Anxiety is a choice.”
Unfortunately, high-functioning anxiety (or any other kind of mental health issue) is definitely not a choice. It’s not an energy that feels transformative. It’s not just about being nervous. Nobody would choose to feel this way. And you will never be able to solve someone else’s anxiety episode or a panic attack with advice. Instead, hold space. Stop talking. Don’t compare experiences. And for the love of all things Holy, do NOT tell people to be positive because feeling and stepping into their emotions is not a negative thing to do.
I may go my whole life where my anxiety comes out of remission and in my quiet moments, I’m triggered into an attack. I need to know I’m not alone. What I need from other people is to be empathetic to that. I need people near me to “get it” and understand that even though I look totally fine, there may be a battle that I’m fighting on the inside just to be able to participate in normal, everyday things. And all of this doesn’t make my anxiety better or worse than someone else’s because mental health issues are never a competition, but it does make it mine. Even if you can’t always see it when you look at me.