Perfectly anxious

Anxiety is hard, often masquerading behind surprising faces.

I learned this the hard way. Not only had I fooled the world, I fooled myself for a long time.

I had high-functioning anxiety and didn’t know I had a problem until I hit the wall. I bless the day I was forced to wake up.

I was like a duck; Zen on the outside, but under the surface, I was paddling like crazy just to stay afloat, until I finally drowned.

Instead of being frozen by the stress response, I was propelled into chronic busyness.

Ever the picture of success, I was completely unaware it was anxiety pushing me to become a perfectionist and workaholic, someone who was neat, tidy, organized, and ever helpful.

I was an over-achiever, and thought it was good.

These traits were rewarded, as I was the person everyone could count on to get things done.

All of my busyness and need to focus outward were driven by a need to calm my racing mind and the pit of anxiety in my belly. If I stayed busy, I didn’t have to feel what was going on inside of me. The problem was, the busier I was, the faster I had to run to quell the feelings inside, until I couldn’t.

The world is full of people with high-functioning anxiety. I know many people who are just like I was, the typical Type-A personality.

  • High-functioning anxiety may look like:
  • High-achieving and detail oriented
  • Punctual or early to arrive
  • Orderly and tidy
  • Proactive; ready for any possibility
  • Organized; well-detailed lists and calendars
  • Outgoing and jovial
  • Active and helpful
  • Outwardly collected and calm
  • Passionate and loyal

All these are lovely attributes, valued and encouraged by society. While everything appears wonderful on the outside, the picture of success, the internal experience feels anything but wonderful for many people.

It’s easy to miss the dark-side that may accompany the so-called positive attributes:

  • Inability to say no
  • Constantly busy
  • Overthinking, racing mind, rumination on the negative
  • Insomnia or poor sleep
  • Nervous habits and chatter
  • People pleasing; fear of letting others down
  • Procrastination
  • Mental and physical fatigue
  • Fear of the future
  • Never-enoughness: feeling they fall short of expectations
  • Anxiety, not ambition, creating busyness
  • Feeling internal struggle
  • Cold, or hard to read, stoic

Stress and anxiety are normal parts of life that can lead us to strive to do our best, when it’s situational and temporary. Yet, when we have to endure them for long periods, anxiety and stress can take over our lives.

How can we awaken from this very human tendency that creates so much suffering in our lives?

Becoming aware of what was fuelling my perfectionist and workaholic behaviours was a key to my recovery. Learning to pause, to simply feel my feelings, instead of feed them, was key.

Learning to feel my feelings and what they were telling me took practice. Initially, sitting still was torture. I had to change the wiring in my brain and body to overcome the demon of anxiety and learn what hid beneath.

One of the mindfulness practices that provided relief from the feelings and mental torment was simple; it’s called coming to your senses.

Take several slow, deep breaths, feeling the breath as it enters and leaves your body. This is not thinking about the breath; it’s actually experiencing the breath as it moves in the body.

Now, come to your senses.

What do you hear? Notice the sounds around you without judgment.

What do you smell? You might need to close your eyes to really notice this sense because we often overlook what we’re smelling.

What do you see? List the objects you see in detail: the names, the colours, and textures of what you can see.

What do you taste? Can you taste anything? Notice the mouth. How does it feel inside the mouth? Feel the teeth, the saliva, the tongue.

Finally, check in and become aware of what you feel in your body. Feel your feet on the floor, and your clothing as it touches your skin. Feel the temperature of the air, and any other physical sensations happening right now.

If any tension remains, consciously soften your face and shoulders, take another deep breath, and relax your body.

Check in again. How are you feeling? Do you feel better? Has the mind slowed? If not, go back and repeat the steps. For me, this usually means I was thinking about the senses instead of using and sensing them.

My thinking usually slows, and things start to become clearer. This means I’ve invited the executive centre of my brain into action, and deactivated the fight-or-flight response.

This technique is helpful not only when I feel anxious, but also when I get stuck in challenging thinking or feel overwhelmed by something.

Coming to our senses is a simple, yet a powerful technique. It’s portable, and private, but helps put us back in the driver’s seats of our lives.

If you have high-functioning anxiety, know you’re not alone. There’s help available in the form of wonderful counsellors and therapists who can support you in reclaiming your life from anxiety. For me, mindfulness practices have been key.


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About the Author

Corinne is first a wife, mother, and grandmother, whose eclectic background has created a rich alchemy that serves to inform her perspectives on life.

Corinne, a registered nurse with a master’s degree in Health Science, is a staff minister with the Centre for Spiritual Living Kelowna, and a hospice volunteer. She is an adjunct professor with the school of nursing  at UBC Okanagan, and is currently teaching smartUBC, a unique Mindfulness program offered at UBC, to the public. She is an invited speaker and presenter.

From diverse experience and knowledge, personally and professionally, Corinne has developed an extraordinary passion for helping people to gain a new perspective, awaken, and to recognize that we do not have to be a slave to our thoughts or to life; we are always at a point of change.

Through this column, Corinne blends her insights and research to provide food for the mind and the heart, to encourage an awakening of the power and potential within everyone.

Corinne lives in Kelowna with her husband of 41 years, and can be reached at [email protected].

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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