Do any of these signs of high-functioning anxiety ring a bell for you?
Signs you may be experiencing
- High achiever
- Difficulty saying no
- Difficulty maintaining boundaries
- Doesn’t know how much is enough
- Fear of “failure”
- Digestive problems (nausea, heartburn, diarrhea, constipation)
- Difficulty resting, relaxing, slowing down, taking time off
- Constant worry
These might look like the everyday experience of a business owner, rather than high-functioning anxiety. But sometimes, it can be both. And either way, there are a number of tools you can use to manage your high-functioning anxiety.
High-functioning anxiety vs. generalized anxiety
Anxiety–-officially known as generalized anxiety disorder or GAD–-is characterized by persistent and excessive worry that interferes with a person’s functioning in their life, work and relationships.
Symptoms of GAD can include:
- Persistent worry or fears that are out of proportion to the situation
- Planning for all possible worst-case outcomes
- Perceiving even neutral situations and events as threatening
- Inability to set aside or let go of a worry
- Inability to relax, feeling restless, and feeling keyed up or on edge
- Difficulty concentrating
- Mind “goes blank”
- Racing thoughts
Physical symptoms such as fatigue, trouble sleeping, muscle tension or muscle aches, trembling, feeling twitchy, nervousness or being easily startled, sweating, nausea, diarrhea or irritable bowel syndrome can also accompany anxiety.
You can experience any or all of these symptoms above, even without being diagnosed with GAD.
People experiencing anxiety tend to feel paralyzed. Their fears and worries lead to a kind of freeze state, like the proverbial deer in the headlights.
But unlike many people experiencing anxiety, there was a group of people who tended toward action as a way to manage their anxiety.
As a result, the popular term high-functioning anxiety evolved to capture that tendency toward action.
High-functioning anxiety doesn’t appear as a formal diagnosis in the DSM-V, the manual that guides diagnosis of mental health disorders.
However, business owners and entrepreneurs (or anyone else with high-functioning anxiety) can experience many of the symptoms associated with GAD.
High-functioning anxiety can be an advantage
high-functioning anxiety can be an advantage for entrepreneurs.
As a business owner experiencing high-functioning anxiety, people see you as productive and successful in business. On the outside you appear to be calm, cool and collected.
You’ve never missed a deadline, or fallen short on a project. In fact you often overdeliver…and before the due date.
But on the inside, you feel like a mess. You’re agitated. Your thoughts are racing. You feel driven. You’re unable to relax, rest or pause.
You have a sense of constant vigilance. You often feel like you’ve forgotten something or that something is about to go wrong.
One downside is that no-one would believe anything could be wrong, because you come across as being fine. That makes it hard to ask for help. It also isolates you and keeps you thinking your challenges are your fault (which they’re not).
Another disadvantage is that if you keep on revving your engine this hard, the chronic wear and tear on your system will begin to show. Instead of anxiety working in your favour, it will start to cause problems.
Then good news is that you can use your impulse to action while at the same time working with your mind to help yourself feel calmer.
This will help you can access your CEO-self so you can show up for yourself and your business as the strong, competent, capable person you are at your core.
How to deal with high-functioning anxiety
First of all, if you’re a business owner or entrepreneur, it’s no wonder you feel anxious. The stressors of running a business can be overwhelming.
Business owners experience enormous demands on their time, energy and cognitive capacity. Demand that exceeds capacity to respond leads to stress. Stress leads to the fight or flight response in the body, and that generates feelings of anxiety.
Sometimes this anxiety is “legitimate,” in that there are many real risks and thus many worries associated with owning a business: Can you cover your costs this month? Can you pay your contractors, associates or employees? Can you pay the rent for your office (if you have one)? Will you be able to pay yourself? Will there be any client complaints? Will there be any last-minute changes to a contract? Etcetera, etcetera.
The first step in dealing with anxiety–high-functioning or not–is to validate your emotions.
So many of the clients I work with will criticize themselves for feeling anxious. But as I mentioned, there are good reasons for you to be feeling anxious.
You can say to yourself something like, “These are high stakes. Of course parts of me are anxious.” or “Things are overwhelming right now. No wonder I’m feeling anxious.”
The irony is that when you acknowledge what’s happening, things often settle down.
Our insides are a lot like little kids. They will yell and make trouble until they can get your attention. The very reason they are yelling is to get your attention. The longer you ignore them, the louder they get, but once you turn toward them, they stop.
Just like warning lights on a dashboard, your insides are letting you know something needs care.
From their point of view, worried parts are trying to help us out.
Admittedly, from our point of view, they’re not very effective at it, but they do have something important to contribute.
In a high-risk situation, it’s important to be alert.
Worried parts want us to be prepared, so after validation, you can acknowledge the worried parts are trying to help you stay safe or avoid problems by engaging your curiosity.
You can ask yourself, “Is this something I can do something about?”
If the answer is yes, then identify what’s needed. Then take action in some way: add the task(s) to your project management system so you can trust they’ll be taken care of. Or delegate them. If you can take a step right now to address the worry, go ahead.
If you can’t figure that out by yourself, call your biz bestie, reach out to your therapist, talk to your business coach or mastermind group. Ask for their help in identifying and prioritizing the to-dos.
If the answer is no, this is a situation over which you don’t have control, then try some of these other coping tools.
Replaying yesterday’s conversations in your head and dwelling on catastrophic outcomes isn’t helpful (whereas solving a problem, as in the step above, is helpful).
If you’re going over the same things repeatedly, with the same thoughts looping over and over, this is a sign that you are ruminating. Engaging with these thoughts keeps them going.
Engaging with the body can be a way out.
An anxious body can contribute to an anxious mind, so if you’ve done all you can (as in the step above), or there’s nothing you can do, movement can help with this.
Mood induction is another way to “change the channel” in your mind.
Mood induction is simply any method that produces a negative or positive change in mood by selectively reminding you of something pleasant or unpleasant.
In this case, you want to induce a positive change in your mood. An easy way to do this is to put on your favourite happy song and sing or dance along.
A happy (or happier) mind means the body is starting to engage the relaxation response, gearing down and allowing your CEO-self to come back online.
It only takes 3 minutes or so to engage with music, but you are more likely to find yourself refreshed and refocussed afterwards than if you continued engaging with the looping thoughts.
Letting it be
This is an exercise adapted from Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior by Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Beverly Beyette.
Engaging with looping thoughts as if they are real and meaningful can be exhausting, and so can fighting them off. But as noted above, overthinking, looping thoughts and rumination are different from the kind of thinking that’s needed for problem-solving.
Sometimes letting the worry part of your mind do its thing in the background can be helpful. This way you can “let it be” and go on with your day or the task at hand.
Step 1: label it. Call it what it is: looping thoughts or rumination. This way, you clearly recognize what’s upsetting you for what it is. This prevents you from being tricked by the anxious part’s belief that looping thoughts, rumination or overthinking will help you to be prepared.
Instead of engaging with the thoughts, you say: “My looping thoughts are bothering me.” “This rumination is making me feel bad.”
The question then arises: Why is this happening?
Step 2: you answer that question: “These thoughts are bothering me because something in me is feeling anxious. Its job is to tell me all the things I should be worried about. That’s just what it does. I have anxiety and looping thoughts is one of the symptoms of anxiety.”
Once you realize this, you can then ask: “What can I do about these thoughts that are bothering me?”
Step 3: Is the answer to that: refocus. Turn your attention to something engaging, uplifting and beneficial.
It can help, as I said above, to move your body, but you could also hug someone, take a brief walk, call a friend for a fun chat, or have a soothing cup of tea, as long as it involves (even briefly) changing your context and engaging your senses.
This step involves making a choice over and over again to use your willpower to direct your attention away from the looping thoughts and toward something different.
By refusing to take the looping thoughts at face value, you can learn to let them be, and they can run in the background while you do something positive and helpful.
Refocusing consistently helps build new neural pathways, creating more constructive habits that help you face and solve problems more effectively.
Note that this is different from stopping the thoughts or telling yourself not to worry. It’s another way of acknowledging and allowing them without having them dominate your awareness or guide your behaviour.
After acknowledging the worried parts, you can reassure them with helpful self-affirmations.
Note that this is not the same as toxic positivity. Toxic positivity is intended to bypass (in other words, avoid or suppress) so-called ”negative” feelings. And it kind of makes sense. I mean, who wants to feel “negative” feelings. But as I mentioned above, if we suppress or ignore them, they come back louder.
It’s important to note that self-affirmation is the second step in healthy positivity.
First is acknowledgement.
So once you have said, “No wonder you’re worried,” you can talk to yourself and your worried parts reassuringly: “It’s OK to be worried. You’re not alone. I’m here with you. I’ve got your back.”
Note that the tone is: “We’re in this together. I care for you.” rather than “I don’t like you. Go away.”
Invalidating your emotions complicates the problem.
Letting your parts and yourself know that you’re paying attention and taking care goes a long way to increasing your resilience and your capacity to solve problems.
If you want support for implementing any of these strategies, or you want to create a proactive mental health plan so you can set the foundation for sustainable success and show up fully as your CEO-self in your business, you can book a free chat to learn about working with me.