Anxiety doesn’t always look the way you think it might.
We’ve been conditioned to believe that anxiety only manifests in traits like hand-wringing, hyperventilation, and all-out panic attacks, but that’s just anxiety in its most extreme form. Many people suffer with high-functioning anxiety, and it’s possible you know more than a few folks who are struggling with this condition.
Below are just a few ways that people with HFA try to mask their anxieties. It’s more than likely that you’ve witnessed this behavior in people around you for years, but never recognized it for what it is.
You might have assumed that anxious people are always introverted and quiet, but the opposite is quite often the case. Many people who deal with anxiety issues overcompensate by being bubbly and extremely talkative. They may seem to be full of energy, all bouncy and enthusiastic, and there won’t be a gap in conversation because they will fill it with ten million words spoken at a mile a minute.
When people have difficulty escaping intrusive thoughts, one way of evading the discomfort that accompanies their anxiety is to fill any possible silence with talk. If they’re engaged in conversation, even if it’s just a stream of conscious babbling, then their thoughts don’t take over: there is no space to feel nervous. They’re occupied, they’re wholly present, and for those few precious minutes, they can escape their ever-invasive worries.
2. Keeping Their Hands Busy
Since many people with high-functioning anxiety feel the urge to fidget – whether it’s by picking at their cuticles, biting their nails, or twisting rings around – many choose to channel their twitchiness into productive tasks like knitting or sketching or taking notes. These are more “socially acceptable” ways to channel nervous energy, as being ever productive is generally admired in the whole “idle hands are the devil’s workshop” sort of mindset. Conversely, twitchiness often makes people think you have something to hide: that you’re untrustworthy, or possibly on meth. Or both.
As much as anxious people try to keep their worries internalized, doing so usually leads to the opposite effect: keeping all of that nervousness bundled up inside means that it’ll manifest physically whether they want it to or not. As an example, take a moment to consciously refrain from moving your leg.
Don’t do it. Don’t move your leg. The worst thing you can possibly do right now is move your leg. Don’t do it.
(How badly do you want to move that limb now? Did it twitch of its own volition? Do you want to move it more than anything in the world?)
If someone’s anxieties make him or her really want to bite their nails, but they’d be too ashamed to do so in public, they can channel that into focusing on knitting socks for everyone at the office or writing lists. The constant movement can calm them, and focusing their thoughts on listing items alphabetically or in other specific hierarchies can banish the worries temporarily.
A full-body version of keeping hands busy.
That coworker of yours who often paces while he or she is giving a presentation, or when they’re on the phone, might be moving around consciously to physically move the anxious energy out of their body. This is often interpreted as a positive thing: in Western culture, extraversion is admired, and someone who’s pacing around is seen as motivated, high-energy, enthusiastic, and outgoing.
Imagine most people’s surprise if they knew that many of those who pace around are doing so to quell the screaming worries clawing at them from the inside. It may be the only way that they can focus on a conversation, on a task at hand, or on giving a presentation without wetting their pants.
There may be a massive list of items that need to be done, which is then counteracted by procrastination. There’s so much to be done, but the important things create so much pressure that they’re put off until later, and then worries about being flaky seep in. There’s self-sabotage and self-fulfilling prophecies about failure, which makes the anxiety spiral, which then makes the sufferer distract themselves more.
In addition to pacing, they might go running or dance around the house, or clean the place from top to bottom with a toothbrush to make sure they’ve scrubbed every square inch. They may escape into fantasy by playing video games, or if they consider those to be too self-indulgent and rewarding, will delve into home renovation projects, online courses, or charity ventures. Anything and everything to keep them engaged and focused so their thoughts can’t take over and torture them.
This is an extension of keeping one’s hands busy, only it’s not just hands: it’s keeping one’s mind busy, and one’s entire calendar packed with deadlines and whatnot so there are precious few gaps through which the anxieties might seep in. Many people will go above and beyond their work responsibilities in order to gain favor and appreciation from their superiors, as well as to keep themselves occupied with tasks that others might see as unimportant.
Perfectionism can also manifest in eating disorders: obsessive calorie counting, exercise to burn off those calories, achieve X number of miles run/laps swum/weight reps, etc. Note that this behavior can be exhibited by people of any gender: the guy who’s obsessed with crossfit may be struggling with high-functioning anxiety, but his gym presence may be seen as healthy and admirable compared to a bulimic woman who’s determined to keep her caloric intake beneath 600 for the day.
Most people with HFA are well aware that when and if panic swells while they’re at a social function, they need to get the hell out of there at the drop of a hat. Many of them have perfected the art of apologizing graciously with an excuse for why they have to leave, since just saying “I’m having a panic attack and need to go curl up under a blanket” really isn’t accepted by a lot of peers. It bloody well should be, but it isn’t yet. We’re working on it.
Excuses can range from family emergencies to sudden health issues that have to be tended to immediately, but they’ll inevitably have to be dealt with RIGHT NOW. This allows the anxious person to take control, channel their anxieties into action, and move to a place where they feel safe and secure. If you recognize this behavior in someone you care about, please be patient and encouraging, and don’t take it personally if they need to bail on plans or leave an event you’ve coordinated. It’s so not about you at all.
7. Being Stoic
You may be surprised to find out that some of the people around you who seem stoic and unemotional are actually hypersensitive and riddled with high-functioning anxiety. One of the ways for HFA folks to actually make it through a day without tearing hair out and screaming is via compartmentalization.
They can shut down some emotions to deal with “later,” so they can concentrate on a task at hand. Basically, it’s like placing certain anxieties in a drawer in order to get sh*t done, and then opening that drawer later when they can fall apart in the safety and tranquility of their own homes.
Anxiety sucks. It’s like an ever-present current that’s tugging the sufferer downstream, and many people have no idea just how hard people struggle against that undertow. Therapy and medication can help, but support and understanding from friends and loved ones helps a hell of a lot too.
Do you suffer from high-functioning anxiety? Do you use any of the techniques above to hide your condition from others? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts and experiences.
Catherine Winter is a writer, art director, and herbalist-in-training based in Quebec's Outaouais region. She has been known to subsist on coffee and soup for days at a time, and when she isn't writing or tending her garden, she can be found wrestling with various knitting projects and befriending local wildlife.