This isn't anxiety, this is my drive for success! Isn't it?
You are the epitome of NYC. Your work days are filled to the brim with meetings, phone calls, important tasks; you’re known to get it done, and well. You make sure to attend a challenging yoga class three days a week and you rarely miss your daily run or 45 minutes at the gym. You even manage to fit in happy hour and weekend brunch with friends, who are similarly accomplished. This all sounds great, right? So, what’s the problem?
You’ve started to notice a nagging headache that is distracting you from bringing your A-game. You find yourself massaging your jaws or opening your mouth wide to stretch out the tension you feel in your face. It’s hard to fall asleep at night; you’re busy strategizing or making lists of the important pieces that can’t fall through the cracks. You catch yourself staring out the window rather than replying to that crucial email as quickly and thoroughly as you normally would. You cannot even begin to fathom just sitting and relaxing when you discover a spare hour with nothing scheduled; there’s just so much to do and it has to be done right. Your assistant seems to just sit around all day doing nothing, but some part of you knows that it is because you feel like you have to do it yourself in order for it to be done correctly. Your first order of business at that happy hour or weekend brunch is to order a cocktail and take a sip; that has to happen before you can even start to engage with your companions. And somewhere in the background is the dull thud of a recurrent fear that you will never find a decent partner in this godforsaken city, so if you even wanted to consider having children, you’ll probably be too late.
Okay, but so what? It's been working for me so far, I mean look how well I'm doing in my career!
The problem is that all of these could be symptoms of what has become known colloquially as “high-functioning anxiety”. High-functioning anxiety essentially describes a chronic level of anxiety that might not necessarily meet the criteria for diagnosis of an anxiety disorder, but that can wreak havoc on the health and welfare of people it affects. And, NYC achievers are prime candidates for high-functioning anxiety. The pace of the city on its own can provoke anxiety in even the calmest of people, and the pressure to succeed in the corporate world here brings with it an expectation of overperformance and perfection that may be unmatched in any other arena.
Stress really is a killer.
You’re fine, you say, and you may very well be, but the long-term effects of this chronic anxiety can be crippling, and in ways that you might not even consider. The most obvious potential effect is on your physical health. Stress is a killer. Polyvagal theory (among others) suggests that humans are biologically programmed to have a physiological response to a perceived threat, which could include a tensing of muscles, a release of the stress hormone, cortisol, and an increased heart rate, to name a few. Once that response has been activated the body remains in threat response mode until the threat is resolved. The trouble is, our psyche doesn’t know the difference between a charging lion and a jam-packed subway platform. Our psyche just recognizes a threat and has its normal, functional, threat response, but in the example of the normal NYC commuter experience, the activation is very nearly perpetual because there are just so many stimuli for the psyche to process at every single moment of every single day. Over time, this high level of physical threat-response activation can contribute to health problems that are very, very real, and often fatal.
Anxiety erodes relationships.
Another problem with not seeking anxiety treatment for the high-functioning brand of anxiety is an erosion of interpersonal connection. People become so busy fending off the subtle (although sometimes not so subtle) feeling of anxiety that they erect a multitude of defenses that work, on some level, to keep the anxiety in check but that also work to keep connection at bay. For example, if people can’t ever be trusted to handle things in conjunction with you, whether in work life or in personal life, the connection with that person erodes as they become unnecessary and irrelevant to attaining your goal. Or, if every relationship interaction is framed around the use of a substance (yes, wine counts), the people you are with never receive the benefit of knowing you in an unaltered state (even just one glass offers up a numbing effect that serves to both numb the negative anxiety but also to numb the positive relational connection). These connections, fueled by bottomless mimosa brunches, are inevitably less emotionally connected in a way that runs deep and is based in really seeing and being seen by your companions.
You don't have to suffer, even if you think your suffering is mild.
Now, I’m certainly not suggesting you have to move to Montana or be sober 100% of the time in order to counter the effects of high-functioning anxiety. I am saying, however, that this is real and you are suffering in a chronic state of anxiety activation that is detrimental to your living your best life. And, I am saying that it does. not. have. to. be. this. way! Often, people avoid anxiety treatment because they don’t recognize it as crippling; they aren’t having panic attacks, they are kicking ass in their career, they are going about their life, and externally, things look pretty good (aka who am I to take up treatment space for something like this when I should just be happy with my life as it is). Also, people who are high-achieving often fear that if they resolve the anxiety, or at least significantly reduce it, that this loss will actually have a harmful effect on their capacity to succeed. Not true, my friends. In fact, reducing this chronic underlying anxiety can free up so much physical and emotional space that you might even be able to kick more ass at work. Imagine that?!
I see you, high-functioning, high-achieving anxiety sufferers of NYC. I encourage you to seek anxiety treatment. There are so many options available (and while medication is certainly one tool that can be useful for treatment of symptoms in the right context, it wouldn’t be my first recommendation unless accompanied by work on the root cause of the issue) and you can certainly find one that will be a good fit for you. If you’d like to know more about working with me for anxiety treatment, or if I can help you get connected with the right fit for your anxiety treatment, please contact me here to schedule a free 20-minute phone consultation.
Check back for my next blog with some tips on how to start addressing your high-functioning anxiety.