We all know that there's stigma around anxiety. Nobody wants to say, "I’m an anxious person" or "I’m experiencing anxiety." Although many health conscious people look after their bodies, not everyone knows how to look after their mind.
If you’d told me 20 years ago I was anxious, I would have laughed it off and probably told you, that you were hallucinating. In my mind, anxiety was associated with the image of a person unable to face the world or achieve anything, chewing their nails down, and hiding from people. I was functioning well, so that persistent head or body ache had to be part of aging, or not?
I had never heard of high-functioning anxiety, and considered myself healthy and “normal”. High-functioning anxiety is when you appear to be functioning and believe you are functioning well, but you’re really experiencing anxiety. To be honest: Anxiety is part of everybody’s experience, even more so in the fast-paced rat race where demands on our energy and time seem never-ending.
So where is the good news?
Learning about the ways you are anxious helps you to re-engineer your life and how you respond to events, so you can perform better and more sustainably, as well as rejuvenate yourself, before anxiety becomes more chronic. That’s a win-win.
Here are three signs that you're anxious and don't know it:
1. You have a fast and busy mind
Even if you can’t identify with the term "anxiety," you may resonate with the words "busy mind"—especially if your mind does not shut up no matter what you try. Perhaps even mindfulness classes frustrate you. You like all things fast!
Most of my clients fall into two categories: those with poor sleep and those who fall asleep soundly because they are so overtired. The commonality between these two groups is that they wake up feeling fatigued and unrefreshed because they’re tense even while asleep.
Another tell-tale sign of a busy mind is when you find it difficult to concentrate—for example, you can read a book for only a few pages before getting distracted, or you are multi-tasking a lot.
Silences aren't something you are comfortable with. A busy mind often occurs when you find yourself analysing or even obsessively going over the last conversation you’ve had or an email you’ve sent, or a business deal you’ve been working on - judging yourself for every possible way you might have gone wrong. Or comparing yourself constantly with others.
Many people with busy minds set relentlessly high standards for themselves. This is also known as perfectionism. When preoccupied with their real or perceived mistakes, it is difficult to engage with life and the people who matter, which then prompts guilt and shame.
2. You have a busy body
The body-mind link is nothing new. Try hunching your back and shrinking yourself to occupy as little space as possible. Examine how you feel now. Chances are you’re feeling tense. This is because your brain picks up signals similar to how our ancestors would hide themselves away in the natural environment. Your brain sends signals to your body to release hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which kick off the feelings of distress and anxiety. Similarly, your body reacts to the mind when it picks up signals of feeling anxious, such as clenching your jaw etc.
A common "busybody" symptom my clients report is a throbbing in their stomach area. The ancient traditions associate this space with our sense of power, and anxiety is all about a crippling uncertainty about the future. You might even be familiar with panic attacks, which mental health professionals regard as a form of anxiety disorder.
Symptoms of panic attacks can include a racing heart, trembling limbs, hyperventilation, and feeling extremely hot, as well as thoughts like, "People will laugh at me," "I am trapped," and, "I am going to die."
In my experience, the main thought you have during a panic attack can often be your mind’s clue to you about what needs to change in your life.
3. You engage in busy behaviors
It is normal to check if we’ve locked our doors and windows and turned off the stove or iron. However, when this checking starts to take over our sanity and lives, to the point where it occupies a lot of time and mental energy and when we feel as if we cannot trust ourselves, then these busy behaviors need addressing. What underpins obsessive-compulsive behaviors are, as its name suggests, obsessive needs that need to be soothed by engaging in compulsive behaviors.
These thoughts stem from different sources. Do any of the below resonate with you?
An inflated sense of responsibility: "I need to perform [action] so [person] will not get hurt."
Overestimating threat: "If I don’t check the stove again, the house will burn down."
Perfectionism: "If I don’t go over my last email, I’ll never be successful and people will think badly of me."
Unable to tolerate uncertainty: "Unless I am 200 percent certain, I cannot move on with my day!"
The truth is, your busy mind, body, and behaviors serve a function for you. They came into play to protect you, possibly during a time when things were difficult and this was how you learned to cope. Over time, they became habits, fed by constant repetition, just as muscles bulk up from constant working out. Even so, when we are constantly fraught with "busy," we live smaller than we should, unable to engage fully with life and the people who matter to us. We also increase wear and tear on our bodies and nervous system.
But what anxiety really was an invitation for you to release what no longer serves you?
As you throw out expired foods from your fridge, you may also want to consider throwing out long-expired beliefs, rituals, and habits associated with "busy." You could also be preventing chronic anxiety’s companions: depression and burnout, by addressing symptoms early.