This past week, Facebook and Instagram flooded with selfies of people who have decided to share with the world their struggles with mental illnesses in promotion of Bell’s “Let’s Talk”-campaign. Thousands of essays about overcoming depression and anxiety generated empathetic likes and comments of concerned friends and family searching to support their struggling loved one. Although the cause for these stories and photos–raising money for mental illness studies–seems benevolent enough and a worthwhile campaign to participate in, I instantly developed an issue concerning the endeavor. What if there is a type of mental illness that doesn’t seem worth disclosing to the public? A type of anxiety that isn’t taken seriously and can easily be mistaken for extreme perfectionism, consistent punctuality, or just a need to always keep busy? What I am talking about here is high-functioning anxiety–a mental illness that can, ironically, prevent a person from writing an article to Mars’ Hill, which is why I waited until the last moment to hand this one in. I am not a bystander to this condition—I have suffered from high-functioning anxiety for over four years.
How can I describe what it feels like to have high-functioning anxiety? Imagine being on a coffee high 24/7 accompanied by a constantly fast heart rate, but somehow always feeling utterly exhausted and hardly being able to keep your eyes open during waking hours—always, no matter how much sleep you get. High-functioning anxiety is needing to get up in the middle of class or movies at least twice just to walk around, because sitting for longer than half an hour is sheer agony. It’s developing a whole list of bad habits–nail biting, running fingers through your hair, talking to yourself, constant scratching–all in a subconscious attempt to confine the anxiety in a straightjacket. It’s not bothering doing anything creative, like writing, singing, or drawing, because I know that I won’t be the best. There is always someone out there more creative than me, so why even try?
It’s either spending three hours cleaning my room or leaving everything on the floor, including laundry, for weeks on end. It’s focusing completely, constantly, on other’s opinion of your appearance, actions, words, yet at the same time having the ability to appear completely unbothered and rather outgoing at social gatherings because the energy from the anxiety has to go somewhere. It’s being too exhausted to go out with friends, but then feeling like I am failing them by not being up for adventure 100% of the time. It’s not going out of my way to make new friends and breaking off any new connections I make almost instantly because I think that they will not accept me the way I am. I might as well just pretend we never met. High-functioning anxiety is having a permanent feeling that no matter how much time I put in to my tasks, I am doing everything wrong and I am a complete failure and disappointment to everyone I know. I am not enough. Yet somehow, I get up from my bed every single morning, tell my roommate and anyone who asks that I’m doing great: I hide all of the energy and anxiety under a meticulous list of to-do’s, and I hope it will all just go away.
I tell myself that everything I am feeling isn’t worth complaining about, and that I should just suck it up and not burden anyone with my problems. However, high-functioning anxiety, although hardly noticeable on the outside, is just as serious an issue as severe depression and can lead to a downhill slope of regrets not only in academic life, but also social, relational, and spiritual connections. As a shy and often reserved individual, I have never seen it necessary to make my condition a big deal nor a mirror image of who I really am. I have only ever told a select few about what it feels like to experience a constantly blurry and at the same time hyperactive mind on a daily basis, but I felt the Lord calling me to disclose my thoughts on the matter to all of you, dear readers.
If there are people out there who feel like my description struck a chord within them, I want you to know that you do matter, your condition is worth talking about, and you can find peace in knowing that there is at least one person out there who understands. As a long-term victim to this unique form of anxiety, I am also happy to say that there are a few temporary reliefs from the persisting struggles I face every day. For example, music. Never underestimate the power of music to ease the cacophony of thoughts in your head. Another seemingly unlikely cure for the constant stress is taking photos of your surroundings, especially the sky. Looking back at photos taken during a challenging period in your life can trigger nostalgia, a genuinely comforting sensation, like the warm rays of sun gently soothing your cheek on a cold day. Lastly, you will be amazed at how sometimes it’s the little things that can get you through the day–a good breakfast, a chat with a professor, or finding a matching pair of socks to wear.
I am no counsellor, and I do not know if there is a permanent cure for high-functioning anxiety, but I can claim from experience that your anxiety does not have to define your life and personality. You are an individual created in God’s image, and God is perfect. The struggles you face day-to-day are not an easy burden to carry, but telling someone you trust about it will prevent you from having to carry the burden alone.