Why We Need to Take ‘High-Functioning Anxiety’ Seriously

When you imagine anxiety, what do you see?

When you imagine anxiety, what do you see? Shaking, crying, screaming? Panic attacks, hyperventilating, incoherent sentences? For some people, this is what it is like. But it’s not always the case.

What does “high-functioning” anxiety look like?

It looks like you have your life together. You smile, your clothes are freshly pressed, your hair is shiny, you arrive on time. You try your hardest, finish your work on time, help others and have hobbies. High-functioning anxiety makes it look like you’re busy living your life—and you are—to a certain extent.

For me, it’s keeping busy so I don’t lose my mind. The more I do, the more tasks I assign myself and the more things I can keep in control, the more I can control my anxiety.

The issue with not speaking out about high-functioning anxiety is the risk of people thinking it’s not real. And it is. Because I live it. And countless others live the same life. And when we need to take a sick day, when we are brave enough to take some time for self-care, we need to be taken seriously. I’m not faking being sick. I’ve been faking being well.

Just like the belief every person with an eating disorder needs to look like they have an eating disorder, the ability to be high-functioning doesn’t negate the anxiety. I was in desperate need of a mental health day, but I was too afraid to call into sick to work because I knew nobody would believe me. Because they couldn’t see it. This is the downfall of having an invisible illness. The trouble with having a disorder that masks itself as “just fine.”

Looking at me, you wouldn’t know I struggle with self-harm or eating disorders. You wouldn’t ever guess I have suicidal tendencies. Behind my work ethic and ability to do my job is a girl struggling to breathe because of a small typo in a tweet or because my lipstick might be one shade too bright. I don’t know how I can be high-functioning, I just know I am.

It makes it that much harder to ask for help because I don’t think anyone would believe me. I don’t want to be labelled as the girl who cried wolf. I want to be taken seriously. But until we even acknowledge high-functioning anxiety exists and it’s a real illness, it will never be part of the conversation. And without awareness, we can’t ever move forward and ask for help.

Erica Chau
I know what it’s like to live and interact with illness, whether physical or mental, and I know there is still stigma around it. I want to use my words and my story to help create a safer and more open world.

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