As an introvert with high-functioning anxiety, on the outside, everything looks fine. But on the inside, I am a mosaic of overwhelm and burnout.
“And the award for ‘Always Put Together’ goes to… Miss Laura!” I make my way to the front of the room to claim my wooden square — with interlocking puzzle pieces depicted on the front — my name at the top in sparkly, red lettering. I smile upon accepting my award from the program director, despite the conflicting emotions that are invading my mind.
I’m teaching pre-kindergarten. Receiving this as my award for our annual work party is ironic for me since I feel quite the opposite of “put together.” In fact, I’m swiftly falling apart. Underneath my calm introvert demeanor, smiles, and fun outfits, I feel more like a mosaic of overwhelm, burnout, and unsteady nerves.
At this moment, I want to run, escape. Waging an internal war, I stay. Firmly rooted and unwavering as adrenaline opens fire through my veins, I wait it out. An eternity endured in a matter of seconds, the rapid breaths and trembling limbs cease and I can breathe again. I swiftly return to my seat, another battle won. It’s clear in this moment of recognition that I’ve learned to hide my anxiety well.
Early in my journey, I was completely unaware of the power of my own thoughts. It would take years to finally discover that I am an introvert with high-functioning anxiety. Here are some of the most profound insights I’ve uncovered that have helped me transition from living in a state of fear and overwhelm to one of love and acceptance.
6 Ways to Cope With High-Functioning Anxiety as an Introvert
1. Observe your thoughts and learn to stop them in their tracks.
I spent years riding out waves of physical discomfort, treating my racing heart and shortness of breath as otherworldly phenomena that I believed I was powerless to stop. I lived in constant fear of when the next panic attack would happen because they seemed to just come out of nowhere. When they did, I’d be in the middle of a conversation and suddenly, my heart began to pound and things became fuzzy and skewed. My body kicked into autopilot, smiling and nodding, as I hovered above it. Everything familiar suddenly felt threatening and foreign, including my own body — it held me captive as I desperately wanted to escape.
I knew this was no way to live. So I got curious: I wanted to know more about the feelings and physical sensations that haunted me for so long.
It turns out, a lot of my anxiety was caused by unexamined thoughts that I believed to be true, like, “This one mistake will define the future” or a million other things. (And we introverts already overthink enough!) Single thoughts grew into stories and quickly layered into an endless abyss of “what if”s that would instantly fill me with feelings of fear and dread. These stories were almost always constructed of worst-case scenarios (that have never actually come true, by the way).
When I discovered meditation, I started learning how to “sit” and observe these thoughts and sensations. For me, meditation is a process of recognizing, releasing, and returning — allowing thoughts and feelings to come up, letting them go without judgment, and returning to a central focal point, like the movement of breath.
As I established this practice, it allowed me to begin identifying my thoughts just for what they are — thoughts! So if I was thinking I failed and ruined everything, I would realize that it was just a passing thought and not reality. This process has allowed me to create separation from the whispering voice(s) living in my head. The space that opens up not only helps with anxiety, but also allows my introvert superpowers, such as self-reflection and imagination, to reignite and create new, healthier thought patterns. And it all started with the simple, yet profound, act of observing my thoughts.
2. Question your thoughts and journal about them.
As I became better at observing the specific thoughts running through my mind, I started to identify some central themes. Throughout my young adult life, I struggled with many adopted beliefs that began with “should” — which quickly transformed into frustration or shame when I failed to meet my self-imposed expectations.
Through questioning, I am now able to identify how a particular thought makes me feel and how it makes me behave. Questioning them has taught me to accept how I am actually feeling in the moment and release the expectations of how I think it should be.
Things began to change for me when I realized that my current way of thinking was not the only way, and I began to challenge my limiting views. Journaling and reflecting on my struggles as they happened was the first crucial step for me to begin seeing and breaking these patterns. Journaling is my safe space and helps me to move through the self-defeating dialogue, navigate my emotions, and deconstruct troublesome thoughts with honesty and self-compassion. Writing continues to be my trusted companion on this healing journey, and comes naturally to us introverts, too.
3. Connect with others via outlets such as podcasts and online communities.
Of course, many of us introverts love to read! My continuous thirst for knowledge has been a tremendous asset. Books, podcasts, and communities have helped me lean into living authentically, not just agreeably. They have encouraged me to ask the probing question of “Why?” for many different things I’ve allowed in my life. My openness to learn and explore new perspectives and ways of being helped me to stop other vices, such as using alcohol and scrolling social media. I’d use them to escape difficult emotions, but have now learned to use tools to help me face them head-on versus masking them.
By taking in others’ stories — such as the book This Naked Mind by Annie Grace and the podcast Tell Me Something True with Laura McKowen and the Introvert, Dear Facebook community — I have been able to educate myself in many areas. Feeling bits of myself come to life again, these outlets provide comfort and reassurance when I am feeling lost. They also inspire me to explore my inner world, which we introverts do best.
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4. Fine-tune your introvert superpowers, like creativity.
One of the biggest introvert assets is our creativity. For me, creative power lies in my writing — it helps redirect my anxious, overthinking mind. By unraveling the mysteries in my head one word at a time, I am now getting much better at taking a deeper look at my thoughts and their connection with my body. And in this way, I have been able to lean into the unknown with a sense of hope instead of dread.
It turns out, the uncertainty I was always vigilantly planning for — and the uncomfortable sensations that would overtake me — were nothing more than unexplored parts of my own mind. A rich, vivid imagination running wild… toward a cliff. For years, I felt stuck. I allowed myself to dwell in a fixed mindset and just accepted the way things were. I accepted the panic attacks and hypervigilance, and the fact that some everyday tasks presented immense struggles for me because of the belief of “This is just the way it is.” Thankfully, there was a part of me that refused to accept that.
5. Refill your cup — make sure you prioritize self-care.
None of this would have been possible without the alone time that I desperately craved yet denied myself for so long. I am recognizing that self-care for me is a lifestyle, not a luxury that I only experience when I can “fit” it in. For years, it was an all too common theme for me to be running on empty by the end of the day, my sanity loosely hanging by a thread. Sometimes we introverts are people-pleasers, so while I was busy meeting other people’s needs, I wasn’t prioritizing my own. So I learned to begin giving myself permission to do things that were just for me, like journaling or yoga. It was in this way that I started to normalize and incorporate self-care as essential to my overall well-being.
No one can pour from an empty cup. In other words, you have to take care of yourself before you take care of others. Once I fully internalized this, I began to find ways to steadily fill mine. For me, this looked like setting healthy boundaries around commitments and getting comfortable with saying “no” (also hard for introverts). I began releasing my own expectations of what I felt I “should” be able to accomplish on my own and learned to start asking for what I needed: Help! Most importantly, I made it a priority to carve out time for myself to do the things I love each day — without feeling guilty. By making these practices part of my daily life, I am much more capable of showing up for others in an authentic, gentle way, which has always been my true nature.
6. Rebuild a new emotional base that is rooted in self-compassion.
My “Always Put Together” award is still displayed on my desk to remind me that it’s actually okay to fall apart. Maybe the pieces I was given were not even for the right puzzle. But because they were all I had available, I tried every combination to make them fit. From far away, everything looked smooth and effortless. What appears to outwardly “work” can sometimes overshadow what is severely lacking behind the scenes.
I love the quote, “We cannot be more sensitive to pleasure without being more sensitive to pain” by philosopher Alan Watts. I learned to recognize that self-neglect, people-pleasing, comparison, and a constant need for control are unhealthy coping mechanisms and the perfect breeding grounds for anxiety. I began to deconstruct the shaky foundation of false beliefs that I relied on for so long. Instead, I am rebuilding a new base that is rooted in self-compassion, love, and healthy boundaries.
The process of rebuilding means undoing all that is familiar and comfortable. For the longest time, hypervigilance and catastrophizing were things that I accepted as part of my “comfort zone.” I’m learning that not only is it okay to rebuild, it is necessary. Anxiety has significantly loosened its grip and is no longer the debilitating presence in my life that it once was. I am now able to simply see it as an indicator that something may be out of balance within me.
Through rebuilding, I created an ally whose purpose is helping me recognize what needs to be replenished instead of a daunting enemy trying to trip me up. The beautiful part of being human is that we have this amazing ability to grow. Nothing is out of the realm of possibility if you are willing to shift the idea of simply “making” something fit to creating the pieces that will.
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