Help for Introverts Who Have High-Functioning Anxiety

An introvert dealing with her high-functioning anxiety

High-functioning anxiety is often called a “secret” anxiety, because on the outside, people who have it seem to be doing just fine. What no one knows is that on the inside, they’re driven by nervousness and fear.

Although high-functioning anxiety is not an official diagnosis, it’s something that many people identify with. It’s closely related to Generalized Anxiety Disorder, a condition affecting 6.8 million adults in the U.S., with women being twice as likely to suffer from it as men. Although both introverts and extroverts experience anxiety, introverts are more prone to it, according to Dr. Laurie Helgoe, author of Introvert Power.

Living With — and Controlling — Your Anxiety

Anxiety is a normal part of life, and having some measure of it can actually make you perform better and keep you safe. But, for some introverts, it’s debilitating. Anxiety shrinks your world and makes you miss out on opportunities that would be really good for you.

Personally, I’ve struggled with anxiety in many forms throughout my life, from panic attacks to the hidden “high-functioning” kind. Once, I snuck out the back door of my office when my anxiety exploded over an upcoming meet-and-greet with a returning coworker. Other times, I’ve checked and re-checked my luggage almost obsessively before a flight to make sure everything I would need was there.

So, how do you get rid of anxiety? Research suggests that people who have anxiety see the world differently and can’t just “turn it off.” But, even though it may always be a part of your life on some level, there are ways to control your anxiety — and feel better.

If you’re struggling with high-functioning anxiety, here are seven ways to calm it, based on recent research and my own experiences.

How to Calm High-Functioning Anxiety

1. Know the symptoms of high-functioning anxiety.

Symptoms include being over-prepared, constantly feeling the need to stay busy, being deeply afraid of disappointing others, perfectionism, and more. To determine if you have it, check out my article, 15 Signs That You’re an Introvert With High-Functioning Anxiety. The more signs you identify with, the more likely it is that you suffer from anxiety.

2. What’s the real reason behind your fear?

Before anxiety strikes again, take some time to reflect. As an introvert, self-analysis probably comes naturally to you. Journal about the last time you felt anxious, or if you feel comfortable, talk to a trusted friend or therapist. For me, I’ve determined that my anxiety often stems from wanting others to like and approve of me. If I can do everything perfectly, no one can criticize me! (At least that’s what my anxious brain thinks.) If you can get to the root of your anxiety, it will have less power over you.

3. Observe your mental state like you’re someone else.

This one will take time to master, but you can train yourself to look at your mind from the perspective of a neutral observer. As your yoga teacher might say, “bring your awareness” to your mind. What’s happening in there right now? Are you having dark thoughts? Negative thoughts? Anxious thoughts? Rather than labeling those thoughts as good or bad, beating yourself up about them, or choosing to act on them right away, simply become aware of what you’re experiencing. 

Then, name those feelings. Is it anxiety? Sadness? Worry? Fear? Research shows that you can lessen what you experience simply by recognizing a negative emotion and calling it what it is.

4. Your inner thermostat isn’t always right.

The heating/cooling system in my apartment drives me crazy, because it isn’t always accurate. It can say that it’s 70 degrees in the room, but it feels much, much cooler. I suspect that due to its location in the apartment, the thermostat sometimes produces false readings.

Many times, our brains are like my apartment’s thermostat — they produce false readings. They tell us to be afraid or anxious in situations that aren’t actually threatening. This response likely has something to do with the amygdala, the primitive part of the brain associated with processing emotion. Studies have found that animals subjected to chronic stress developed larger and more connected amygdalae, and that in children and adults, a large amygdala is a predictor of anxiety.

It doesn’t mean that we should never trust what our feelings tell us. On the contrary, our emotions provide us with valuable data. But sometimes, the data is off, through no fault of our own. When you feel anxious, remind yourself that your feelings may not be accurately reflecting the situation.

5. Change your surroundings or your activity.

Sometimes, no matter how much mental effort I put into soothing myself, my body refuses to calm down. My brain gets stuck in a loop of anxious thinking, playing frightening scenarios or negative thoughts over and over. That’s when I need a change. And by that, I mean a change in my environment or the activity I’m doing.

Making a change will force your brain to move down a different track. Stop whatever you’re currently doing, get up, listen to a podcast, go to your favorite coffee shop, do a household chore, or run some errands. If you’re at work or school, if possible, take a break, go to the bathroom, put on your headphones and listen to music, start working on a different task entirely — or anything that’s different from what you’re doing at the moment.

When your schedule allows, do some aerobic exercise, like fast walking or jogging. After only five minutes of aerobic exercise, your brain will start to stimulate anti-anxiety effects. Some studies have even found that regular exercise works just as well as medication for some people to reduce anxiety symptoms — and it has long-lasting effects.

6. Have a mantra, and use it regularly.

You might try:

“I’m doing my best.”

“It’s only a moment. This too shall pass.”

“I may not be okay right now, but I’ll be okay soon.”

“I’m calm. I’m loved. I’m at peace.”

Mine is, “Things will not be as bad as you think they’ll be.”

7. Spend a little time each day unwinding and relaxing.

As an introvert, you already know that you need downtime to feel at your best. If you’re an introvert who has anxiety, that downtime is even more crucial. According to psychotherapist Linda Esposito, you can proactively tackle anxiety by intentionally setting aside time each day to relax. This will help you practice calming techniques before your anxiety gets the best of you.

For more tools to deal with anxiety, see the resources below. 

More Anxiety Resources

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