High Functioning Anxiety

What It’s Like to Survive Day to Day

I try to be open with what it’s like to be living with an anxiety and depressive disorder because when I was diagnosed 7 years ago, I wanted to know someone that I knew who was dealing with the same things as well. So I’m trying to be that person I needed 7 years ago, because it’s all I can do. Whether it means sharing with others what my experience is like or as public as writing my experiences here on the internet. This is important and if I keep letting the media and everyone else tell me what it means to have anxiety, my voice will be silenced. I refuse to be quiet about this because everybody that lives with this (approximately 40 million Americans), no one lives the same way day to day. I just want to be heard.

Low Functioning Anxiety vs. High Functioning Anxiety

I remember the days before I was diagnosed with panic disorder. I was 16 years old in high school, I had good grades up until my anxiety hit me like an avalanche. It made me very low functioning. Meaning that I skipped a week from school one month and took a few days of absence through the year because I couldn’t get out of bed. I was scared to leave the house but I was also scared to be alone at home. I was crying a lot, I wasn’t eating much, and I wasn’t studying. I suffered. My high school guidance counselor and teachers were very accommodating but I had to keep functioning. I had to survive and live like I didn’t have it. I did go to therapy but my mom’s insurance only allowed 3 therapy sessions per YEAR. So I wasn’t receiving any type of treatment for about 4 years. My parents at the time didn’t understand what it meant to have a mental illness, my siblings didn’t get it, and neither did I. If you’ve ever seen commercials on anti-depressants like Cymbalta, I fit the character of each commercial. Always being sad, on the edge, and not wanting to leave the house. This isn’t true for everyone though. And I learned this as time went on.

Fast forward 7 years later: I’m still here, still struggling but the difference is that I’m high functioning. I’m a full time student at my university and I work part time. My grades are much better than what they were in high school. I’m not skipping school, crying as much as I used to, starting to eat well again, and being able to focus on studying. Does this mean I’m cured or my anxiety was a phase? No. And hell no. It’s a very common misconception that being high functioning while having anxiety means that we’re cured or that we’re less sick. I’ve learned a lot but I’m still learning to survive.

“But you look normal, like you have it together especially if you’re working and going to school.”

I hear this a lot. It’s totally understandable and I try to give more grace to people who are also trying to understand it. Over the years I’ve become very good at hiding my anxiety. Sure every now and then when I encounter a trigger, I’ll have a panic attack. I refuse to let myself panic in public, so I do still avoid some social outings that can trigger it. I’ve formed the habit of wanting more routine in my life so that things won’t be so unpredictable. I like predictable, because to me that means no panic attacks. I’ve gotten more access to mental health treatment like being able to see psychiatrists, psychologists, and therapists. The problem that I have is that people think that being high functioning means that you can deny yourself self-care or professional care from a mental health facility. People think this just because you’re able to do everyday things and you aren’t thinking about committing suicide. This is completely false and I learned this the hard way. Self-care and professional care are equally important regardless of the way you function. To me, being high functioning with anxiety doesn’t mean I no longer struggle with it. My anxiety and depression comes in waves. There are days where I won’t want to leave the house and when I will feel unusually sad and exhausted from my everyday life. And there are days where I’m completely fine. But I still have to take care of myself.

Although I’m still somehow trapped in the stigma because when I don’t want to go to a social event due to my anxiety, I’d rather give the excuse of having a flu or a stomachache because it’s more socially acceptable than not going due to anxiety. This is especially true with the communities I’m apart of: the Filipino-American community and the Christian community. The stigma is still there in both groups, it’s starting to change but it will take a while for the communities as a whole to understand. Yeah sometimes I am honest with people, but it’s only a very few. That’s one of the few things that I’m still learning to be OK with. I need to be OK to with being honest about what I’m struggling with because if I’m always making some socially acceptable excuse, everyone will think that being high-functioning means that you don’t deal with a psychiatric disability. Or even worse, that I think my anxiety and depression isn’t an illness. I wonder though, is being high functioning actually better than being low functioning? I know everyone (and myself) tell me it is but is it? Because if being high functioning means forgetting to take care of yourself, I’m not sure if it’s a good thing. The same thing can be said for people who have a cold. You can still go to work or school but if you aren’t taking the time to care for yourself what good is it to be high functioning when you’re sick?

One day, it will be better and I truly believe it. Sometimes it’s hard to see that when there are people around me who don’t understand or don’t think I should get help because I look like I have it together. There are so many people who have a mental illness that don’t think that they will see the day that the stigma will end and unfortunately, it sometimes results in them taking their lives. Too many people in different communities in the United States alone are being denied help or don’t have access to mental health facilities. What I wish my communities knew? That it’s OK to need medication or go to therapy whether you are high or low functioning. My primary care doctor told me this last year that I try to tell myself daily: having a mental illness does not make you weak. I still don’t fully believe this, but I’m trying to get there. 7 year later, and I thought I’d get better at managing my day to day life but I’m still learning and I won’t stop or keep quiet until I see more change.

*I realize that not everyone has the privilege of having equal access to mental health care — the system is still broken when it comes to accessing help. I’ll probably write about this another time when I look into it more.