Is “High-Functioning Anxiety” the New Imposter Syndrome?

6 ways to outsmart the new breed of stress plaguing those who feel as though they have to do it all, all the time.

Woman floating in water

Taking time out to just BE is an important part of self care. Photo credit: Averie Woodard

For anyone with a smart phone and a news feed, it’s no surprise that stress from feeling pulled in all directions has become the “new normal.” It may feel like no matter how much you do, it will never be enough.

While you may have heard of Impostor Syndrome, or the nagging feeling that whatever success you’ve experienced can be chalked up only to luck and that you might be found out at any time, “high-functioning anxiety,” a term coined by writer Sarah Schuster, might more accurately describe its sister feeling—no matter how high-achieving you are, there’s always more you could be doing. It’s the gnawing sense that your self-worth is directly linked to how much you can accomplish. It’s feeling like you’re failing if you can’t check off everything on your to-do list. It’s forgetting how to slow down and give yourself a break.

Schuster describes what it feels like to suffer from the mental health issue that may not be named in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but that “…does cause real and significant impairment in functioning for those who experience it,” says Natalie C. Dattilo, Ph.D., a clinical health psychologist and Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychology in Clinical Psychiatry at Indiana School of Medicine.

Schuster says, for her, it looks like achievement, busyness, and perfectionism. She writes, “High-functioning anxiety can be a natural consequence of a busy lifestyle, but its existence is akin to the chicken and the egg. Which came first, the anxiety or the busyness? Am I always moving because I’m anxious or am I anxious because I’m always moving?”

“Work-life balance has become a myth in our society, especially for women,” says Dr. Dattilo. “I believe women are under more pressure than ever to ‘do it all,’ and look good doing it. Our society has changed as well. There was a time when we only had the people we saw every day to compare ourselves too. Now, it can seem like world-wide competition.” Indeed, Google searches about anxiety have risen by 150 percent since 2004, according to a recent New York Times story.

Schuster posits that while you might be able to pull it all off, for a while at least, there’s still something missing: your ability to be fully present in the moment. “Just because you’re functioning doesn’t mean you shouldn’t slow down, breathe and take one damn second to be happy the way things are.”

It sounds so simple, but the ability to slow down and just be is not so easy to put into practice when your smart phone is continuously buzzing with texts, email alerts, and status updates. Yet the benefits of doing so include everything from honing your intuition to actually making you more productive in the long-term.

How do you slow down to enough to be still, yet continue to achieve as best you can in all areas of your life? Dr. Dattilo offers what she calls an ENGAGE plan, which is based on decades of research on psychological well-being. She says the easy-to-remember plan has specific practices you can fit into those moments when stress pangs are rising. (Of course, you should always talk to your doctor if stress, anxiety or feelings of overwhelm have begun to affect your daily life). Here are her six rules to live by for a more peaceful inner world that will translate to a better you, inside and out.

E for exercise. “By exercise, I mean move,” says Dr. Dattilo. Anxiety triggers the release of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, and moving your body helps ease it. If you’re feeling anxious, try walking up stairs, doing jumping jacks, or dropping for pushups to expel that anxious energy. And here is some more motivation to hit the mat: Studies show that practicing yoga releases the neurotransmitter linked to lower anxiety levels known as GABA.

N for natural sleep. Getting a good night’s rest without popping a sleep aid is one of the best things you can do to help ease anxious feelings. If you’re having trouble dozing off, try using a guided meditation app to unwind (but cover the screen with a cloth, since stimulating blue screens can alter your body’s natural sleep hormone response.)

G for gather. Gather your team of loved ones that you can turn to for support when you need it. When you’re anxious, a natural inclination may be to withdraw because you might not want people to know you’re having a hard time, but reaching out to trusted loved ones to say “I’m freaking out about everything I need to do,” can put you more at ease. Sharing your feelings with others lets you see that you don’t have to handle it all yourself and that you’re not alone.

A for appreciate. If you’re getting anxious, try to stop for a moment, notice what you’re feeling, and find one thing to be grateful for. Think: Yes I’m nervous but I’m grateful that I actually have this job interview, or I’m grateful I have so much going on in my life—no wonder I’m feeling overwhelmed.

“It isn’t easy to do because you’re essentially connecting parts of the brain that don’t normally talk to one other when we’re anxious, but it helps you to see the bigger picture and keep things in perspective,” says Dr. Dattilo. “With practice, you’ll feel more in control of your emotions.”

G for giggle. Don’t forget to laugh and have fun! “Many high-achieving women that I see in my practice typically feel like they have a lot of responsibilities and rarely make time for themselves or for fun,” says Dr. Dattilo. “Ask yourself, ‘What makes me laugh, how do I like to play?’ This is an important part of self-care.” You don’t have to go outside of your usual routine, but do something that is fun every day, such as pinning your dream wardrobe on Pinterest, dancing in your living room, tickling your kids, or drawing (the adult coloring books trend has mental health benefits, too).

E for exhale. “If you do nothing else on this list, don’t forget to breathe,” says Dr. Dattilo. “Slow, intentional breaths help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows your heart rate and counteracts anxiety’s effects on the body. It also allows the thinking part of your brain to ‘stay online’ and focus on the present moment.” Even five to 10 intentional breaths are enough to make a difference.