Busyness Glorified: High-Functioning Anxiety

I came up with the idea for a post on busyness on Wednesday last week. It was time for me to write a blog post, and I realized I was so busy there was no way I was going to be able to do it. I wallowed in guilt and anxiety over not keeping up with my self-imposed once-a-week schedule, even though it was the first week of my new full-time teaching job, and that day I was so tired that I napped for 4.5 hours when I got home from work, got up, took a shower, and then went straight back to bed until morning.

I decided I wanted to write a post talking about how society tends to glorify busyness and it always seems like a competition to be the busiest person you know. It’s always been that way for me, at least. It’s also always been a trigger for my anxiety – I get anxious when I feel like I’m not doing enough or being productive enough, which is pretty much all the time. My standard for “enough” is usually “always doing something,” so if I ever take a break, boom anxiety.

Eventually, I decided to let it go a bit, and pushed my deadline for my next post to today. Now, I say “let it go a bit” because while I did push my deadline, I didn’t entirely let go of all the guilt that surrounded that.

However, it turned out to be a good thing that I postponed my post, because a couple of days ago, a friend contacted me because they connected with what I’ve written on my blog. They also shared this article from The Mighty on High-Functioning and Hidden Anxiety by Sarah Schuster with me.

In it, Sarah says,

“High 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?”

This really struck a chord with me, and got me thinking about my own busyness. For a long time, have always been crazy busy. And it started around the time my anxiety started, which I pinpoint as around grade 7 or 8.

In grade 8, I:

  • Tried out for soccer and basketball (and didn’t make either team – this is an important point for later)
  • Played on a club basketball team
  • Was a volunteer peer tutor (I tutored a grade 6 student)
  • Played clarinet in the school production of Shrek
  • Acted in the school play, Roomers
  • Raced on the alpine ski team
  • Made the badminton team (which was cancelled due to work action)
  • Made the track and field team (which was also cancelled due to work action)
  • Wrote and illustrated a children’s book in an extra-curricular course
  • Took dance classes
  • Took piano lessons
  • Played clarinet in concert band
  • Played alto-saxophone in jazz band
  • Ran for student council (didn’t get elected, also important)
  • Did French and English speech competitions up to the District level
  • Ran 6-7 km ~3 times a week
  • Probably a whole bunch of other things I can’t remember

In high school, I:

  • Raced on the alpine ski team
  • Ran on the cross-country team
  • Ran and did field events on the track and field team
  • Acted in plays and musicals
  • Played clarinet in the concert band
  • Played alto saxophone in the jazz band
  • Sang in the concert choir
  • Sang in the by-audition Bluetones jazz choir
  • Co-head editor and photographer for the yearbook in grade 12 (and worked on it as a junior editor grades 10 & 11)
  • Reach for the Top team
  • Renaissance group
  • Making Waves group, and acted in a play for it
  • Social Justice club
  • Photography club
  • Volunteered for House Committee
  • Yoga classes
  • AP courses
  • Piano lessons
  • Dance classes
  • Wrote a novel
  • Ran 6-7 km ~3 times a week
  • Got accepted into an advanced Studio Art portfolio program in grade 12

In university, I:

  • Took full-time classes every semester for 5 years
  • Was a varsity athlete, with practices 3 days a week, games once or twice a week, and conditioning/weight-lifting sessions 3 days a week
  • Worked part-time (usually 18 hours a week)
  • Volunteered as a rugby coach for a high school girls’ team
  • Was a leader for a Girl Guide unit
  • Was an orientations leader
  • Did a tri-mentoring program and received the Mentee of the Year award
  • Did Reading Week volunteer projects at elementary schools
  • Trained and ran a half-marathon
  • Made the Dean’s List twice

This brings me back to what I quoted from Sarah’s article.

What came first, the anxiety or the busyness? After taking a long, hard look at my past and my experiences, I deduced that for me, the anxiety came first. Accordingly, busyness has always been a coping mechanism for me. Not only that, but it became a crutch which I blamed my anxiety on. I didn’t have anxiety, I was just stressed because I had a lot on my plate. I overreacted about something stupid or yelled at my husband or broke down crying because I was stressed out, not because I had a clinical psychological condition.
A lot of the time I didn’t know why I did the things I did. It was important to me to be able to say I was involved in a lot of things, like it somehow proved my self-worth.

It was also a competition for me. I have always been incredibly competitive. I wanted to be the best. Highest grades. Involved in the most things. Most liked. Most creative and artistic. Especially busiest.

This is where I come back to soccer and basketball try-outs, and student council elections… I tried to do those things because I thought they would give me status, make me the winner of the busyness game, make me more popular… not because I particularly enjoyed them. To be honest, I hate soccer. Likewise, I love basketball, but I’m not that great at it, and I’m not passionate about it. The idea of being on student council or some sort of governing body makes me sick. It’s a good thing I didn’t get those things, and I didn’t get them partly because my heart wasn’t in it. But I did get into a lot of things I probably wouldn’t have done if I’d sat myself down and asked myself, Bee, do you really love these things?

I’ve only recently realized that for years I’ve had anxiety. This article helped me realize that I have high-functioning anxiety. 

High-functioning anxiety, to paraphrase Sarah, is high-achievement, busyness, and perfection. It’s nervous habits like picking your nails and running your hands through your hair all the time. Muscle tightness, for me especially in the neck and back, stomach aches, and tension. Avoidance. It is being social enough to go to things, but feeling like you can’t connect with anyone. You never feel good enough. Most importantly, you’re always looking for the next outlet for your anxiety.

In this case, like being on student council, or playing on the school basketball team. Like furiously cleaning the kitchen counters or the bathroom sink.

Outlets as Coping Mechanisms

I use busyness and knocking things off my to-do list as a coping mechanism. Sometimes, it’s simply to cope with having too many things on my to-do list. Sometimes, I create work for myself, like reorganizing my hall closet, because it’s a task that won’t take me too long but has a huge payoff – I LOVE organizing things and feel so accomplished when I’m finished.

When I’m angry or really anxious or dwelling about something, I clean. Normally the kitchen or the bathroom. The task takes my mind off the anger or worry (and the anxiousness about not being able to stop being angry or worried), is physical enough (scrubbing is hard) to release some endorphins and channel my energy so I calm down, and also takes me away from the situation that caused me anxiety. Spaces affect me a lot (probably my next blog post), so if my desk is messy and stressing me out, cleaning the kitchen means I don’t have to feel the bad desk vibes. If my husband and I had a fight in the bedroom, cleaning the bathroom takes me away from that both physically and mentally.

It’s gotten to be so much of a habit that when I’m cleaning, my husband gets scared that I’m mad at him, because he knows that I often clean when I’m mad.

On Sunday, I had what I would call a FANTASTIC day. And I mostly qualified it as such because it was incredibly productive.

On Sunday, I…

  • Did some prep work for my teaching job
  • Went for a 1-hour walk
  • Finished a book
  • Skyped a friend I haven’t talked to in a while for 1.5 hours
  • Talked on the phone for 15 minutes with another friend
  • Cleaned the kitchen
  • Organized my desk and the living room bookshelf
  • Played video games with my husband
  • Finished all the paperwork I needed to do for my new job
  • Watched a couple of episodes of Master of None on Netflix 

…. but I still struggled all day with feelings of low self-worth and guilt over not getting enough done.

High-functioning anxiety is a daily, hourly battle with the negative thoughts in my head. It’s incredibly hard because on the surface, I look like a very successful person who is happy, busy, and has her shit together.

In the 9-month period since I came to terms with the statement I have anxiety, I’ve gotten better at putting less commitments on my plate. Now I have less things to worry about. I also make sure that everything I take on is something I ABSOLUTELY LOVE. If I’m not sure about something, I don’t do it.

However, I still really struggle with feeling like I’m not doing enough.

I had a summer where I pretty much did nothing but read, travel, catch Pokémon, and go to weddings. At times, this felt amazing. Other times, it felt awful.

I’ve taken on a fair amount of things for the school year, but I LOVE them all, and enjoy committing my time and energy to them:

  • Teaching. I now teach French full-time. I LOVE IT.
  • Tutoring. English, for 2 hours every Saturday. I LOVE IT.
  • Studying. I’m taking two courses at UBC toward my Guidance Studies diploma (hoping to eventually do the Masters in School Counselling and become a high school Guidance Counsellor). I LOVE IT.
  • ‘Gramming. I maintain two Instagram accounts. I LOVE IT.
  • Blogging. I LOVE IT.

It’s important to me that although I do lots of things to cope with my anxiety, I’m not doing so much that it begins to create my anxiety as well. I’ll leave the cleaning and organizing as my coping mechanisms. The things that I commit to need to be things that I thrive at doing and take great fulfillment from.

I just need to keep reminding myself what I do, whatever it is, however much it is, it’s enough. I’m enough.

Bee.

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Becca

A Vancouverite that grew up in the Maritimes, I'm a married, millennial, rugby-playing, PNW-exploring high school teacher who loves reading, art, and nature. And I have generalized anxiety disorder.

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