High functioning anxiety and perfectionism can often look like… Being well put together, being high achieving, being reliable, and helpful, and successful, and organized, and the list goes on! But what’s actually going on on the inside can look much more like… Lots of overthinking, and feeling anxious, and needing to feel in control, and having an immense fear of failure, and not being able to say no, and not being able to relax without feeling a whole ton of guilt.
Carly is the voice behind @healingtheanxiousmind on Instagram, and she’s also a second year medical student. And she joins me on the podcast to chat about her personal struggle with high functioning anxiety and perfectionism, how it impacted her and her life, and what changes she has made to start making some healthy shifts.
CARLY’S PERSONAL STRUGGLE
Carly shares that at the time, she actually had no idea that she was struggling with high functioning anxiety. She honestly thought that what she was experiencing was normal. And this is often the case for many people who are struggling with high functioning anxiety and perfectionism.
Carly says that although she looked normal and appeared as though she had it all together, she did a whole lot of worrying behind the scenes. At the time, Carly was in school, volunteering at multiple places, doing research, getting good grades, working, and she was showing up for her friends and her partner, and she was doing it all really well.
But then she started to ask herself questions like “Does everyone worry all the time that their worth is tied to their productivity?” When she began paying attention, this is when she started to notice that she actually wasn’t doing so well. She started having difficulty sleeping, and was drinking a whole ton of caffeine. She was over-exercising in an effort to destress, which wasn’t actually helping. And she ultimately hit a large wall of burnout. And this is where her journey with anxiety truly started. She was in a high stressed state often, and began experiencing anxiety and panic attacks regularly, and it really put it into perspective that what she was experiencing hadn’t been and wasn’t “normal.”
THOUGHTS CARLY STRUGGLED WITH
Carly shares that at the time, she was ascribing her worth based on what she was doing. She had really high expectations of herself, and oftentimes the expectations were very unrealistic. She felt like if she didn’t get the best grades, or if she didn’t do the best, it meant that she wasn’t good enough. Even though there was so much that she was doing well!
And this is oftentimes the perfectionism side of things that typically accompanies high functioning anxiety. You often think and believe that your worth is tied to how good you do things. And so you unknowingly, or even knowingly, get yourself on this hamster wheel of doing, doing, doing, and achieving, achieving, achieving, because you think that if you aren’t doing it all and achieving it all, you aren’t good enough. And instead of acknowledging, recognizing, and celebrating all of the good you are doing, most of where you put your focus is on what you aren’t doing or didn’t do well.
WHEN ANXIETY AND PANIC ENTERED THE SCENE
Carly explains that she went from living a high intensity lifestyle, go, go, go, to her body not only not wanting to go anymore, but also to experiencing lots of anxiety and panic! And it really took her experiencing a panic attack to arrive at the knowledge that what she was doing wasn’t working.
Anxiety and panic for Carly looked like gasping for air, and avoiding getting her heart rate elevated because she feared the sensations and symptoms, and hypervigilance, and anxious thoughts that would take over and fill her with fear. She shares that everything that was in the background suddenly came to the forefront, and this truly shook her life and everything that had been under the surface. Because before this, she thought that she was invisible and mental health wasn’t something that she was ever really in the picture.
And Carly shares that for many months, she didn’t know what to do. And so she found herself looking for quick fixes. She tried therapy, but thought that it should result in a “fix” within a session or two. She also tried essential oils, and CBD oil, and she chatted with her doctor about the potential of trying medication.
HOW CARLY HID HER STRUGGLE
Carly shares that she not only hid what she was going through from others, but she hid it from herself! Simply put, she didn’t want to acknowledge that she could struggle. Sounds like high functioning anxiety and perfectionism, right? She suppressed what she was struggling with because she didn’t see it as important, and so she also hid what she was experiencing from those closest to her and those around her. She felt shame and guilt about the fact that she was struggling, and she truly held a stigma towards her own mental health. But Carly was so convinced that she had to just keep going.
She shares that at the time she was struggling, she was also pursuing getting into medical school. And she had to apply three times to get in. She explains that going through this process, you fill out a big application and if the score you’re given is higher than the average, you get an interview, and if it’s not, you don’t. And the first time Carly applied, the score she received was less than half of what it should have been. After this is when she really began struggling with high functioning anxiety because she began convincing herself that she had to take on more and do better in order to get into medical school.
Carly also talks about how hustle culture perpetuates high functioning anxiety, which is so true! So much of our culture tells people that you have to constantly hustle in order to get anywhere in life, which simply isn’t true! In fact hustling often leads to things like burnout, stress, and anxiety!
WHAT HELPED CARLY TO START MAKING HEALTHY SHIFTS
Spoiler alert - The quick fixes didn’t come! And continuing to look for them only added to the frustrations. So Carly began exploring other avenues to support her mental health…
01. She first looked at what was on her plate and she evaluated what she could immediately take off of her plate. Because the reality was, she had to start taking some of the stress and overwhelm away.
02. She looked to educate herself on what she was struggling with through books. She read Panicking About Panic and Practical About Panic by Joshua Fletcher. She also read The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown, and Kristin Neff’s books on Self-Compassion. These books helped to change her approach and gave her small, digestible pieces of wisdom that not only helped her to better understand what she was struggling with, but it also helped to give her some tools that she could take and implement.
03. Through a tip that she learned in Josh’s book, she began calling the sensations, symptoms, and discomfort “anxiety,” because that’s truly what it was.
04. She sought support and she worked with her doctor to be prescribed a medication that helped her in moments of anxiety or panic. She only took the medication for 3 days but she found herself carrying it with her “just in case.” Through the knowledge she had gained by educating herself, she began acknowledging that she had some safety behaviors that she needed to work through, and she eventually ditched the medication.
05. She made lifestyle changes that were really helpful, like consuming less caffeine, prioritizing sleep, and exercising in a healthy, balanced way.
06. She practiced imperfect acceptance. As humans we are imperfect, right? Right! And it’s okay that we aren’t perfect. It’s so important to accept that being perfect isn’t the goal, and it’s okay to do things imperfectly.
07. She began practicing self-compassion regularly. Carly shares that “This is where the truly healing started.” She started acknowledging when she was speaking negatively to herself and she started to change her self-talk.
HOW TO CONNECT WITH CARLY:
On Instagram: Healingtheanxiousmind
Jump on Carly’s newsletter: Head here!