Do you have high-functioning anxiety?

 

On Thursday 24th May, I started a new job. I also discovered the unwelcome return of my old mate, anxiety.

On Friday 25th May, I started writing a blog post about dealing with anxiety when you’re desperate to make a good impression. An impression as a professional, intelligent person who’s confident in what they do.

I deleted the post. Fearing that said post might hinder said good impression.

And then I read this article on Refinery29 – Are You One Of The Many Women Suffering From ‘High-Functioning Anxiety’? – and I felt a little foolish. After being someone who has always advocated speaking out about mental health, I was afraid of being judged. When, truth be told, to beat the prejudice you have to first overcome it for yourself. You have to keep sharing until it feels normal, for both speaker and listener.

In my original post, I started to detail my horror at experiencing old feelings of anxiety creeping in. Intrusive thoughts I’d learned to control a few years ago started to rear their big ugly heads during the build-up to my first day on the job, and for days afterwards, too. Lack of sleep, poor concentration, pounding heart, restless legs, a crowded mind, surges of adrenaline pumping through my body at the smallest things, like getting the train or choosing what to eat.

All the while, I walked and talked with unwavering confidence, smiling brightly at every new person I met. I guess you could say that I’m one of the many women with ‘high-functioning anxiety’. I actually find that I subconsciously use the adrenaline it creates to fuel my day. But the energy source is a futile one, and come bedtime I am totally done in.

I’m well aware that my anxiety is driven by OCD and the fear of things not being perfect, and so to address the symptoms I sometimes have to re-familiarise myself with the cause. I suppose I’ve been going round in circles like that all my life really, gaining a better understanding with each and every ‘phase’.

The most useful thing I’ve understood about battling OCD is that it’s a bully. And what do they teach you at school? Yep. To stand up to bullies. Call their bluff. Dare them to do their worst. Chances are, they’ll soon back off.

And so when anxiety creeps into my life and tries to sabotage the most important occasions, I take a moment to reflect on all the things I’ve done to look fear in the face, and remind myself that if I can jump out of a plane, get tattoos, go white water rafting, and get a mortgage, then I sure as hell can get through this day.

Over the bank holiday weekend, I caught the tube to Covent Garden to meet my boyfriend and some friends of his I hadn’t met before. Meeting new people is a typical trigger for anxiety sufferers, but not something I’ve experienced for years thanks to the ever-changing nature of my job. I’m used to it. But for some reason I couldn’t shake the nerves. I was furious with myself for feeling so worried, which only made things worse. In the grip of anxiety, it’s hard to think straight. I felt terrified and lost wandering through the usually familiar square, I couldn’t work my phone, and I felt tears welling up and panic flood my chest. I rang my boyfriend, and OCD told me to say “I’m not coming”. I recognised this attack instantly – the way it tries to stop you living your life. OCD wants you to be a recluse, FYI. So I consciously stood up to the bully and went for brunch instead.

And just like that, normality resumes and anxiety fades away.  Those mini inner battles can be immense triumphs – if you confront anxiety, I promise you will always win.

The next day at work I felt calm and in control. Like normal. Maybe the first-day nerves disappeared by themselves. Or maybe it’s about recognising when you’re vulnerable and  taking a moment to nurture yourself.

People often tell me how calm I am. It’s something I work very hard at. Calmness is a commodity I value extremely highly. Being told I am calm is on hell of a compliment – like when someone tells you how nice you look when you’re having a bad hair day.

The truth is, people don’t always see you the way you see yourself. Your internal monologue has a lot to answer for. They say that you should talk to yourself the way you would a close friend… “You’re doing so well”, “You’re look beautiful”, “You’ve totally go this”.

OCD isn’t a close friend. It never talks to you this way. And yet sufferers can’t help but hold it close. The negative, threatening voice indoctrinates your thoughts and tries to erode who you really are.

It’s vital to separate yourself from those thoughts to confront and overcome the anxiety they produce.

But how to take back control?

When I start to feel anxiety creeping in, I make an extra effort to be kind to myself, to nourish the deepest part of me in order to keep it safe. That means eating well, running, meditating and spending time both alone and with people I love. All of those things bring a sense of control and purpose that anxiety finds it difficult to penetrate.

As someone who is naturally introverted, I go to great lengths to mimic outgoing confidence because, well, fortune favours the brave (and the assertive). And when you pretend to be something in a positive way, you can actually manifest it for yourself. Hellooo, Sasha Fierce? Beyoncé was definitely onto something.

So, next time anxious thoughts start taking over, take a moment to assess the opportunities you’re giving them to have a voice. Fill that space with goodness and confidence in the form of positive thoughts and actions. It’s really hard sometimes, but it’s always worth the fight.

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Why you should get that tattoo

Don’t get me wrong. Getting a tattoo is a big deal and requires some serious thinking.

God, I debated my first tattoo for about five years. And to be honest, I’m so glad I waited for that one. But getting a tattoo is also hugely liberating, particularly if you’re obsessed with looking ‘perfect’ all the time.

I think as you reach your mid-twenties, your personal style and sense of self kind of settle down and find a fixed shape. If any tattoo resembled my pre-2010 dress sense then fuck knows what I would have ended up with.

I knew I wanted a bird on my back, but I also knew I wouldn’t be able to decide the details until they sort of found their way to me (lame). I didn’t want to force it, so I waited. I also have a huge fear of making the wrong decision.

Then, one day I was in my Grandparent’s shed (why?) and came across a familiar old painting of a goldfinch. Around the same time, a colleague showed me a new tattoo artist she’d discovered on Instagram – Martha Smith – who specialised in nature. It was a match made in heaven and I still adore my goldfinch tattoo today. Not only does it represent patience and ‘waiting for the right thing’, it gives me faith that I know and feel what’s right for me when I see it.

You see, when you have OCD and easily become obsessed with bizarre notions of perfection, trusting your gut instinct can be tricky. Basically, your gut is punctuated with little jabs of OCD-induced thoughts that try and disrupt those all important signals. “This feels right” is often masked with “What if I’m wrong?” and thoughts of worry get in the way. It’s really bloody annoying, actually.

In many ways, getting a tattoo when you have OCD is like giving your inner control freak and perfectionist the finger. I realised half-way through the one-hour ordeal that even if something went wrong I already didn’t care – I was so high on liberation (and pain) that for almost 30 minutes I relinquished control and gave myself up to a total stranger.

So, when I got in touch with Martha again a year later, I didn’t give her an image to copy. I simply wrote to her that I’d like something to represent change.

I didn’t tell her that my Grandad had passed away while I was in Japan, or that I wrote him a letter about cherry blossom’s temporary beauty, one that was read to him on his deathbed, or that he smiled at the letter when he could no longer really talk, or that my Nan still has that letter stuck to her fridge, over two years later.

I didn’t tell Martha that the reason I wanted something to represent change was because over the last two years I’ve experienced more change than I thought I would in a lifetime (long story).

When she sent me her drawing, I knew it was perfect.

“I love it – what flowers are they out of interest?”

“They’re cherry blossoms”.

I cried.

I debated getting it somewhere discreet, like my foot, but I knew deep down I wanted it on my arm. A reminder that change can be beautiful when you’re awarded opportunities to connect with greater, deeper things. And that it is you, and you only, who tells yourself what perfection means.

Getting a tattoo can be a big step in reclaiming your sense of self. A sort of feeling in control by consciously letting go of control. And when Martha began tattooing my arm, she told me to imagine that any pain and hurt I had felt was going into the pain of the tattoo, and that at the end of it all, I would be pain free. And in many ways, she was right.

I actually ended up getting another, tiny tattoo that day and surprised myself with the spontaneity of it. The alchemical symbol for air  – a triangle with a line through it.

I know how this sounds, believe me, but during a yoga retreat in Spain, my yoga teacher told me I was Air. I looked at her, confused. I always thought I was Earth, but sometimes you see yourself through another’s eyes and realise maybe you labelled yourself wrong. Sometimes the things you tell yourself aren’t necessarily true. Sometimes opening up to a new version of yourself will free you from past limitations around who you were and align you with who you’re destined to become. Earth and Air signs are the inverse of each other, so really I have a tattoo of both, depending on how you look at it. Which, to me, is kind of magical.