The intersection of mental health and brain science are not always at the forefront. However, a lot of the clichés on what helps stress is actually grounded in significant research and expertise on anxiety and the brain. And when you try these little tricks to feel better, you will know you're doing something that has the support of experts.
High-functioning anxiety is no less all-consuming than other forms of anxiety. "High-functioning anxiety is common in people who can power through anxiety with hard work and dedication, often with positive outcomes," Dr. Amy Serin, co-founder and Chief Science Officer of The TouchPoint Solution, tells Bustle. "However, this chronic state of having your stress switch turned on often leaves people with exhaustion, burnout, trouble sleeping, and even health problems." And no one deserves to walk through life with that level of pain.
Whether it's professional help, or seeking support with yourself and your family, just taking the first step is a big deal if you have high-functioning anxiety. "People with high-functioning anxiety want to appear strong and capable of being able to handle everything that life throws at them," Prakash Masand M.D., a psychiatrist and founder of the Centers of Psychiatric Excellence, tells Bustle, "So naturally, asking for help is something most people with high-functioning anxiety have a difficult time with." One great place to start looking for help is within the world of brain science, since anxiety lives in the brain. By bringing in friends, professional help, and your own mental health toolkit, you can understand your thoughts better and hopefully start to feel some relief.
Here are 11 hacks for people with high-functioning anxiety that experts swear by.
If you have high-functioning anxiety, you might describe yourself as a night owl, or someone who "doesn't need that much sleep" when really you're up late worrying, or pushing tasks until later at night since they're triggering your anxious thoughts. Still, however, experts say you need to take a step back and take care of yourself by resting.
"We all know that sleep is a vital and non-negotiable need," Dr. Marissa Long, a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in Southern California, Founder of the ThriveWISEmental health and wellness subscription box, tells Bustle. "We also know that for many of us, it is the first thing to get cut when we have too many priorities to manage at once ... While the ideal amount of sleep can vary from person to person, it's important to know what works best for you and guard that time at all costs." Even if you struggle with insomnia, breaking off this time even just to close your eyes, or lay in bed, can be really helpful for your mental health.
Breathing techniques are a tried-and-true form of anxiety relief. And that's not just because they're easy and free; they're actually backed up by a good amount of science.
"The positive effects of a deep breathing practice have been shown in research over and over again," Dr. Long says. "Deep breathing can reduce blood pressure, improve digestive functioning, regulate sleep and decrease anxiety." So try having a moment to focus on your breath once in the morning, and once in the evening. These dedicated moments can help you feel more equipped to handle life's stressors.
Brain and anxiety experts are all about using your brain to fight your symptoms, of course. So naturally they're inclined to want to help you use your thoughts as medicine. "Our thoughts are a huge part of anxiety and our ability to manage our thoughts can make a major difference in how effectively we can manage our anxiety," Dr. Long says. So listen to your thoughts, and challenge them, if you feel able.
"People with high-functioning anxiety tend to have a lot of negative self-talk," Prakash Masand M.D., a psychiatrist and founder of the Centers of Psychiatric Excellence, tells Bustle. "Closely monitor the words you use when you speak to yourself." You can either listen to them, or literally write them down. You'll likely find it quite an eye-opening experience.
Getting in touch with gratitude may seem like more of a spiritual than cerebral anxiety hack, but the experience is quite well grounded in science.
"Research suggests that practicing gratitude calms the deep limbic system (the emotional center of the brain that’s responsible for managing your mood and attitude) and activates the hypothalamus which regulates metabolism, sleep, and body temperature," authentic success, mindset, and brain health coach Cindy Shaw tells Bustle. "When these regions of the brain are consistently activated, new patterns of neurons fire together to create new thinking and feeling pathways. Over time, the practice of gratitude helps train the brain to fire in a new pattern, creating long-lasting positive changes in the neurological structure of the brain." Whatever way works for you, your brain will thank you.
When it comes to assessing and managing anxious thoughts, sometimes just listening to them and observing them isn't enough. A more proactive way experts say you can help with your high-functioning anxiety is talking to yourself in the third person.
"Studies conducted at the Clinical Psychology Lab at Michigan State Universityfound that when people referred to themselves in the third person, the part of their brain involved in emotional regulation reduced their stress within one second," Shaw says. "Because you feel the way you think, when you talk to yourself like you would speak to and encourage a good friend, you are putting distance between your thoughts and emotions." So, instead of talking to yourself the way you usually do, try talking to yourself like a friend for a day. There's a good chance you'll feel better.
Just beginning to talk about your anxiety openly and honestly can be a major breakthrough for people with high-functioning anxiety (many of whom tend to push their feelings down).
"Maintaining a support system of people who provide positivity can be vital in keeping a happy, healthy mind," Glenn Scott, LCSW, director of the Youth Partial Hospital Program at Loma Linda University Behavioral Medicine Center, tells Bustle. "... Instead of withdrawing from others, be deliberate about staying in communication with the positive people in your life. Isolation can be unhealthy, but connecting with others deeply and honestly can boost your overall well-being." So try to bring yourself back into grounded conversation with the people you care about — they might surprise you.
If you deal with high-functioning anxiety, chances are you buzz through the day-to-day without much time to get in touch with your body and the world around you. It may feel overwhelming, but scientists find it incredibly helpful.
"One powerful way to de-escalate if you are losing control is to focus on the physical things that surround you," Scott says. "When stress and anxiety are taking over, one of the best techniques to snap back to the moment is to count five things for each of your senses, making yourself aware of your surroundings and distracting you from the stressors." Start with touch, feeling what's around you, then travel through sound, sight, smell, and taste. Grounding may be exactly what you need.
A lot of high-functioning anxiety involves pent-up feelings. When you've got a lot of this built-up anxiety stirring around, experts say, often it's a good idea to use movement to help get it out.
"People with high-functioning anxiety are typically full of energy and adrenaline and want to tackle everything that comes their way," Dr. Masand says. "It’s important to find an outlet or activity to release this stored up energy ... [Plus,] since many people with high-functioning anxiety also have insomnia, this can help improve your quality of sleep." Take a walk instead of a drive, try a sport you used to love again, or do some mindful yoga. Your body and mind will likely both be grateful.
One of the things that differentiates high-functioning anxiety from its counterparts is the obsession with perfectionism and goal-setting. While this can help keep you on track, it can also be incredibly harmful. Experts suggest, then, taking it back a notch when it comes to organizing your de-stressing as well.
"While it’s good to have big ambitions, it can be damaging to have goals that are so large that they’re are unrealistic," Scott says. "The feeling of achievement after accomplishing a goal can give you feelings of control over your life, as well as help focus your long-term direction. The sense of purpose achievements bring can strengthen your mind and give you a feeling of peace." So decide to not use your phone before bed for 30 minutes, instead of deciding to get eight whole hours of sleep. Or try to do a breathing technique once this week, instead of putting reminders on your phone every time you expect yourself to do one. Taking the pressure off can be healing.
Setting a goal for some quiet time is essential for people with high-functioning anxiety, who often feel propelled forward by stress and worry. If having a time scheduled doesn't add extra stress, try integrating moments of calm into your schedule to quiet your mind and body.
"It can be as short as 20 to 30 minutes, but just find a quiet, relaxing spot and disconnect from the world around you," Dr. Masand says. "Having a rest and relaxation routine is important for everyone, but this is especially true for high-functioning anxiety sufferers. Get comfortable, listen to soothing music, take a hot bath, journal or whatever it is that brings you peace." If it feels too overwhelming to adjust your schedule recurrently, try adding it just once into your week. You deserve the downtime.
As someone living with high-functioning anxiety, you likely have all sorts of priorities and goals. If your own personal wellbeing isn't at the top of that list, however, you likely have a clear first step to take in terms of lessening your anxiety.
"It’s really nice to want to help other people and go out of your way to make a difference for someone else, but people with high-functioning anxiety tend to do this more than they should and even put the needs of others in front of their own," Dr. Masand says. "Nobody is saying you have to become mean and not help people, but always make sure you are taking care of yourself, your body, your health and everything in your own life before you go out and try to be a hero to everyone else." In pursuit of this, it's alright to occasionally say "no," and to put personal in front of professional development when you need to. Some pressure might dissipate once you begin to make these distinctions.
Whatever your anxiety tends to revolve around, there are a variety of tried-and-true ways to help calm it down by using your own brain to feel better. Experts cannot guarantee complete relief, but they can offer some great advice for those with high-functioning anxiety who need a little less stress in their day-to-day lives. "It’s important to not make stress-management stressful," Serin says. So know that you deserve to find the kind of help that works best for you, as an individual.