Living with high functioning anxiety as a Lancaster University student
One in five students in the UK suffer from mental health issues
An estimated one in five students in the UK suffer from mental health issues, with anxiety and depression being the most common among them. Apply this to the current number of students studying at Lancaster University this year: that would mean around 3,319 students at our university alone suffer from mental health issues.
What this doesn’t mean is that 3,319 students go about their day trembling in fear, nervous, visibly upset, unable to control themselves or complete daily tasks. This is what most people imagine when they think of a person displaying symptoms of anxiety and, whilst it’s completely fine if this is how your anxiety presents itself, there are other more covert ways in which anxiety manifests.
People with high functioning anxiety can function well and complete their daily tasks, as well as appear confident in social situations, however, the same symptoms of a regular anxiety disorder – the intense feelings of fear, of impending disaster, of nausea – still exist beneath the surface.
There are two sides to high functioning anxiety: those symptoms which appear “positive” to those around them and the difficult reality of the “negative” symptoms which only the sufferer can see. Below are two lists that are not exhaustive but cover some of the basic positive perceptions and negative actualities of this form of anxiety.
From these lists, you can probably infer that whilst someone suffering from high functioning anxiety may come across as an overachiever, the struggles that they go through to achieve this level of success are self-deprecating and harmful.
Living with high-functioning anxiety
I was first diagnosed with anxiety when I was 15 but it wasn’t recognised as high functioning until I was 19 and at university. This meant that I didn’t really understand what I was going through or how to fix it for four years. I was constantly met with comments like “You don’t look like you have anxiety” or “You’re coping with it pretty well”, which in turn made me think that I was coping with it well and, at one point, I even thought I’d been misdiagnosed.
I was confident in social situations and would say yes to everything. I always arrived early for absolutely everything. I organised my days with lists and plans. I was top of the class throughout high school and college.
But what people didn’t see was that I couldn’t say no because of the constant fear that I would let someone down, the mental turmoil if I didn’t complete all of my daily tasks, the sleepless nights when I just couldn’t switch off. On top of this, because of the stigmas and stereotypes surrounding anxiety, I compartmentalised my problems and avoided telling anyone about it until eventually I started experiencing some of the more severe symptoms and developed unhealthy coping mechanisms which took me years to undo.
This brings me back to why I want to raise awareness of this type of anxiety disorder for Mental Health Awareness Month. I didn’t get the help I needed until much later on in my life because no one recognised my symptoms, and I didn’t know how to ask for help. By making people aware of the tell-tale signs of high functioning anxiety, more people will be able to recognise it in themselves and others and prevent it from getting to a point where it controls your life.
How to get help and help yourself
I’ve mentioned above some reasons why people may not want to get help with their anxiety. They may be scared that they will lose all the “positive” effects of their anxiety if they start to decompartmentalise their problems. They might think that people won’t believe them because they haven’t been visibly struggling. But help is always out there, and medical professionals are getting better at spotting specific types of anxiety, like this one.
Whether you have been previously diagnosed with anxiety or not, if you think you have symptoms of high functioning anxiety go to a medical professional that you trust, and they can refer you to a mental health specialist to be assessed. If this seems too daunting at first, try talking to a family member or close friend about your concerns. There’s not just one specific route to getting help.
Tips to help you through day-to-day life
Recognising your symptoms for what they are is an important first step to take. You don’t have to fit into the anxiety stereotype that most people would expect – no one else knows your experience as you do.
Something which really helped me was changing my lifestyle and being healthier, for example, exercising regularly and eating better through meal prep. This can also help if you like sticking to lists and having a routine. Anxiety is just as much physical as mental so take the time to reconnect with your body.
Sometimes it can be kind of patronising when someone tells you to “take a deep breath” and “chill out”, but it actually works. For me personally, I try to practice breathing before I eat as built-up anxiety often makes me feel sick and disrupts my appetite.
Finally, having a support bubble will help you massively and take some pressure off you during your everyday tasks. Try and have a person in each sector of your life that knows about your anxiety, for example, one person in your family, one in your friendship group, one of your tutors, and one of your work colleagues. This way you always have someone there to rely on and talk to when you need it, and you don’t have to tell the world.
Having a mental health disorder isn’t something anyone likes talking about and it can often be awkward. I don’t often talk about my own experiences in detail, but if this article can help even one person and encourage them to start a dialogue about their struggles, then it has served its purpose.
Remember that what’s happening on the surface doesn’t always reflect the reality of someone’s situation. If you suspect someone you know is suffering in silence, just being there for them or acknowledging their problems can be enough to get the ball rolling and help them find treatment and solutions.
For information about counselling and mental health services at Lancaster University, click here.