My Experience With High Functioning Anxiety

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2019 has been rough. In an earlier post I commiserated that at least living in constant fight-or-flight mode birthed some awesome artwork, and I kind of kept doing that thing where I would joke about how terrible I was feeling, brush it off, tell myself it was just a “bout” that would pass. Then the months went on and I was still dealing with ramped up anxiety, waves of depression, moments of intense anger and irritability and an overall difficulty to control my emotions. I recognized what was happening because I’d been there before. As of this week, this time I am doing something about it.

I’ve dealt with anxiety since childhood, and always thought about counseling but then it would get better for a little bit, so I’d put it off. I had bouts of being pretty miserable and losing hope in nearly everything but at the same time, not to be funny, I wasn’t failing at life. I was maintaining a reasonable amount of friendships, I was handling a high stress job, I was churning out personal art projects that I was happy with at a pretty amazing speed … I’d had fleeting thoughts of suicidal ideation from high school going forward but they were isolated incidents, few and far between, and I always viewed them as some pesky creature that had invaded my brain like ‘hey, get out of here, you don’t belong!’ not something I seriously wanted to happen. After all, I’m the girl that goes to lengths to do everything possible now to guarantee I make it to 100 years old (constant worrying over mortality is probably another anxiety symptom, but hey)! I felt I didn’t really have a right to seek counseling because in the back of my mind I thought they might laugh in my face when I showed up for the first meeting and say, “Why are you even here?” So many people struggle so much worse.

One thing I’ve learned through my job working with adults with all forms of disability including psychological, is that all mental illness is wildly misunderstood by the population at large. I feel like with my struggles being mostly unseen, when shit finally hit the fan and started to get worse throughout the last 6 months or so I ended up feeling more isolated actually then when I’d been keeping silent and “passing”, and I don’t think I was prepared for that. My anxiety and depression didn’t fit the mold, and some days I wondered if I should just start laying around in bed just so people would take it seriously but the thing is, I was filled with energy and the last place I wanted to be was in bed. High functioning anxiety is real and it is tough, though it may not look as dire on the outside. I can never speak for everyone, but here is what this girl with high functioning anxiety wants you to know:

Don’t analyse us. (Unless you are our counselor and it’s your job 😉 ) We are already constantly questioning our every move, every word, every facial expression as we move through the world. People are allowed to not be at 100% 24/7. Saying “Why do you sound tense, why are you so turned up, calm down!” (I’ve literally had people say these things to me when I’m not even raising my voice, just have a serious expression on my face!) over and over again even if it is asked out of concern does not help, it just makes the anxiety worse. There are constructive ways to check in, but policing facial expressions and body language are not it.

When we talk about how we feel, don’t respond with, “You just need a drink”. I do drink socially, but usually try to not drink when I am feeling particularly low because it tends to make it worse. I am lucky to not struggle with this right now, but many people with anxiety and other either situational or permanent mental health issues self medicate with substances, so this could actually be really unhealthy and dangerous advice. I did struggle for a period of about a year in college with self medicating social anxiety in large gatherings with alcohol, and although we are very casual in the US about binge drinking being a “normal” part of transitioning through young adulthood, it really shouldn’t be as normal as it is.

Similarly, please don’t keep telling us we need to drink more tea, eat 10 almonds every day, or just eat a freaking banana. Full disclosure, I love all 3 of those things and do consume them quite regularly and guess what, I still have anxiety. Yes, a healthy diet certainly does impact one’s mental health and quality of life, but it isn’t always a magical panacea. I myself make a habit of eating healthy and tend to just think fresh, healthy food tastes better anyway. Yet again, I still deal with anxiety. Assuming someone’s mental health issues are occurring because they aren’t taking care of themselves is just that, assuming, and is just going to compound their feelings of guilt, shame, blame, and guess what – anxiety!

We aren’t “faking it” to get out of things we don’t want to do. I’m an adult. When I have to dial back on some things and allow for more margin in my life to recharge, I’m not “playing sick” to get to stay home from school and watch cartoons. I am a person that hates sitting around being inactive or being unreliable, and often joke that I’m allergic to relaxation. So, if I say I’m having a hard time and just can’t do a, b, or c, I mean it and usually no one is more frustrated about it than me. If I am experiencing a particularly rough time, there can also be a fear of potential embarrassment; What if I start having a panic attack and can’t get to a private place quick enough?

We don’t always need a solution from our support system. We don’t need a team of cheerleaders shouting at us, “You can do it! Pull it together!” We don’t need “tough love” and to be forced into going through the motions as if nothing is wrong in hopes by sheer force of willpower the cycle will be broken. We need to be heard. We need our support system to listen to understand, not listen to “fix” us or listen to reassure us “it’s not that bad”.

At the same time, no one else is responsible for our mental health but us. Anxiety is not a license to lash out at people with no consequences. No one is obligated to play therapist when we should be seeing a professional counselor. No one should feel the pressure of being the “one thing” keeping us going, and it is ok to respectfully call us out if you feel we are doing any of these things.

Know that there is no required severity level to getting help. You don’t have to wait until things reach a breaking point. Here are some other excellent articles with insight into a less often talked about dimension of anxiety:

What Are The Signs Of ‘High Functioning’ Anxiety?

What It’s Like To Have ‘High Functioning’ Anxiety

The Characteristics of High Functioning Anxiety

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Year End Reflections And A New Project

As I mentioned earlier, after the completion of my “Unlimited”series I’d been experiencing a bit of artist’s block. I tried playing around with a couple new ideas, but nothing seemed to stick.

Design is pretty much my constant state of existence similar to, you know, breathing, so I stayed busy with commissions, crafting, my day job, and involvement in the Creative Team at my church. It was one of my projects for the team that would be the inspiration for my next piece. Upon the usual late December reflection, I discovered the themes explored in this piece really parallel what I’ve learned in this last year.

The series this image was designed for was titled Whole Heart, and though I hate being videotaped, I was somehow coerced into it so you can view this video explaining the concepts and thought behind the design. For a medium I chose a simplistic watercolor illustration with bold colors and sharp outlines. This would make the image clear and easy to read on a small app icon as well as in larger print form. The style would also appeal to any age from kids to older adults. I was surprised how even with a “story” that seemed so basic, people could strongly relate to it on multiple levels. Hearing how touched many were by image made me want to develop the concept into a more detailed piece in my usual surreal, mixed media style. Right now I just have the pencil outline, but keep checking back for in-progress shots!

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The girl in this piece is doing something absolutely terrifying, and in no way should she be smiling or feeling any positive emotions such as liberation or elation, and yet …

I’ve always read things or heard speakers in inspirational youtube videos talk about the difference between joy and happiness, but for the most part it just sounded like a bunch of nonsense to me until this year. Suddenly – I get it. Happiness is about things that make you feel excited and content in the moment – it’s situational. Joy is about a balance of fulfilling what you need to be content, doing what you can to fulfill the needs of others or even the world or society as a whole, and learning how to deal with and process those desires that are not yet fulfilled, or those instances in your surroundings that are unjust, upsetting, or draining. Joy is about being your best self not just personally but in how you affect others.

Self care has been a huge buzz word this year, from making being comfortable into an art with lists of specific tenants required to reach maximum coziness level such as in the Danish hygge trend, to the increased conversation around kids needing “personal days” or “mental health days” in school just as adults get personal days off from work to reach their optimum ability and stay healthy. Articles about self care tend to revolve around taking it easy and giving yourself permission to indulge guilt free for the most part, but I read a really great article recently that discussed a far less popular part of self care. I suggest you read the entire thing for yourself, but the main highlighted, bold font point from this article reads as follows …

“True self-care is not salt baths and chocolate cake, it is making the choice to build a life you don’t need to regularly escape from. And that often takes doing the thing you least want to do.”

Self care could mean finally making that counseling appointment you’ve been putting off. It could mean finally seeking help for your alcohol or drug addiction you’ve been struggling with. It could mean having an uncomfortable, challenging conversation with a friend or family member. It could mean either temporarily or permanently cutting a toxic person out of your life. Doing the hard things will give you not the temporary happiness that comes from giving yourself a free day relaxing in front of Netflix with a fuzzy blanket and a bottle of wine (Because you’re still going to have to go back to that job you hate after the sun sets on your mental health day … I speak from direct experience.), but the joy of a life you don’t need to regularly escape from.

I have felt the most content and fulfilled this year than any to date in my adult life, despite the fact that I still experience bouts of anxiety from time to time, I still experience periodic stressers in both work and personal life at pretty regular intervals, and the fact that the news cycle and goings on in my home country of America have really, really done a fantastic job in 2017 of pushing the exact buttons that make my blood boil.

And that is definitely an awesome thing, but it is not even all about my own or your own personal well being or fulfillment. More and more, I don’t think the point in life is necessarily to be happy all the time; I don’t think happiness is the endgame.

Most moral people tend to think that the reason we shouldn’t do bad things is because though we may think those things will make us happy, there will be some deep, dark void inside of us that will eventually eat us alive or something. Unfortunately, I don’t think that is always the case. I think there are plenty of people who are perfectly happy celebrating greed, lying, assaulting and bullying, and causing great harm to others … until they get caught. Just turn on the news. That is why the level of our happiness does not always correlate to a good life lived. We may feel happier and more internally at peace living with our heads under the sand, ignoring all the problems and injustices going on in our world, accepting the unacceptable because “I can’t do anything about it, so why should I worry?” But … if every single one of us did that, how would anything ever change? Not that every person is called to be a world changer that will end up in the history books, but plenty throughout history have put themselves in some pretty miserable conditions in order to speak up for what is right – certainly not the road to happiness and internal zen – because the purpose of life is not simply achieving momentary happiness over and over and over again.

My hope for this new year is that we all continue to grow into our best selves, and continue to flourish in awareness, in empathy, in bravery, and yes, in joy.

Come at us 2018, we’ve got this :).

Art Discussion: New Year’s Resolutions

I have to admit, I never make New Year’s resolutions; partly because if you are truly dissatisfied with something, it seems silly to arbitrarily wait until the turning of the calendar to fix it. In part also because we all tend to set the same goals, those goals that we know everyone else is setting so we can easier relate to those around us as we share that we want to find our soulmate, get a promotion, or lose weight, and we can all laugh together about how we probably won’t actually do anything to work towards most of those things. But, what would happen if we committed to doing one thing that we were truly passionate about in this new year, one thing that we didn’t over analyze to death, asking ourselves, Should I want this? Is it too silly? Too shallow? Too lofty? Too weird? No one would understand anyway … 

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During my senior year of college 7 years ago (Whoa! 7 is a big number.), I entered an art book into the Annual Student Exhibition at Central Michigan University. I asked a sampling of the people I encountered in a day, some I knew well and some I did not, to think of a couple of experiences they would like to have before their life was over, and pick the most obscure one to share with me. I chose 35 different submissions to illustrate, and Underneath was  born. This was my first experiment with creating art based on collected personal stories, something I would use to create many more projects in the future. I also ended up winning the Grand Award for this piece, which was the first time I’d ever won anything for my art aside from a coloring contest in 4th grade, and not a bad way to exit my college career ;).


As annoying as it may be that the first thing anyone asks when meeting someone for the first time after “What’s your name?” is, “So what do you do?”, we kind of are what we do. This doesn’t have to mean our day jobs, or even be workplace related at all. What we do with each day is a choice, and it is these choices that reflect what we value and shape who we will become. True goals can give immense insight into each individual’s unique personality, drive, and psyche. That is why I so enjoyed sifting through the responses I received for this project.

I was reminded of Underneath recently for an unfortunate reason. The young woman who 7 years ago submitted the far right response above took her own life in a murder-suicide earlier this month. She attended my high school, but our school was so large growing up there were tons of people who walked in graduation with me that I felt like I’d never laid eyes on my whole four years there. I never knew her well, but our paths did cross and I remembered her submission deeply affecting me back then, as the news of what occurred deeply saddened me now. A couple of my good friends had had classes and clubs with her, some even keeping up over the years at least through texting and facebook, and the news hit them even harder.

This may not be a typical resolution, but something to be mindful of in the new year is this: we do not know everyone else’s story. We have no clue about everything the people we run into in our day to day life may be going through. People learn to adapt, and to act, and to portray themselves in person, at work, and in social media as how they want others to see them. I know I do it; I think we all do to a point. I have always been fascinated with the dichotomy between individual’s alone personas versus their public personas. It is a concept that is interesting to explore. It can also be a concept that is dangerous, because it can prevent people from reaching out who need help. If you make one resolution (aside from foregoing all convention and chasing your oddest dream / within reason and lawfulness, of course), resolve to be transparent and authentic, and resolve to be someone who is willing to make that reach when someone needs support either in the form of just a listening ear or otherwise. Christmas falling on a Sunday, I attended the Christmas morning church service at MFMC with my family this year. We spoke about how there is the whole Christmas story which most of us, churchgoers or not, have known since childhood. But, we all have stories, and our story, how we live and interact, can change someone else’s story for the better if we allow it to happen. We have nothing to lose for trying.

To see the rest of my art book in order, visit the album on my website.