I’ve had high functioning anxiety for as long as I can remember. On the surface, I can often pass as calm with a slight Type A personality. But on the inside, I’m usually so nervous to the point of feeling sick. In the past, I dismissed these characteristics as my unique “quirks,” but when I learned more about high functioning anxiety, everything started making more sense. Putting a name to my constant stressful feelings felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 19% of adults in the United States have an anxiety disorder. The number of individuals who identify as having high functioning anxiety is difficult to determine, since it isn’t recognized as a mental health diagnosis. Instead, it’s a term used to describe people who live with anxiety but function well on the surface throughout multiple aspects of their life.
In order to help manage my anxiety, I explored a wide range of solutions, including meditation. I did extensive research and was convinced that it would bring me to a higher state of mindfulness and peace. It also helped that it was becoming increasingly more accepted as a critical part of self care to foster happiness and success in life.
Excited and naive, I downloaded Headspace, a meditation app that was introduced to me by colleagues, expecting to immediately jump into it. After all, their motto is, “Less stressed. More resilient. Happier. It all starts with just a few minutes a day.” Just a few minutes! Easy, right? I couldn’t have been more wrong.
While I liked that it had situational meditation sessions for things like work-related stress, sports injuries, and health complications, I couldn’t stop my mind from racing when I listened to the sessions. By the time I realized my thoughts had gone astray, it was too late and the session was over. I tried practicing in the morning, but found no luck. Then I tried at night, and fell asleep immediately. I started having anxiety about not meditating correctly. I kept asking myself, “Why isn’t this working for me? Others can do it, why can’t I?” After a few more tries, I determined that I needed more involved hand-holding through the meditation process.
When I learned about a silent meditation retreat in Pacific Palisades, just north of Los Angeles, called the Self Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine, I was intrigued. It was an experience that intimidated me, but gave me hope. I thought an intense retreat with no phones or screens was just what I needed to learn how to meditate and finally rid myself of my nervous energy.
After signing up for a three-day retreat where talking was discouraged (pre-COVID), I was impressed with myself. I was going through with it, even though it scared me! The guided meditations helped me stay in the moment, since there were people holding me accountable. The gorgeous lake was the perfect setting to take solitary walks. I also appreciated the meals that I ate with other retreat participants without needing to strike up small talk. It was complete bliss, except I still heard my own voice chattering inside the entire time. By the end of the weekend, I did feel more relaxed, even if I continued wrangling the negative thoughts in my head. I knew I had a long way to go and the struggle of incorporating meditation in my day to day life was far from over.
My next meditation exploration took a corporate turn. A friend who knew about my struggles with anxiety and meditation suggested the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, which is a course programmed by a team of leading experts in mindfulness, neuroscience, leadership, and emotional intelligence. The goal is to help employees at companies develop the skills of mindfulness, empathy, compassion and overall emotional intelligence to create conditions for individual and collective thriving.
I signed up for the three-day digital course and after seeing the packed agenda, I felt optimistic again. I typically do better in a structured learning environment when it comes to complex tasks and concepts. The planned breathing exercises, dedicated journaling prompts, and group discussions were exactly what my high functioning anxious self needed. Not only did I make new discoveries about myself (I’m not as empathetic as I think I am), I learned new techniques on how to become aware of my scattered brain and manage it.
In the end, I realized there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to coping with my anxiety. Even though I was convinced meditation would introduce a new sense of peace into my life, I should have still expected it to be challenging from the start. As someone who needs strict order, abundant details, and constant affirmation, I saw the most value in structured training programs for meditation compared to loose but accessible apps. If you’re struggling with meditation too, try to be aware of what works best for your personality and preferences rather than what seeds easiest. In a way, my high functioning anxiety needed to be addressed with anxiety-driven meditation, like the coursework I went through.