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What You Might Not Know About My 'High-Functioning' Anxiety

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Many people are familiar with the classic signs of anxiety: nail biting, sweating, playing with your hair, fidgeting, talking fast, panic attacks, difficulty breathing and/or catching your breathe, shaking and trembling uncontrollably, uncontrollable crying with heavy sobbing, dry heaving, vomiting, avoiding places or people or things, being stuck in the house out of fear and worry, unnecessary worry and fear, etc. 

But did you know about the slight psychosis that can sometimes come with anxiety?

There are times when stress can cause nerves to be so rattled and an individual can become so anxiety-ridden that they have odd things happen like: hearing bugs crawling around inside of their pillow when there aren’t any, feeling bugs crawling on their skin when there aren’t any, hearing someone breaking into their house or car but there is no one around, scratching that itch that came out of nowhere so much that they rip their skin off and they don’t even realize it, seeing things out of the corners of their eyes when there is nothing there, hearing someone say their name but no one said anything.

Anxiety can cause a slight psychosis, where you can experience either auditory and/or tactile hallucinations, such as: bugs crawling in your pillow, bugs buzzing around you or bugs crawling on your skin when there is nothing there.

Someone experiencing this is often just being hypersensitive to environmental stimulus, such as pillows settling under the weight of your head. I sometimes get an itch so deep that I can’t seem to get it, and end up scratching until my fingers are bloody.

Most people have times when they are stressed out, nervous and anxious — which is common and totally acceptable. However, being so overly anxious to a stimulus that normally should not provoke such a strong response can be a cause for concern. An individual can have so much worry, fear and anxiety that it hinders them, and is sometimes even mentally or physically debilitating.

I realized that I had become the latter during my first year in university when it became a regular occurrence that when I was on my way to take an exam, I would immediately become physically ill to my stomach and proceeded to empty it of its contents after every meal. If I had a morning exam, I would throw up my breakfast, in the afternoon my lunch, and if it was an evening exam, my supper. I was anxious so much that I became physically ill when I had the thought of having to take an exam. It even got to the point where I wasn’t really fully digesting my meals anymore.

One evening, just the mere smell of my next meal (and I had always loved eating) made me vomit up what was left of my lunch. I once became so nervous and anxious that I forgot my course name and identification number, all of the course material I had known just minutes prior and even my own name. I was diagnosed by both the campus psychologist and campus doctor, and later a third diagnosis from my family physician, as someone struggling with anxiety.

I do realize that it is “normal” to become anxious over taking an exam, but not so much that it affects you physically to the point of inducing vomiting. I was immediately prescribed medication to calm my stomach acid from the nerves brought on by my anxiety. All three of us also decided that medication would be good for both my anxiety and depression, and was the next logical step.

15 years later, I had an emotionally and verbally abusive boss who constantly yelled at me all the time. She would tell me to do something and I would go and do that task, only for her to get mad and yell at me for not doing another task she hadn’t even mentioned for me to do yet. I would stop what I was doing and go and do that new task, and she would get even more mad at me and yell at me for not doing the other task. So I never knew what I was supposed to be doing and when I should be doing whatever task. It got to the point that the mere thought about having to go to work made me physically ill, especially when I knew she was going to be there that day.

The closer I got to work, the more nauseated and ill I got. I went from nervousness, to nausea, to dry-heaving, to vomiting, to uncontrollable continual vomiting. As soon as I left I instantly started feeling better, and the further away I got the better I felt. If I even thought about going back in, it would all start back up again. However, if I knew that certain manager wasn’t going to be there that day at work, I was fine. I ended up having to quit that job; thankfully I had the best reason, to go back to university full time. Otherwise, I would have ended up being fired for being sent home so many times because I was sick, and for calling in sick a lot.

I learned that anxiety can manifest in many ways: heart racing, racing thoughts, fear, nervousness, shaking and trembling, sweating, nausea, dry heaving, vomiting, uncontrollable crying, insomnia, tiredness (after an episode), panic attacks, trouble catching your breathe, not wanting to leave the comfort and security of your room and/or home, not wanting to be around certain situations, events, circumstances and/or people, headaches, migraines, and even rashes and hives.

Over the years I have learned that my anxiety has triggers and those triggers are situationally dependent. One trigger for me is exam/test/quiz taking, another is silence in the presence of others and another is when a person who I have regular contact with is constantly treating me poorly. I have also found that another trigger is when my mind actually calms down and becomes quiet and blank, with no thoughts passing through at all, because this is completely opposite of the continual stream of noise from constant thoughts racing through my conscious mind.

I have also recently learned through reading research that many health issues occur on a spectrum (a range of mild to severe), and there are often many different types. I believe that I have “high-functioning” anxiety, as I hardly show outward obvious signs of how it affects me.

However, if you pay close attention, you will see some of my signs. I may be talking super fast and I will seem fidgety and restless. I might not complete my sentences or thoughts fully or I might even drop a subject only to come back and make another comment on it 10 or so minutes later, as if we were still talking about it, even though we have moved on to at least another dozen topics since then. You might see me picking at my scalp or running my fingers and hands through my hair, and I might even bite my nails. However, these signs often get misunderstood as just being a part of my outgoing, sociable, excitable and energetic personality.

If I get upset and cry over small things like a television commercial, it often gets chalked up to me being “overly sensitive” and “overly emotional,” but I may just be overwhelmed due to what has happened recently. If I become quiet and less talkative, or if I am turning down invitations to hang out or go somewhere, then I am probably avoiding a situation that is uncomfortable or a certain person/people who make me feel uncomfortable; but it could also be because I may not be feeling up to the task of indulging my sociable personality due to recent stressful and anxiety-producing events.

If I am spacing out and falling asleep, then I have probably taken my medication (or medications) and have endured too much stress and anxiety lately that has left me exhausted and depleted of energy. If I hurriedly make my way to alcohol in a social situation or bring alcohol to your place or it is the first thing I order, then I am probably stressed out, overwhelmed and anxious because of recent events or current situations I have found myself in.

If I can’t stay focused on the topic of our conversation, if I get upset over small and insignificant things, if I can’t stay awake, if I am fidgety, if i am either quiet, distracted, avoiding people, places, things, conversations, etc. and/or self- medicating or all of the above, then it might just be best if you left me alone to deal with my emotions; or better yet, let me go home so I can rest up, and then allow me a few days to decompress before you ask me to hang out again.

If I have a full-on melt down (an anxiety attack or panic attack or a huge emotional outburst of either anger or crying), please ask me if I am OK and if everything is OK. You can even ask me if there is anything you can do to make me feel better.

However, if I don’t tell you or if I say I am fine or I ask you to please just leave me alone, then please, just leave me alone so I can deal with my emotions and my mental health. Please let me have several days alone, so I can destress, recuperate and recover.

I will greatly appreciate this desperately needed down time to unwind without constant interruptions. I may not say it outright, but I will be very thankful and my body and mind will be very grateful for the break.

Thank you for caring, thank you for asking, thank you for respecting me and my answers, thank you for not pushing for answers, thank you for giving me my space and thank you for giving me time to recuperate.

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Getty image via Alex Lambley

Originally published: April 18, 2018
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