Living With High Functioning Anxiety As A Woman Of Color
What is High-Functioning Anxiety?
Chaos. Storms. Deep Breathing. It’s no secret that every day women of color are superhumans not afforded the luxury of roles in Marvel movies. Quiet as it’s kept, the rest of the world is blessed to be able to go on to feel things. To pay for therapy. To speak up without being called “aggressive”, “weak”, “emotional”, or “crazy”. Nah.
Women of color, instead, play their parts silently in affluent zip codes, ghettos with food deserts, and over hot stoves in small kitchens. Grappling at their chest and adjusting to medication, these women smile while doing it all. It’s called high-functioning anxiety. And if you’ve seen your homegirl exceeding at everything under the sun while wondering how she does it, this might be the answer.
The term “high-functioning anxiety” is not recognized in the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual (DSM-V). However, it has evolved as a term to describe people who live with anxiety but still manage to go through different aspects of their life very well. Whereas some people characterize their anxiety with irrational fears and/or worries, people with “high-functioning anxiety” are more than likely propelled forward into action. They look driven, ambitious, and very successful. Maybe it’s perfect grades, an amazing career, family life, etc.
Maybe it’s always arriving to work on time, being fabulously put together, and having an even more fabulous body to match. But the inside? Oh, the inside. Those layers beneath the surface aren’t so perfect at all. What people miss in those living with “high-functioning anxiety” is constant overthinking and an incessant need for reassurance. The irony is that women of color with this kind of anxiety aren’t functioning at all. Let’s talk about it.
Causes of High-Functioning Anxiety
Fancy textbooks and papers will tell you the causes of high-functioning anxiety include various biological and environmental factors such as family genetics and traumatic events. Some people will have a predisposition from birth due to their “nature”, while others will be significantly influenced by the “nurture” of their life experiences.
Some of the most common causes of high-functioning anxiety include:
- Certain personality traits, like being shy and quiet
- Exposure to highly stressful events during childhood like abuse, trauma, and chaos
- Family history of anxiety disorders or other mental health conditions
- Substance use disorders, especially if the substance used is a stimulant such as cocaine, caffeine, or medications for attention-deficit / hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Medications like the aforementioned can potentially create higher levels of anxiety.
- Thyroid or heart problems, since these may create or worsen symptoms of anxiety
Sometimes, someone could have just one cause of high-functioning anxiety and that will be enough to produce symptoms. Other times, someone could have multiple causes without fully experiencing the debilitating effects of high-functioning anxiety.
High-Functioning Anxiety In Black Women
What about women of color? What about “strong” and “angry” black women? To be a woman, highly anxious, and black is synonymous with being a superwoman (also known as the Black Superwoman Syndrome). It’s nothing you haven’t already seen. Your mama workin’ herself to the bone with a smile while taking care of homework, home, and getting everyone to church on Sunday morning.
Let’s not forget her listening to everyone else’s problems while neglecting hers. We praise her for being so much to so many people. We commend the shackles of her enslavement to everyone’s every whim and doing so generously. But, we don’t see the turmoil in her nervous system.
Instead, you always see her happy and you always see her pray. And that’s what she taught you because her mother prayed. And her mother’s mother prayed. And her mother’s mother mother prayed. And every black woman around you prays. And so on. You’re told to use Jesus, your hairdresser, your cousin, and anyone else who will listen besides a therapist. Because who has time to bleed out their inner turmoil, trauma, confusion, and low self-esteem? Or better yet, the best solution may be silence. Resilience. People-pleasing. Never complain. Never shed a tear. Just keep swimming, overdoing, overthinking, and overperforming.
To be a woman, highly anxious, and black is either praying away your struggles, hiding behind a mask, and/or putting everything in a box and saying “I’ll deal with it tomorrow”. But, of course, tomorrow never comes. Because women of color have so many roles to fill. In short, “we got shit to do”. And all the shit we choose to do, we choose to put up with, or we are dealt unfairly, it affects us mentally.
This type of anxiety is detrimental. Frequent. A plague. Like any other type of anxiety, therapy is highly recommended as an effective treatment for high-functioning anxiety sufferers to learn coping skills to prevent their anxiety from taking control. Next to therapy, low to moderate doses of anti-anxiety medications are also recommended. Progression with medication should lead to a decrease in frequency and intensity of anxious episodes, opening windows of opportunities for personal growth and improvement. Lastly, learning stress management and grounding techniques such as meditation and deep breathing has been proven to be extremely helpful.
Slowly, but surely the stigma associated with mental health issues like high functioning anxiety is being debunked and brought to the light. Women of color aren’t crazy. Most importantly, women of color are no longer required to do it all on the outside while suffering behind a grin. After all, Lauryn Hill said it best- “How you gon’ win if you ain’t right within?’
Choose to win today.
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