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Understanding High-Achieving Anxiety

Updated: Jul 27, 2020

As three high achievers ourselves, on episode 4 of “One Day You’ll Thank Me”, my teen co-host Anna and I had an information packed interview with Ashley Francis, licensed therapist and on-line coach for teens and women experiencing anxiety. Our topic was Understanding High Achieving Anxiety.

Before going into the definition of high achieving anxiety, Ashley said it is important to know that anxiety is actually a good thing. How Ashley likes to address it, is looking at the difference between productive anxiety and unproductive anxiety.

Although we tend to think of anxiety as bad, it actually serves a purpose. It is our body’s natural response to stress that helps keep us alive, helps us tend to our duties, concentrate, stay alert, stay on task and see those tasks through….It works for us.

Anxiety also increases our self awareness, if we see bullying or harm being done, it brings attention to a pain-point that something is wrong and propels us into action. We need anxiety to stay on top of our game in order to achieve and progress...this is what we call productive anxiety.

Unproductive anxiety is when we start feeling bad about ourselves, feeling the “not enoughs”...

I’m not good enough

I’m not smart enough

I’m not pretty enough

I’m not athletic enough

It leaves us feeling antsy with a loss of identity. We may be consumed with a lot of self deprecating thoughts, feeling very low, and in the worst cases it can lead to thoughts of suicide.

When I work with my clients I often use a number line to help determine where they are in relation to their anxiety, being apathetic (1-3), in the "just right" range (4-7), or entirely too anxious (8-10). I share with them that being between a 3-7 is the most ideal range because the lower end you can be in apathy and avoidance, and on the higher end is where you will be in so much stress that you are going to feel like you are failing. I advise parents to partner with their kids and find the best way for them to stay in that functional zone.

Ashley reports that if someone is too anxious, in the range of 7-10 most days of the week for weeks on end, a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder may be warranted.

It is important to recognize that anxiety disorder is the most common disorder in the world. There are 40 million people (18 percent of the US population), experiencing this and ⅔ of us are not receiving treatment. That is a whole lot of people suffering and not getting the help they need. This is a widespread problem and we need to bring attention to it.

People don’t have to suffer, there is a solution!

The key is to identify what the symptoms are when anxiety becomes a disorder...

If you are feeling self deprecating thoughts and “not enough” most days of the week, 6 months or longer, that is when you need to reach out to a trusted friend or professional.

I have found also when I am working with families, that some parents actually normalize anxiety. If they are not in a constant state of going and being frazzled, they feel that they are not working hard enough. If they were to say “things are going smooth in life, I’ve got just what I need on my plate these days and everyone is plugging along with their schedules”…then it sends a message that “I am not doing enough!” These parents are looking for that state of being on high alert all the time.

For everyone, but especially teens in particular, this type of anxiety it is often hard to see. They live in secrecy, taking on the weight of the world because they are able to. They find themselves taking on stressors from friends and family. These individuals have a hard time asking for help for themselves and taking help. They are perfectionists and often are dying on the inside, they certainly don’t want you to see that you are suffering. Their pride and identity is in them having their stuff together all the time.

Often these teens find themselves taking on peace-keeping, care taking roles with their parents. Trying to be a good girl or boy in the home, in the hopes that it helps their parents relationship troubles, but the teen is suffering in silence themselves.

How can parents help their teens set healthy boundaries?

First we need to understand that having healthy boundaries means being able to speak your truth which is not easy for high achievers that are used to keeping things inside. It takes practice.

They need to learn how to get into their body and notice what anxiety feels like for them.

Is it a heart beating fast, sweaty palms, butterflies in the stomach? Anxiety is different for everyone, it is not a one size fits all. What is also key, are what are the thoughts/feelings they are having with the anxiety. Noticing what thoughts keep running through their mind.

As this is occurring, it is important to stop...breathe, reset yourself, breathing is very important. The emotional parts of brain need to calm down and the cognitive (rational) parts need to come back online after and reset, to reframe the thoughts from negative to positive.

For example, I have a test and I am going to fail the test and maybe the class and then I won’t get into college…our minds start making up scenarios.

But this is not true, this is not what is going to happen, if you put a positive spin on it, even if you don’t believe it, it is more likely a positive outcome will come from it.

How this ties back into setting boundaries, is you have to know thyself, after you can accomplish that, it is speaking up and asking for what you need. For example, its saying to your brother or sister “I don’t like what you just said” or push back on parents and say “this doesn’t feel good to me”.

Start harnessing self esteem and self worth.

Anna notes that in high school, some peers initially appear to have it all together but then fret and fall apart later. She wonders if high-achievers seek out other high-achievers. Ashley says yes, because "like attracts like."

High-achieving anxiety can be helpful-- it drives you, makes you more productive, and can have positive outcomes. But it can also be a burden, because it can be isolating and overwhelming at times.

What are the signs to look out for as parents?

Because the high achiever with anxiety tends to keep things in and act as everything is ok, you are not going to see it on the outside, it is going to manifest on the inside. They probably won’t verbalize it.

Ashley discusses how anxiety often manifests physically--with headaches and stomach aches, trouble sleeping, for example, but also notes that parents need to encourage their teens to check in with themselves emotionally. Teens want to talk. Look for signs of your teen overextending themselves and burning out on activities that they normally find enjoyable. Meltdowns, quitting an activity, changing friend groups---these can be signs that teens are just trying to lighten their load. Parents should help their teens set boundaries, and should role model this for them.

To hear so much more on this subject you can listen to the interview at, Understanding High Achieving Anxiety

For questions or professional support, Ashley Francis's therapy practice is called Blue Sage Counseling and Wellness.

To learn more about Dr. Egan's online mini-course called "Managing Your Family's Technology and Social Media", created to help parents eliminate power struggles, keep your family safe from internet misuse, and reconnect with your family, please click RIGHT HERE.

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