I share my story of having high functioning anxiety and working in the spotlight in media. I also share how I overcame it and continue to manage my anxiety.
Hey friends, so as you may recall from my New Years Resolution post, I promised to write and share more personal posts about my life. I have shared my story about PCOS, and I know you all appreciated that, but otherwise, I know, I’ve been a bit slow. GAH! I hate to fail at my own damn goals but I had been frantically trying to finish up my cookbook which had legit TAKEN-OVER-MY-LIFE. But, I’m on the home stretch and ready to get back to it.
In today’s post, I wanted to chat about something that’s super scary to me to chat about. I’ve literally opened this blog post about a million times only to write a sentence, and then stop. Then write another one, and then stop. But after a discussion with some of my fellow media dietitians where I realized HOLY FUCK, I am not alone in this, I decided it was time to share my struggle. Let’s talk about living and working in the media with high functioning anxiety.
A History of my High Functioning Anxiety
So first, a bit a short history. I’ve always been an anxious person. My mom said when I was little, I wouldn’t cross the street or get on a bike until I was 100% sure I could do it safely and perfectly every-single-time. I’m sure my mom was happy I was a cautious child and not letting cars run over me like the other kids in the neighbourhood but pretty soon, it started to impact my life.
When I was 6, I started competitive dancing, and my forte was Scottish (you know, the weird one with the kilts and swords). I loved getting up on that stage to dance, but the night before a competition, I would stay up all night crying, worrying that I wouldn’t win. I usually won, I’m not going to lie. But by the time I was 12, the pressure was becoming too much for me, and I quit.
Then I started singing. I was good at that too. Really good, actually. I travelled to New York and London (UK) to meet and work with top song writers, producers and agents. I had a lot of major recording labels interested in me, but I obsessed over every appearance and meeting, worried sick that I would mess up my big chance. Trying to catch your breath during a panic attack while attempting to hold a perfect pitch in a high stakes audition is KINDA tough. So, yeah, I quit that too.
Next was school. This is where my anxiety and perfectionistic tendencies started to weave into my eating, leading me into the dangerous world of Orthorexia. If you haven’t read about my eating disorder past (and this new devastating “clean eating” disorder), I suggest you bookmark it for reading afterwards here. OK – so back to the root- my anxiety. I know a lot of people who feel pressure to do well in school, often from strict overbearing parentals. Well, despite both of my parents working in education (my mom owns a private school, my dad is a University professor), they never pushed me to excel in school. Honestly, I had that down myself. I would spend every waking moment memorizing every word on every page to ensure I got to each test more prepared than the rest of the class. I would go to office hours every week for each prof to make sure they knew that I understood it all. I would sit in the front row and answer questions when nobody else could. I hate to brag, but I really did know it all, and even that didn’t stop me from worrying.
I suffered from something I used to call “post-test anxiety” where no matter how hard I surely rocked each test, I would worry about wildly unlikely scenarios. Did I miss a page accidentally? Did I accidentally skip a line on the scantron sheet and cause all of my answers to end up out of order? Did I write enough in the written responses section? Did I write too much? The questions kept me up all night, and fueled my obsessive word habits all day.
I remember getting my 4th year University report card where I got my first A after a perfect track record of A+. I cried. I cried because I got a fucking A, instead of an A+.
What the actual fuck.
The day I graduated (with all of the top honours, including the Gold Medal for all of my University), I felt like the world had been lifted off my shoulders. I was free. Only, I wasn’t. Like dance and singing before it, exiting my anxiety at school was just a brief moment of peace before I found a new outlet to park my perfection. I was just waiting to find out what it was.
Enter, my career in media. I know what you’re thinking- why the fuck would you get into such a high-pressure, performance-based, anxiety-riddled profession as working in the public eye when you have OBVIOUS anxiety? Why didn’t you work a desk job, or work in a lab, or bag groceries for G-ds sake? Just do SOMETHING where you had more control and calm?! But this is high functioning anxiety, and as much as it’s a burden, it’s also my drive.
I have always, and will always, love being the centre of attention. Anxiety cannot take that away from me. In my job as a media dietitian, I get to do a lot of fun things that lets me shine. I host on-stage activations with top food personalities like Mario Batali, Tyler Florence and Chuck Hughes. I appear on national TV on behalf of top food and lifestyle brands. I am in front of a camera being silly AF on my YouTube channel.
Entering a job working in media at a more mature stage in my life allowed me to approach it with a bit more logic. In other words, I figured out a way to be happy with an A (or even a B). In fact, I’ve learned that perfection doesn’t read as well for the camera as genuine, authentic, wildly imperfect Abbey.
Sometimes I feel like I’ve got a bit of a Dr. Jeckle and Mr. Hyde thing going on. The true me thrives on that stage or in front of the camera, and I feel so lucky that I not only get to do this for fun, but that I get paid for it too. But every once in a while, my anxiety gets a hold of a teeny tiny insecurity and chips away until it all caves in.
This happened to me a year ago on a media tour and it all started with a third cup of coffee. I’m caffeine sensitive as it is AND I naturally have an “essential tremor” (which is exacerbated by caffeine) but after I had literally three large cups of coffee on an empty stomach, my hands were shaking like a leaf. I had to somehow pour chocolate into a VERY small candy mold and when I tried, my hand shook a bit. I blew it off, really, until someone pointed it out to me after the fact and I started to become really self conscious about it. I replayed the scenario over and over and over again. After that, every time another appearance or Youtube shoot day came up, I started to worry I would shake again. Anxiety is a self-fulfilling prophecy, you know. Once you believe something to be true, it often becomes true.
I had had enough of letting my high functioning anxiety interfere with my life. I had to quit the cycle before my anxiety led me where it always did – to quit. So I got help.
The treatment for my anxiety was multi-pronged and laborious. It wasn’t something that just went away after a meditation session. Here’s what I did to get my groove back.
Therapy for Anxiety
It wasn’t my first kick at the can in therapy. In fact, I believe that 99% of people can likely benefit from therapy in some way (whether you self-identify as having anxiety or not). My therapist used a lot of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) techniques to help me get to the heart of my anxiety and nip the negative self-talk in the bud. Is this an expensive endeavour? Yes. Do I still go regularly? Admittedly not. I usually have waves of therapy-going whenever I am feeling down.
Hypnosis for Anxiety
This was the second time in my life that I tried hypnosis. I think I went about 5 times. In this series of sessions, the hypnotist helped me re-live some of the stressful situations that I was constantly thinking about and had me visualize a more confident Abbey teaching the stressed Abbey what to do and how to feel. I don’t know if it worked but I did always feel much better afterwards and it was nice to have those recordings to listen to when I was feeling tense. Honestly, it was basically like a personalized guided meditation, so if you have the budget, it may be worth trying.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
So I do this pretty much every day. I lay on my back for 20 minutes with a recording (you can find one on Youtube if you google it), and they just walk you through tensing and relaxing all of the different parts of your body, one at a time, until each body part is completely relaxed. It feels nice and is a good way to start my day.
Meditation for Anxiety
Ok, so being a busy body, I totally suck at this. I have a tendency to spend most of the class just replaying conversations I’ve had that maybe have upset me and then struggling to get back to the visualization. My sister (a yogi) says as long as I’m recognizing that my mind has wandered and I’m bringing it back, I’m doing pretty good.
Improv has been KEY!!! I literally sing the praises of improv every chance I get because it has made me better at my job AND just is a load of fun. I did the full A through E improv series at my local Second City training centre, and have gone back for a few random semesters when I’m craving that experience again. If you find uncertainty and unplanned situations stressful (OH HELLO THERE!), improv helps you get comfortable with the uncomfortable.
I kind of saw speech therapy as an extension of my media training, but with a therapeutic edge. While I wasn’t looking to hone my voice so much, speech therapy helped me learn how to breath long and deep- much like meditation but with actual sound.
So obviously, no caffeine. Downing the coffee is not a great way to chill the F out. So on days when I need to be zen, I opt for chamomile tea and a healthy high-protein meal. I find that even a small amount of hunger can make me anxious on a good day, so I like to have a satiating snack before I do any TV or filming.
My Power Pose for High Functioning Anxiety
Okay so up until now you’re probably thinking I’ve tried all the usual recommended treatments (outside of medication which I have tried really hard to avoid before I get pregnant.) What the heck are power moves and what does that have to be with anxiety? Well I watched a really interesting TED Talk once where she described the research on power posing and the association between your body and your mind. In short, it suggested that when you stand like Superwoman in the mirror, you actually suppress cortisol (stress hormone) and increase your confidence. So I do it before every single stressful situation, or really before anything where I feel I need an extra boost of confidence.
My Power Song
The other thing I do is that I choose one song that pumps me up and gives me confidence and I listen to it when I feel anxious. Ha, want to know what my song is? ‘That’s my Girl” by 5th Harmony. Hey, don’t judge. I just like that power anthem chorus and I can’t help but smile. Think about what your “power song” might be and make sure it’s readily available in your playlist.
My Power Mantra
This was something I actually discovered while in my hypnotic trance, but it has stuck with me as something to recite when I feel stressed or when my high functioning anxiety is fired up. Everyone has something that makes them feel calm, and confident, so you have to find those little words that work for you. For me, I say “Let’s have fun” to myself. I find that telling myself to “calm down” or “it’s going to be fine” or “don’t worry” just makes me more anxious, but “let’s have fun” takes the thought away from the anxiety all together and makes me smile. When I’m smiling, I can’t be stressed.
Let’s Have Fun.
I hope a lot of you reading this can relate to my experiences with high functioning anxiety and find my tips useful. It’s not easy living with high functioning anxiety, but at the same time, I wouldn’t want to be any other way. My anxiety has brought me every success I’ve had so I’m not ever looking to get rid of it. I just have had to develop strategies to help me manage the days where it interferes with my life.
Do you have high functioning anxiety?
I would love to hear what has helped you with your anxiety?
Leave me a comment below!
Updated on May 12th, 2020
Abbey Sharp is a Registered Dietitian (RD), regulated by the Ontario College of Dietitians. She is a mom, YouTuber, Blogger, award winning cookbook author, media coach specializing in food and nutrition influencers, and a frequent contributor to national publications like Healthline and on national broadcast TV shows.