Lessons From the Pandemic: Processing Change and Realizing I Have High-Functioning Anxiety
Updated: Apr 21, 2022
The idea that the pandemic was a time of personal reckoning, could not be more true for me. The pandemic coincided with other meaningful events in my life, so it alone was not the catalyst for deep reflection, but it did provide me with an opportunity to consider change; the inevitability and the possibility of change. Over the last two years, many changes have been thrust upon us, and we have individually and collectively adapted to them. For me, and for others, understanding how capable we are of adapting to changing circumstances allowed us to consider what else might be possible if we actively chose to change things in our lives. If I can adapt to unimaginable circumstances (social distancing, constantly wearing a mask, remote learning, remote working, tele-health, etc.) what else am I capable of? All of a sudden, things that I once considered too risky, too far fetched, too difficult, now seem reasonable and worthy of consideration.
As an educator, I am keenly aware of how challenging it has been to educate students in the last two years. We have had to draw on all our knowledge, experience, creativity, and innovation to transform classrooms and the way we teach. We have learned to be adaptable in the face of a health crisis, and forced to change. In that process, we also learned that in some cases there were benefits to doing things differently.
The pandemic also coincided with the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements; powerful catalysts for social change. These movements demonstrated that change is possible when individuals collectively demand accountability in our systems. As a Latina educator and administrator, working with others to teach about and navigate these movements in schools has been a privilege, and a great responsibility. Working with students in learning about this era of activism in the struggle for civil and human rights is an opportunity to teach students about engaged citizenship. It has also been exhausting. There is a personal cost to speaking against and working to dismantle racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression. The work of activism can take an emotional, psychological, and physical toll, especially on people who are already impacted by existing and pervasive inequalities, many of which were highlighted by the pandemic.
Throughout the last few years, as a woman, as a Latina, as a single parent and head of household, as an educator and administrator, I have often put my own feelings and needs on hold in order to respond to the needs of others, and I did not realize how much I was holding until I started to feel the physical manifestations of stress, depression, and anxiety myself.
It was not just the effects of my job or the reality of the critical times we are living in. There were other stressors too. In addition to the changes imposed on us by the pandemic, and the struggle against racial injustice, misogyny, and other forms of oppression we observed being played out in our daily lives and in the media, I experienced my own personal challenges: I lost my dog. My home was broken into and I was robbed. I was helping my children in their respective struggles. I was also approaching my fiftieth birthday, and the reality of what it means to be “middle age” was looming over me.
The more women I talk to the more I realize my story is not unique. Many women are juggling their roles, responsibilities, and taking care of others first. We are working and navigating challenges that make life exhausting while experiencing significant life changes. Perhaps, if you are like me, you appear to be doing a great job managing it all.
Except I wasn’t.
While externally I was getting things done, appearing organized, prepared, and calm, under the surface, I was becoming increasingly anxious: overwhelmed, overthinking and doubting myself, unable to relax, negative, irritable, and unhappy.
It was starting to impact my relationships and my health, and I realized something needed to change, because what I was doing was not sustainable. With the help of my own coach, I was able to unpack my thoughts, feelings, and the beliefs I had internalized about myself since childhood. In that process I discovered that I had been managing as a high functioning person with anxiety my whole life.
As the child of immigrant parents, as first-born, and the only female child, much was expected of me. My parents, both physical laborers, were inspired by the “American dream”. But with little education, their options were limited. They invested all their hard work and resources to ensure that my siblings and I took advantage of educational opportunities and had greater options and success than they did. A lot was on the line for me and my family - in a word, survival - and this contributed to an intense upbringing. I received no praise for anything less than perfection, and my mistakes were often punished, sometimes even physically punished. As a child, I only knew that I wanted to please the adults so they would be happy with me, and not angry or disappointed.
I don’t resent my parents for this. On the contrary. My parents did backbreaking work their whole lives and they were completely devoted to supporting and raising our family through honest work. My father was deeply proud of being a man with integrity. He didn’t cut corners or go against the law, and rarely asked for help. My parents didn’t raise us harshly out of cruelty, but rather out of fear. Fear of what would happen to us if we did not learn to thrive in this society.
Fast forward decades later, I am a fifty year old woman who has high functioning anxiety. I have been able to accomplish everything I set my mind on. But, behind this presentation of the high achieving, high functioning woman, is a bundle of stress and anxiety that manifests as perfectionism, fear of failure, and oftentimes, imposter syndrome - the feeling that you’re just not good enough. These thoughts and feelings feed my anxiety and impact my mental and physical health.
Some may consider admitting this to themselves and others, a sign of weakness, however, self-awareness is never a sign of weakness. I know so many women who relate to these feelings of never doing and being enough. Talking about it normalizes the experience, brings it to light, and removes the shame associated with the thoughts and feelings. By investigating our past we can identify the experiences that shaped our beliefs about ourselves and the world around us. Uncovering and demystifying these stories removes their power.
To not talk about it keeps it a secret. This intensifies and perpetuates the dysfunction behind our thoughts and feelings.
Is it worth suffering from feelings of not being good enough if it means you are always striving for more and better? Most certainly not. Suffering from feelings of low self worth is mentally and emotionally debilitating, and can have physical consequences as well. It can spiral into debilitating fear, anxiety, and depression. This doesn’t mean that it is bad to struggle for what you want to achieve. Struggling is important. Struggle leads to growth. But we should not associate achievement with worth. Our worth is not impacted by what we achieve, or if we fail. Our worth is inherent to our humanity. Our worth is not for others to judge.
In the last few years, I have had to change deep seated beliefs I adopted as a child. I work on these mind shifts daily. When I feel myself regressing to old patterns of thinking and believing, I remember that I have strategies for identifying, dismantling, and rebuilding limiting beliefs. When I feel anxious, I know how to soothe my mind and body. We can all learn these methods and improve our quality of life, because let’s face it, life is not getting easier. Learning to manage our thoughts and feelings will be essential to our wellbeing.