8 Things Recent Grads Should Know About High Achievers And Anxiety

As the next wave of seniors are graduating high school, many high achievers will face challenges in going away from home for college and being separated from their families, friends, hometowns, and support systems. And while they are adjusting to a new community, responsibilities, friends, and schedules, some of them will develop anxiety disorders, including OCD, PTSD, panic disorder, and society anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 18 percent of the population — yet only one third of those suffering receive treatment. Many individuals with anxiety disorders are also high achievers, whose mental health disorders are often misdiagnosed — and worse, often encouraged — as symptoms of a Type-A personality.

Though many high-achieving anxiety sufferers are able to mask their disorders during childhood or high school, the transition into college and away from the comfort of family can bring these issues to the surface — and make them suddenly impossible to ignore (according to a recent survey of more than 750 college students with mental illness conducted by the National Alliance for Mental Illness, 64 percent of respondents who had dropped out did so due to mental health issues). For high achievers who may be suffering from an anxiety disorder, here are eight things you need to know — from two writers who have been there, and can promise there’s a healthier future on the other side.

I (Caitlin) struggled with anorexia, anxiety, and PTSD during middle school and high school. I had received treatment, but it was always because my parents forced my hand. My disorders were a source of shame for me, so when I relapsed during my freshman year of college, I did everything in my power to hide it. Away from home and my usual support system, my mental health declined rapidly and I eventually suffered a medical emergency due to my eating disorder. My college told me that I needed to receive treatment in order to return for sophomore year and, at that point, I realized that I was going to miss out on amazing opportunities if I didn’t prioritize my mental health. I’m so grateful they intervened, but I wish that I had known it was OK to ask for help the moment I sensed I was headed towards a relapse.

I (Nile) have suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder for as long as I can remember, characterized by extreme germophobia, intricate rituals, uncontrollable thoughts, and, of course, anxiety. Though these issues plagued me through middle and high school, it wasn’t until college that I hit my breaking point and finally got up the courage to seek professional help. In no uncertain terms, getting into therapy and on medication has changed my life — though I will always have OCD, I am now functioning at a level that I did not necessarily think would ever be possible. Though I know I wasn’t “ready” to seek help earlier, it’s hard to think that I spent so many years suffering in silence.

1. There's A Difference Between A "Type A" Personality & An Anxiety Disorder

There’s a difference between having a "Type A" personality and an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are often mistaken for “normal” symptoms of "Type A" personalities, making it difficult for high achievers (who often also fit this personality style) to realize that they need help. But anxiety disorder goes beyond being intelligent, detail-oriented, and organized — and should not be ignored. Getting to know the signs of anxiety disorder — including restlessness, uncontrollable thoughts, sleep issues, and/or feelings of fear, helplessness, and panic — and separating them from high-achieving characteristics, can help individuals better understand their own mental state.

My Experience:

Growing up, I was always extremely driven, organized, and obsessively achievement-oriented—yet my Type A personality was, in many ways, inextricably tied to my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. This made it particularly difficult to separate what was attributable to my disorder, and what was attributable to my personality type—and kept me from admitting that I needed help for a long time. By the end of my senior year of high school, I had a 4.8 GPA and was bound for my dream school, UCLA — but I was also struggling with severe Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which often inhibited my ability to enjoy daily activities and develop an identity apart from being a straight-A student.

Yet I had spent so much time focused on getting to college, that once I was there, I no longer had an excuse to not address my disorder and recognize the issues I had for so long masked as simply another consequence of my Type-A personality. It wasn't until this point, when I was removed from the environment in which I had developed both Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and high-achieving behaviors, that I was able to separate my personality from my disorder, and realize that treating my mental illness would not mean jeopardizing my academic or professional success. —Nile

2. Mental Illness Is Not A Sign Of Weakness Or Failure

Just as certain people are born with a genetic predisposition to diabetes or other chronic physical conditions, some of us are genetically more likely to develop anxiety disorders. Be gentle with yourself and never chalk up your struggle to weakness or inadequacy. When it comes to mental illness, the old adage “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” doesn’t really apply.

My Experience:

As a perfectionist and high-achiever, I felt incredibly ashamed to admit there was something “wrong” with me and I viewed it as a personal failure that I needed to fix on my own. Needless to say, I couldn’t single-handedly “fix” my anxiety or PTSD on my own, because I required therapy and medication for the disorders. For a long time, I was afraid to seek help because I thought doing so equalled an admission of failure or defeat. In fact, the opposite is true — facing your illness and accepting the help of doctors, family, and friends is a brave thing to do. —Caitlin

3. Acknowledging That You Need Help Is The Most Important Step

Again, we wouldn’t expect someone with a physical illness to simply “figure it out” or “fix it” on their own. High achievers often think of themselves as able to handle any problem on their own, and blame it on themselves when they are unable to do so. If you suspect that you have an anxiety disorder, don’t just buy a self-help book and attempt to go it alone. Find a good therapist — there are a wide variety of anxiety disorders, and it’s important to be assessed by a professional who can properly diagnose you and help you put a treatment plan in place.

My Experience:Anxiety disorders don’t just “go away” on their own. I knew that I needed help, but I kept putting it off because, in my mind, everything was fine as long as I maintained great grades and engaged in extracurriculars. After I collapsed from malnutrition in my professor’s office, my college told me that I needed to seek treatment. It was humiliating at the time, but it was also the best thing that could have happened to me. Entering therapy finally forced me to confront all the deep-rooted issues that I’d ordered myself to ignore. And, although the medication route isn’t for everyone, I encourage you to be open to considering the idea if your doctor suggests it.

Seeking treatment initially challenged my concept of myself as high achiever, so we addressed it in therapy. It takes strength to admit you need help and work towards recovery, so treatment forced me to reassess my idea of what "strong" and "capable" meant — and that was a positive thing for me. I hit rock bottom before I got help in college, but it didn’t have to be that way — if I had sought help sooner, I would have been spared a lot of unnecessary suffering. I urge anyone who is dealing with anxiety or any mental illness to seek treatment sooner rather than later. Life has so much to offer and you’ll be able to seize the most amazing opportunities if you’re healthy — and, more importantly, you’ll be able to really enjoy them. —Caitlin

4. Don't Let Stigma Inhibit Your Recovery

Yes, the stigma surrounding mental illness does exist and we all know certain people who may be judgmental — but you may be surprised about how many others will support you through your recovery. Thanks to the Internet and an increased number of conversations surrounding mental illness, the stigma around these types of disorders is slowly being broken down. So many college students struggle with mental illnesses — in fact, one in four young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 have a diagnosable condition. If we speak up, we're in a better position to help ourselves and each other. The more comfortable you become in your own skin, the more comfortable your friends and family will become around you.

My Experience:

I was afraid that my new college friends would look at me differently or label me as “crazy” and “attention-seeking.” I definitely did not give them enough credit — they were beyond supportive and my best friend even came to a therapy session with me once so she could chat with me therapist about how best to support me. If a “friend” judges or gossips about you because of your illness, it’s incredibly hurtful — but it says everything about their character and nothing about yours. True friends will stick around, support you during rough patches, and recognize that you are an amazing person who is not defined by your illness. —Caitlin

5. It's Okay To Open Up At Your Own Speed

It can be difficult to find the right time to open up, seek help, or, perhaps the most challenging, admit to yourself that you may be suffering from a mental disorder — but that's okay, as each individual will hit those markers at a different time. But when you do feel ready, don’t be afraid to open up to your friends or family about what you’re going through. One of the most common surprises experienced by people with mental disorders — especially something like anxiety, which is extremely common — is discovering the number of people that have struggled with similar issues. Once you begin to open up, there’s a good chance that other family members or friends will begin to open up as well — about their own struggles with mental illness. Talking (or, in our case, writing) about mental illness can be incredibly cathartic and therapeutic, and help remedy feelings of loneliness. But you also shouldn’t feel pressured or obligated to share with others; opening up is a process and should be done at your own pace, according to your own comfort level.

My Experience:

It took me over 10 years to finally acknowledge — and seek — help for my OCD, and even longer to open up to those around me about it. But doing so has been immeasurably helpful in my recovery – after writing about my disorder, I’ve had friends open up about their own mental health struggle, and even received emails from people who identified with things I said. There’s no better feeling than being reminded that you’re not alone, even in this. —Nile

6. Find Healthy Coping Mechanisms

Work with your therapist to come up with a list of coping strategies for the moments and days when your anxiety is taking over. A therapist can also help you identify your triggers, so you can jump into coping mode before you’re hyperventilating and feeling as though the world is about to end. Whether it’s yoga, a walk with a friend, or doing a crossword puzzle, it’s important to find the specific things that work for you; everyone has different triggers, responses, and coping mechanisms, so it’s important to tailor your recovery to your individual experience. High achievers sometimes have a hard time giving ourselves a break in order to engage in self-care — so it's important to remember that any activity that helps your anxiety is absolutely productive and worth your time. And improving your overall mental health will make it easier to function and thrive in your academic and extracurricular pursuits.

My Experience:

When my anxiety took over during freshman year of college, I would hide in my single room and pace in circles anxiously for hours at a time, pull at my hair, and hyperventilate. Needless to say, this pattern of behavior wasn’t especially helpful. My therapist helped me identify my triggers and strategize about how to handle the rough patches. Once I’d opened up to my friends, I felt comfortable asking one or two of them to take a walk outside or sit with me and watch a funny movie. If no one was around at the moment, I learned coping mechanisms that could be done in solitude, such as breathing exercises, journaling, and drawing. It’s not a magical cure and these rough patches will still be tough to navigate, but using coping skills beats the heck out of the alternative. —Caitlin

7. Take Recovery Into Your Own Hands

Those with anxiety disorders can often trace the origins to childhood, even if they don’t identify their mental illness and/or seek help until later in life. Yet because anxiety is so deeply rooted and integrated into an individual’s personality and identity, it can be difficult to feel in control of your own recovery. This is especially true for those transitioning from high school to college, whose rituals, comfort zones, and familial enablement may be disrupted when leaving home for the first time. No matter what point in life you’re at, an important step towards recovery is taking accountability for your mental health status. Working towards finding autonomy in your mental health can help take the pressure off the other relationships in your life.

My Experience:

Though I’d been exhibiting signs of OCD since early childhood, I was too embarrassed and scared to ask my parents to get me help – and too good at hiding my symptoms for my parents to make that decision for me. It wasn’t until I was in college as an adult, and had the ability to really seek help on my own terms – that I made the decision to finally get the help I desperately needed. It was an empowering experience, and helped me establish this as an individual path to recovery, instead of one dependent solely on the opinions and support of those around me. —Nile

8. Anxiety & Achievement Is Cyclic

Unfortunately, anxiety is often unconsciously encouraged via positive reinforcement for high-achievement related successes, often in the form of competitive college admissions, awards, recognition, and good grades. For example, if you're staying up all night to perfect a project that then receives an A+, this can incidentally reinforce the negative behaviors that helped you get this positive reaction. In this way, achievement and anxiety can be cyclic — with high achievers often being caught up on the pattern of unhealthy behavior, successful outcomes, and positive support. Because of the nature of high achievers, this type of anxiety presentation can both be difficult to identify and difficult to change — but the first step in being able to disrupt the cycle is to recognize it.

My Experience:

Years into my recovery, this cycle is still one of the things I struggle with the most. It’s incredibly difficult to change behaviors that have been encouraged your entire life, and to separate unhealthy achievement behavior from healthy achievement behavior. But it’s a process, and I’ve learned a lot about myself and the ways of working, completing tasks, and scheduling that allow me to be successful while still keeping my anxiety at bay. —Nile

If you arrive at college and find yourself developing symptoms of an anxiety disorder (or relapsing after a period of doing well), don’t hide in silence and shame — college is an amazing experience and you’ll miss out on so many wonderful opportunities if your mental health is compromised. If you don’t know where to begin, make an appointment with Health Services — they are used to dealing with students in similar positions, and can help you find a local therapist who specializes in anxiety disorders. There are no magic cures, but there are many effective treatment options that will help you manage your symptoms and allow you to take full advantage of all the great things campus life has to offer. The recovery process can be painful at times, but it’s more than worth all the hard work — trust us, we’ve been there.

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