The Low Buzz of Anxiety

One of the differences between High Functioning Anxiety and Generalized Anxiety disorder is there isn’t panic attacks and fear but rather the anxiety takes shape in more of a low buzz.

I know I am in trouble and I know my High Functioning Anxiety has taken over when I get stuck on the to-do list loop. From the moment I wake up to the moment I fall asleep, I am running through my to-do list and mentally calculating what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, how long it will take me to get it done, and how bad a person I am for not getting it all done faster.

When I get stuck on this loop, I know I am avoiding something.

This state of the low buzz is when we are going through the motions of our lives and we have reduced everything down to a list. We aren’t really feeling anything; we are just robotically checking things off the list.  

Let’s take Linda for example.

Linda wakes up and from the moment her feet hit the floor she is thinking about her day. As she hops in the shower, her thoughts drift to last night and the conversation she had with her husband about their lives and what happens after the kids move out. But that thought doesn’t last long because soon her thoughts are filled with her ever-growing to-do list:

  • Go to the grocery store
  • Buy a gift for her friend’s birthday
  • Make a cake for the bake sale
  • Finish the presentation for work

As she makes her way through her morning, she is thinking about coffee/breakfast/getting gas/driving to work/getting to the meeting.

At the meeting, she is thinking about lunch/what to buy her friend for her birthday/her conversation with her husband the night before/the pile of work on her desk.

At lunch she is thinking about getting back to work to finish the presentation/the shopping list/when is she going to make the cake/her talk with her husband last night.

At the grocery store, she rushes through the aisles looking for the quickest way and the whole time she is thinking about dinner/her work presentation/making that damn cake.

As she pulls in the garage, she realizes she forgot to buy the present for her friend.

This is HFA at it’s finest because all day long Linda was going through the motions of her life, but she was in no way living it. She looked like she was living—she even looked high functioning—but her internal to-do list was consuming her every thought. No matter where she was, she wasn’t ever fully there; she was constantly on to the next thing.

This is living in the low buzz of High Functioning Anxiety.

The problem of living in the low buzz is we aren’t feeling anything. Instead, we are controlled by our obsessive to-do list and other thoughts that keep us trapped in our heads. This pattern feels bad but it does benefit us and keeps the anxiety at bay. As long as we are concentrating on our to-do list, we don’t have to feel the anxiety.

We get trapped in this low buzz world for a variety of reasons, including habit or comfort. But what is underneath that habit? Why is it MORE comfortable to live in a low buzz than to live fully engaged? Because when we live fully engaged, we have to feel stuff—and we have to acknowledge that anxiety!

If Linda were to fully engage with her life…

She might have to feel the pain of being an empty-nester and deal with the uncertainty of just her and her husband again. What if their marriage can’t make it? What is she going to do with her time? What if it is too hard?

She might have to ask herself if she really likes her job. Is this where she wants to be in five years? Does she want to retire here?

She might have to ask herself: Do I like my life? Am I happy with what is going on?

She might have to feel what is really happening in her life.

The low buzz keeps us from feeling, both the pain in our lives and the joy as well. When we get caught up in the low buzz, we don’t allow room for anything other than the to-do list and getting things done. No room for anxiety there. At least that is what we are telling ourselves. But in reality we are feeling anxiety. Anxiety about cakes and cards. Anxiety about doing the grocery store the quickest and most efficiently.

So yes, we are feeling anxiety, but I have found in my life that the more I allow space for the pain and grief of life, the more I have room for the joy and happiness of life. I know it sounds counter-intuitive…but if you want more joy in your life, be more authentic about your pain.

So the next time you notice yourself in this low buzz mentality, try to:

  1. Take a pause and breathe.
  2. Reconnect with yourself. Put your hands over your heart, or on your legs. Remind yourself that you have a body. One of the main traits of low buzz mode is that we are only in our heads; we are living cut off from our bodies.
  3. Engage in the moment. If you are at the grocery store, really BE at the grocery store. Notice the food, the people, the squeak of your cart. Use your senses to engage with what is around you.
  4. When you notice the to-do list mantra coming in, remind yourself you don’t have to engage. Imagine your thoughts are on a conveyor belt. You can choose to pick them up or not. In your mind’s eye, put the to-do list thoughts back on the conveyor belt.
  5. Be kind to yourself. As you start to engage less with the to-do list and more with your present life, anxiety will surface—and that’s ok. Be kind to yourself. Talk to yourself as if you would your eight-year-old niece. The to-do list obsessing prevents you from being present to your feelings and insights around painful (or joyful) subjects.

Repeat the above steps as frequently as necessary, and yes, initially you will be repeating it frequently. But the more you can bring yourself back to the moment and be kind and curious about what you are feeling, the less the low buzz will take over your life.

New on The Happier Approach

My guest on the podcast this week is Claire Booth, author of The Achiever Fever Cure: How I Learned to Stop Striving Myself Crazy. Claire was a successful but stressed-out market research entrepreneur and executive suffering from what she calls “achiever fever”–constant striving coupled with chronic feelings of inadequacy. Sick and tired of feeling miserable–but ever the self-help skeptic–Claire decided to try anything that might bring relief despite her fear that slowing down and softening up would mean losing her professional edge. Instead, she discovered a more joyful and purposeful life, and one that also turns out to be good for business. Check it out on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or over here.