Mental Health

Anxious achiever: these daily thoughts will ring true for anyone stuck in a cycle of “doing”

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Anna Brech
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An illustration of an anxious woman

“It needs to be perfect” and “I feel so overwhelmed” are thoughts that reflect our anxious achiever at play. Here’s how the cycle unfolds, and ways to curtail the constant churn of worry.

Over a decade ago, Yale researchers discovered that there is a gene mutation for chronic worrying. The irony being that if you’re a worrier, you may as well not fret about it because it’s in your DNA – but, being who you are, you will do anyway. 

Those who fall into this camp may recognise what California-based psychologist Dr. Kelly Vincent terms as an “anxious achiever” within themselves. In a new post on Instagram this week, Dr. Vincent, founder of the Nourished Wellness Group, sums up the common daily thoughts of an anxious achiever. And her perceptive diagram will be instantly recognisable for anyone who’s been stuck in a cycle of worrying and “doing”.

According to the illustration, the anxious achiever that many of us have within us is driven by a combination of obligation, self-doubt and a strong perfectionist streak.

As Dr. Vincent points out in the caption, we may also sell ourselves the toxic, but ever-so familiar, myth that “if I get it all done THEN I’ll be able to relax”.

The obvious problem with this mindset, Dr. Vincent explains, is that, “it never gets ALL done. Life is full of tasks, obligations and to-dos”. And trying to keep pace with this never-ending list means that we “deprioritize rest/recalibration/stillness. We just don’t have time for those things”. 

“As a result, the nervous system is constantly activated, which leads to feelings of overwhelm, depletion, fatigue, and exhaustion,” Dr. Vincent writes. 

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Of course, many of us have long felt the pressure of “doing” rather than “being”. But that struggle is especially intense right now, at a time when the World Health Organisation is reporting a staggering 25% increase in anxiety and depression worldwide.

From the ongoing conflict in Ukraine to a cost of living crisis and the aftereffects of Covid, it’s unsurprising that many of us are feeling on edge at the moment. This backdrop makes the anxious achiever side of us even more pent up; and more convinced that we’ll feel better by constantly churning through tasks (while simultaneously berating ourselves for not managing that feat). 

The outcome of this attitude, of course, is quite the opposite. Instead of getting more things done and feeling better, we merely feed the anxiety to get more things done. And in doing so, we push ourselves to the point of exhaustion and burnout (a condition that is already booming, thanks to the prolonged stress of Covid). 

A woman walking her dog in woodland
A walk in nature can help slow racing thoughts

Dr. Vincent explains that the way to counteract this anxious thought cycle is first by developing awareness of it. “The key is to begin to notice these tendencies, these thoughts, these emotions, and these behaviors,” she writes. “Take a step back and recognize the habitual patterns.” 

By carving out this kind of objective distance from your thoughts, you stand a better chance of catching and even challenging them as they arise. 

Dr. Vincent also recommends developing “micro-stillness practices” as an antidote to the anxious achiever. For example, habits such as slow breathing, a walk in nature or some simple yoga exercises can all encourage the mind to stop racing and just be. 

Images: Getty

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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for stylist.co.uk. Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.