“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?—Robert Browning
‘High-achievers, Type- A personalities, High-functioning, Highly motivated people, Goal setters, Straight A-student, Perfectionists’; it doesn’t matter how you define them, there is something different about these “successful people”.
These highly intelligent people are the ones that manage to stay focussed on their goals and not only complete them, but excel at them. It’s these people that work longer hours than most, seem to function off little sleep, and are highly competitive and driven. Be it the work environment, home duties, birthday cake making, or on the squash court, no matter how big or small the task, it will be done to perfection. High-achievers are visionary, motivated, determined and most of us admire, or somewhat envy them!
But at what cost does all of this come to their health?
Are High Achievers Secretly Suffering?
It’s recently been suggested that High-achievers are more likely to suffer mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. In fact, it’s the very same drive that makes a person so great at their achievements that also predisposes them to depression; fear of failure or thoughts of not being good enough, smart enough, fast enough, successful enough, attractive enough. Slowly, these limiting beliefs begin to eat away at a person’s resilience and sense of worth, and rarely will they seek help.
Many simply don’t know the early warning signs of mental health conditions, or push through them to not detract from their goals. Often they get overlooked by health professionals, family and those closest to them. On the outside they appear to be striving and high functioning; they are busy, motivated and achieving. Usually they are aware of the importance of good health, and diet or exercise is usually something that is added to the list of perfectionism. Many high achievers are athletes or highly competitive in some sport, and appear to have their health in good order, so on face value they are healthy, high functioning, successful and motivated people.
Dr. Jim Bauman, sports psychologist consultant for USA swimming believes–
“We spend all our time on biomechanics and not enough time on the ‘software’ – dealing with pressure and chaos. Instead of saying, ‘Be tough,’ we should be saying, ‘I want you to be resilient, pliable, able to adapt.”
The Cost of Suffering in Silence
The knock-on effects of constantly operating from this ‘heightened state’ can be alarming. Cortisol levels (our stress hormones) are often heightened which can begin to effect the adrenal glands, resulting in overwhelming exhaustion, fatigue, brain fog and depression.
A High-achiever may experience a sense of feeling out of control despite all efforts to be in control as much as possible, causing elevated heart rate, heart palpitations, breathing issues, a feeling of overwhelm, stress or even panic attacks.
The quality and quantity of sleep becomes disturbed, you feel constantly restless and agitated and you may even begin to suffer digestive issues, skin conditions and for many women gynaecological complaints. In fact most women that suffer menstrual complaints are often High-achieving, highly motivated females.
In some cases High-achievers are so accustomed to working through stress, they are unaware of the signals to look for, and may not understand the intricate mind-body relationship. They will often announce that they are “well and fine”, despite their body communicating otherwise.
Painkillers may help manage headaches or period pain, sleeping tablets to aid sleep, and ‘digestives’ to assist metabolism, alcohol to “wind down” and coffee to “wind-up”, but the true signals of the body are being ignored and long-term health is suffering.
Eventually the body will collapse and rebound becomes more difficult to achieve. It’s not uncommon to hear of high performance athletes suffering anxiety, depression or major breakdown at some point in their career.
Mindfulness For High-Achievers
Mindfulness: awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. – Jon Kabat-Zinn
For High-achievers the concept of taking time off to relax is a challenging one. They might step aside from the immediate task at hand but will often turn to another to fill their time. Watching television, scrolling through Facebook, reading, catching up on emails, running (to beat a PB) are all avoidance tactics adopted to avoid listening to that inner voice. And why would we want to listen to it… it’s negative half the time. How many times have you sat down with your cuppa only to find that inner voice has piped up telling you to do something more?
What if there was a way to remain focused on your daily tasks, yet detach from the negative thought processes driving you to constantly succeed? To just drink your tea without there needing to be something more.
What if there was a way you could learn to relax your nervous system helping you to feel more grounded, calm, and at peace? Or, to learn the ability to accept the outcome of your efforts even if it’s not what you expected?
The concept of Mindfulness has gained much recognition and is now often taught in schools, work environments and even jails. Some work places provide training in Mindfulness for their staff, however for High-achievers with a racing mind, it can be hard to simply sit and be “mindful”.
Yoga and Meditation are highly effective tools in learning how to practice Mindfulness whilst also improving the over-all health and well-being of the physical body. There are many poses and breathing techniques that help settle the nervous system, enabling a calmer, more peaceful state of mind. It’s from this calmer place, that it then becomes possible to observe the intricate connection between the body, the mind and the breath. As you learn to observe how the body responds to physical postures, you also learn how to observe complexity of the mind. Becoming the observer of your thoughts without the need to react or respond.
This doesn’t mean we let go of drive, focus and commitment. It’s about finding a better, healthier balance between work and rest. As a High-achiever, imagine being able to focus and apply yourself during regular work hours, but then have the ability to switch off and truly relax at the end of the day? Your sleep improves, menstrual health improves, you feel mentally more calm, grounded, at peace and your inner dialogue is no longer negative nor berating. You learn to truly love, respect and value yourself regardless of your achievements.
If you’re a High-Achiever experiencing overwhelm, stress, anxiety, depression or poor health then contact me today. Together we can change your mind-set and thought patterns to achieve a healthier, more balanced and calmer you.
Dr Alison Howes
PhD Applied Science | Registered Yoga Australia Teacher
Trauma Release Qualified
Level 1 Shaman
Specialising in Women’s Health