The overachiever guide to managing anxiety

Welcome back! In our first post of the series, we looked at the clear connection between anxiety and overachievement. In this second one, we are going to identify two ways anxiety actually shows up: your thinking and your physical symptoms.

I am not going to go all Grey’s Anatomy on you and overwhelm you with too much neuropsychology here but this is the minimum I can give you to really explain how two areas of your brain are primarily responsible for two types of anxiety symptoms, the physical ones and the cognitive ones (thoughts & images).

We talked about the amygdala, which is a small but powerful part of the brain, made up of thousands of circuits. This tiny piece affects so many areas: love and connection, sex drive, anger, aggression, and fear, which lead to the flight-or-fight response. It gives emotional meaning to situations, objects, and people, and forms emotional memories, positive & negative. When the anxiety is formed through the amygdala pathway, it often manifests as this long list of physical symptoms and it often creeps up on you out of nowhere (truly, there’s most likely a reason, you just don’t really know it or really remember it, or connect the dots from your past experience to your current ones). Take a look, feeling any of these lately?

  • Headaches
  • Light-headedness or dizziness
  • Sweating
  • Dry mouth
  • Tension
  • Choking sensation
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Chest pains
  • Palpitations
  • Pounding or racing heart
  • Stomach pains
  • Butterflies
  • Shakiness
  • Pins & needles
  • Jelly legs
  • Feelings of paralysis (can’t move)
  • An urge to run away (flee)
  • An urge to attack

Generally, most of the anti-anxiety medication helps soothe the amygdala and take the edge off these symptoms. Overachievers can experience these symptoms, but it’s generally when they approach or surpass their customary threshold of stress, which is pretty high generally speaking because they’ve conditioned themselves to constantly add more on the plate. So, if you get to this point, you truly need to slow down, focus on practicing some self-care and simplifying and de-cluttering your life.

The other part of the brain that’s really important when talking about overachievers is the cortex. The cortex is the biggest portion of the brain and is in charge of thoughts, logic, analysis, interpretations, anticipation, planning, imagination, and a few other executive functions. When the anxiety is cortex-based, distorted thoughts and images can lead to some really unhealthy and unproductive thoughts and interpretations.

Some of these patterns of distorted thinking are:

  • all-or-nothing (black or white, no grey)
  • overgeneralizations
  •  jumping to conclusions
  • ignoring positive data and focusing on the negative
  • catastrophizing
  • creating a life full of strict rules (should & musts) for yourself and others around you

Yes, I know that if you are still reading this, you can relate to it, because overachievers are all about their cortex…ruminating, analyzing, making checklists, longer and longer checklists, getting antsy and grumpy when they don’t accomplish all of their items on the checklists, not being able to relax, and getting mad at everyone else that’s too slow or not motivated or driven enough to match their level of concentration. Having an overactive cortex is a blessing and a curse. You get a lot of crap done, but there are a loneliness and a lack of peace that comes with that island of intensity and perfection.

In the next and last post of the series, we’ll talk about what you can actually do. I’m adamant that if you are an overachiever and can relate to some of this information, you should become an expert at anxiety and stress management. I’m sure medication has been considered; millions are on anti-anxiety medication. It works for some, but not for others, and here is one possible reason: medication will generally address amygdala-based anxiety, which is more subconscious and has physical symptoms; in short, it takes the edge off, but it will not change your thinking patterns, the uncomfortable images in your mind, the obsessive-compulsive behaviors, the avoidance, and all the other unhealthy coping mechanisms that you may have developed over time. That’s where psychoeducation, therapy, and trying new behaviors come in really handy.

Stay tuned for the next post and I’ll share some ideas you can experiment with!


ABOUT: Dr. Ruxandra LeMay is a private practice psychologist in Litchfield Park, Arizona with experience in family therapy, ADHD, stress and anxiety management, and executive coaching. She is the author of My Spouse Wants More Sex Than Me: The 2-Minute Solution For a Happier Marriage. Click HERE to check out her free resources on effective communication, emotional unavailability, intimacy, and anxiety management or join her at for monthly blogs posts.