What is high-functioning anxiety
Updated: Oct 18, 2019
You may have anxiety, you just don’t know it
As the stigma around mental health is slowly lifting, general awareness of common problems like depression and anxiety proportionally increases.
Mental health issues though are complex and few fit neatly into one box, with a clear set of symptoms that can help label them. There are as many types of anxiety, depression and PTSD as there are types of allergies, joint or heart diseases.
You might thing that if you don’t experience panic attacks or severe mood swings, you do not have anxiety. Well, think again.
Statistics tell us that 15% of the US population, that is 40 million people, suffer from anxiety. These are people how have been diagnosed. The actual number is likely a lot higher.
Many of us have anxiety at one degree or another, we just do not realize it. We live our lives and function at an acceptable level within society but feel distressed and may experience a significant amount of mental and psychological pain. All of it unseen.
High-functioning anxiety is not a clinical diagnosis and is used to describe someone with a significant amount of anxiety yet none of the typical symptoms associated with it like panic or paralyzing rumination.
High-functioning anxiety may go on for years before turning into full blown anxiety disorder, at which point it may be diagnosed.
But what if we could detect the signs before the issue progresses to actual panic attacks and debilitating worry? Some simple steps can be taken to recognize it in yourself and others.
High-functioning anxiety is not a clinical diagnosis and is used to describe someone with a significant amount of anxiety yet none of the typical symptoms associated with it like panic or excessive rumination.
1. Success at work, struggle at home
High-functioning anxiety sufferers are usually quite successful in their career. Anxiety and fear are drivers of their performance.
If I don’t perform at the top, I’ll lose my job. If there’s one spelling error in my report, my boss will think I’m a fraud. If I don’t respond to that email right now, my co-workers will think I’m lazy etc…The high-functioning anxiety response to these fears is usually to work harder, work longer, and deliver on goals and objectives.
What others will see on the outside is someone who is dedicated to their career, hard working and even brilliant. Not someone who is living in a constant state of fear of what might happen if they show the slightest sign of not being perfect.
Staying on top of everything and reaching assigned goals may be feasible at work, but personal life is nothing like a professional organization with clear job descriptions. It’s fluid, sometimes messy, and all about human relationships, something that anxiety sufferers struggle with.
The high-functioning anxiety response to these fears is usually to work harder, work longer, and deliver on goals and objectives.
So what does someone with do? Well, more often than not, they may run their personal life and household military-style with assignments, minute-by-minute planning, and high expectations. Again, on the outside everything may look like a perfect life for a high-achieving family, while actually living it is a personal hell for every member of said family. More often than not, relations with partners, friends and family will deteriorate to the point where the outcome is actually the opposite of the initial objective the anxious was trying to achieve.
2. Routine and avoidance
Another very common coping mechanism is to stick to a specific routine and avoid any situation that may trigger anxiety.
The ultimate goal of someone with anxiety is to control the future and the outcome of every situation, in the hope that none of their fears realize. Keeping a strict routine and avoiding situations that create uncertainty looks then like the perfect solution.
And when things don’t go exactly as planned, beware. Anxious people will overreact and become very upset. “Life happens” is not part of their vocabulary.
The ultimate goal of someone with anxiety is to control the future and the outcome of every situation, in the hope that none of their fears realize.
3. A mind like squirrels on caffeine
People with anxiety have a hard time “turning off” their thoughts and relaxing. We all have our internal chatter, that “monkey on our back”. Anxiety takes that to the next level. Not only does the monkey never, ever shut up, it’s also focusing only on negative thoughts: a hundred ways how things can go wrong, how worthless you are, the unending list of to-dos, and so on.
By definition, anxiety sufferers often have difficulties falling and staying asleep, waking up in the middle of the night with their minds racing for no apparent reason.
Racing thoughts will also prevent those with anxiety from being fully “there”. They are unable to be in the present and will often come across as distant, distracted and already thinking about the next thing on their overly packed schedule. Because that’s exactly what they’re doing.
4. Worry about the future
The future is by definition uncertain, and we all have to deal with it. For someone with anxiety, the future is where all the possible worst scenario can, and will, happen.
Whether they have a legitimate reason to worry about the future or not, an anxious person will excessively worry and ruminate. To the point where they will end up convinced that a catastrophic event will actually happen.
5. The need to always be doing something
Anxiety about time running out, about not being productive enough, will drive anxious people to filling every single minute of their day with tasks, chores or even hobbies. Even though they may understand the need for rest and periods of inactivity to living a balanced life, actually implementing it may prove extremely difficult.
6. Cancelled plans
Trying to get through your day while constantly fighting your thoughts and living in a state of fear is simply exhausting. That’s why people with anxiety will often cancel plans for the evening or the week-end on a short notice. Just because they cannot keep it all together for one more moment.
7. Emotional crutches and unhealthy coping mechanisms
Overeating, overdrinking, smoking or even exercising excessively can all be signed of anxiety.
The unconscious objective of these “crutches” is to numb the senses and try to find a physical relief to a mental pain. These are usually not pronounced enough to affect the day-to-day, and because of the stigma associated with these excessive behaviors, they are carefully hidden.
In conclusion, anxiety is a complex issue and these are only a few of the more common signs. At first glance they can seem benign and not scream mental illness, but to the knowing eye they are more telling.
What’s going on inside is the true issue, and only the one suffering from high-functioning anxiety knows what is happening.
If you notice these symptoms in yourself, take the time to step back, look at your thought pattern and start on the path of healing. If you know someone who may be suffering from high-functioning anxiety, reach out and offer to help. It’s with everyone’s support and involvement that we can improve lives.