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What is High-Functioning Anxiety and How Does It Impact Me?

By: Kristina Murr

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Someone with high-functioning anxiety can commonly be labeled an overachiever or a go-getter, but internally they’re struggling. For some, this includes excessive fears of failure and doubt while feeling the pressure to be perfect for those around them. Let’s define high-functioning anxiety, review some of the signs and causes, and ways to cope.

What is high-functioning anxiety?

The National Alliance on Mental Illness states that there are 40 million adults in the United States with an anxiety disorder. But how does high-functioning anxiety differ from regular anxiety or Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)? High-functioning anxiety refers to individuals who experience traditional symptoms of anxiety yet continue to excel in their daily responsibilities and activities. These individuals may outwardly appear successful, competent, and composed, but internally, they often grapple with persistent stress.

It’s important to note that high-functioning anxiety is not an official clinical diagnosis but rather a term used to describe a particular manifestation of anxiety.

Symptoms of high-functioning anxiety

Those with high-functioning anxiety may not show symptoms as openly as others with generalized anxiety. Although the signs and symptoms can differ from one person to another, there are some common threads.

Physical symptoms can include:

  • Regularly feeling fatigued which can stem from trouble falling or staying asleep.
  • Physical aches and pains, including muscle tension and tightness.
  • Increased heart rate or rapid pulse.
  • Being unable to sit still or constantly fidgeting.

Emotional symptoms can include:

  • Struggling to concentrate or remember things.
  • Ruminating, worrying excessively, or being fearful that something bad is going to happen
  • Increased irritability, or feeling on-edge or restless.

Signs of high-functioning anxiety

Now that we understand some of the symptoms of high-functioning anxiety, it’s important to understand some of the signs that you or someone you know may exhibit.

  • Overthinking and worrying: People with high-functioning anxiety often engage in excessive overthinking and worry about various aspects of their lives, even if things are going well.
  • Perfectionism: A strong desire for perfection and fear of making mistakes may drive those with high-functioning anxiety to set exceptionally high standards for themselves.
  • Constant need for approval: Seeking validation and approval from others is also common, as people with high-functioning anxiety may draw their sense of self-worth from external feedback.
  • Difficulty relaxing: Despite being accomplished in their pursuits, individuals with high-functioning anxiety may find it challenging to relax and may feel a constant need to be productive.
  • Avoidance of conflict: Fear of conflict or disappointing others may lead people with high-functioning anxiety to avoid difficult conversations or situations.
  • Procrastination: People may procrastinate due to anxiety, delaying tasks out of fear of not meeting their own high standards.

How to cope with high-functioning anxiety

Despite their outward success, people with high-functioning anxiety may still benefit from support and coping strategies.

One of the biggest things you can do is to learn more about what it means to have high-functioning anxiety. This means you need to understand your anxiety triggers, including the signs and how your overall surroundings play into it.

After you identify triggers, it will be important to realize and recognize that some things are out of your control. Unfortunately, you can’t always control your surroundings and your anxiety, but you can focus on what is within your control. For example, if a meeting with your boss triggers anxiety, you may not have direct control over that emotion, and avoiding the meeting might not be an option. Nevertheless, you have the ability to influence and alleviate anxiety by concentrating on aspects within your control. This could involve selecting a polished professional outfit for the meeting, diligently preparing your notes in advance, eating nutritious food beforehand, and engaging in positive visualization to envision a successful meeting.

Having coping skills for situations beyond your control can be really useful. Consider journaling as a simple way to put your thoughts on paper and gain clarity. Mindfulness strategies, like staying in the moment and choosing not to dwell too much on the future, can be helpful because excessive future thinking can spike anxiety. Taking care of yourself in general is crucial for dealing with anxiety, including getting enough sleep, eating balanced meals to keep your energy stable, and using exercise to burn off stress hormones. Working with an experienced anxiety therapist using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT techniques can also help.

Even when things get tough, it’s important to be open to receiving help. Try not to get defensive or snap back at those offering assistance. Sometimes, anxiety kicks in because we’ve taken on too much or put too much pressure on ourselves. Delegating tasks and being open to help from others can reduce stress and anxiety.

Finally, create a support system. This can include sharing your feelings with friends, family, a therapist, or a dedicated support group. The key here is to understand that you are not alone and there are people who are willing to listen and help.

Living with high-functioning anxiety can be both physically and mentally exhausting. If you’re experiencing high-functioning anxiety, seeking guidance from a mental health professional can be beneficial in understanding and addressing your specific challenges. Reach out today to set up an appointment.

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