Anxiety disorders are the most common form of mental illness in the U.S. They come in many forms and are experienced differently in different people. It’s not something that can always be easily identified, especially when it comes to high functioning anxiety.
Those with high functioning anxiety are often the quintessential overachiever, succeeding in everything they do. They are often described as “A-type,” “workaholic,” or “perfectionist.” These terms are usually meant as a form of praise, but often there is a lot more going on than meets the eye.
Many individuals with high functioning anxiety do a great job hiding the anxious feelings that propel them to “overachieve.” They exceed deadlines at work, volunteer to help with extra projects, and appear to have an optimistic can-do attitude. What is often not seen is the suffering and deep levels of stress and anxiety they are dealing with on a daily basis. It is not the love of work that drives them, but deep-rooted fear.
Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding anxiety stops those with high functioning anxiety from seeking treatment. The first step in reducing the stigma is increasing awareness.
What is high functioning anxiety?
High functioning anxiety is not a clinical disorder, but it can worsen and become debilitating.
There are different causes of anxiety, including genetics, childhood behavioral inhibition, or traumatic events as an adult. High-stress jobs can also trigger high functioning anxiety.
The key differentiator between anxiety as a clinical disorder and high functioning anxiety is that those with high functioning anxiety are able to carry out their lives as “normal” and do not experience intense physical symptoms. They hold a job and may even excel in their career or school, they manage their household, their finances are in order, and effectively carry out family responsibilities. These anxious feelings cause them to act and do more, rather than freezing in fear. So, on the outside, they don’t appear to be anxious.
Despite appearances and an outwardly sunny disposition, their life can be significantly impacted, and they can become worn down, resulting in more severe mental health issues down the road. Because things may look good on the surface, this type of anxiety often goes undetected.
What are the symptoms of high functioning anxiety?
Many of the emotional and behavioral symptoms of high functioning anxiety are shared with a clinical anxiety diagnosis. The most common signs and symptoms of someone suffering from high functioning anxiety include the following:
- Obsessive thoughts of failure or fear of negative judgment
- Nail biting, hair pulling, or knuckle cracking
- Perpetual dissatisfaction regarding their performance
- Insomnia or trouble sleeping
- Difficulty expressing emotions or feeling the need to mask stress and worry
- Chronic feelings of worry and difficulty relaxing
- Feel compelled to always be working or “doing more”
- Focused on perfectionism
- Need reassurance, affirmation, and praise from others
- Overanalyze everything, including interactions and decisions
- Masking emotions by always remaining positive and expressing optimism
- Lack of self-esteem or confidence
- View many things as failures (e.g., taking a sick day, asking for help)
- Rigid with routine, and can become upset when it is disrupted
- Engage in negative self-talk
- Exhibit controlling patterns
- May use drugs or alcohol to quiet these anxious feelings
If, after reading these symptoms, you are wondering if you have high functioning anxiety, ask yourself if any of these scenarios sound familiar…
You have a ton of work, but your boss asks if you have time to take on a new project that is due by the end of the week. You know that your current workload has already put you at capacity, but you smile and say, “absolutely! Happy to help!”. You then spend every night working feverishly, eating meals at your desk, and skipping sleep to complete it on time. You submit the project and then second-guess the quality of your work.
You arrive early and leave late so no one questions your work ethic. You have also
never taken a sick day even when you felt terrible and were legitimately ill.
If these scenarios sound similar to experiences you have had, then you may have high functioning anxiety. Although you may receive praise from your superiors or co-workers, you are also suffering in silence – terrified of failure or judgment.
After reading these signs and symptoms, it’s easy to see how those with high functioning anxiety can mask this type of anxiety as simply being an overachiever or someone who takes a lot of pride in their work. These perceptions from friends, family, and colleagues can prevent people from opening up about their feelings and stop them from seeking treatment.
What treatment is available for high functioning anxiety?
Many people with high functioning anxiety worry about the negative effects and consequences seeking treatment may have. For example, they may worry that other people will find out and judge them, they could be fired, or people may speak negatively about them. Alternatively, they may be more concerned about losing the positive characteristics associated with it, like being driven, successful, and respected. By reducing the stigma associate with anxiety and educating individuals on treatment options, they can live a more fulfilling life and no longer be dictated by their anxiety.
Fortunately, treatment is available for those with high functioning anxiety.
The first step to seeking treatment is to speak with a mental health professional. They will help determine if you are suffering from high functioning anxiety or another form of clinical anxiety and discuss treatment options with you like therapy or medication.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is commonly used to treat anxiety disorders, including high functioning anxiety. This type of therapy involves identifying thought patterns that trigger anxious thoughts and behaviors. Medications commonly used are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which may be used in addition to therapy.
Many people with anxiety find a combination of treatments to be most effective. Additionally, if there are environmental factors that are contributing, lifestyle changes should be made. For example, considering a low stress job if your current career is negatively affecting your mental health.
Although high functioning anxiety may not receive an official diagnosis, it can cause damaging stress and turmoil for the individual experiencing it, and treatment should still be sought.