Affecting 40 million Americans every year, anxiety is the most common mental health condition in adults in the United States.
High-functioning anxiety is a term that has come to be applied to people living with anxiety while still managing to function somewhat normally in their day-to-day lives.
In fact, in many cases high-functioning anxiety can, on the outside, appear to be exceptional drive and competence. However, this success masks the underlying issue that all is not well on the inside.
What high-functioning anxiety can look like
Anxiety is a bit of a shapeshifter, and the symptoms can present differently in different people. One of the reasons that people with high-functioning anxiety tend to fly under the radar is that the signs of their anxiety can look like the positive characteristics that healthy, well-functioning people have. These include:
- Being social and outgoing
- Making plans ahead and showing up on time
- Being highly organized and detail-oriented
- Being proactive and anticipating problems before they occur
- Leading an active lifestyle and being of service to others
- Appearing unruffled and able to handle stress
- Achieving success both professionally and socially
- Being loyal in relationships
This drive and ambition is not motivated so much by achievement as it is by a fear of failure. No matter how high they may climb professionally or personally, people with high-functioning anxiety have difficulty enjoying their success, and it comes at a great personal cost.
High-functioning anxiety can also give rise to symptoms that are noticeable but are dismissed as mere personality quirks. These include:
- Having a hard time saying no to people (i.e., people pleasing)
- Talking quickly and engaging in “chatter”
- Exhibiting nervous habits, such as nail biting
- Engaging in repetitive actions, such as counting steps or tapping feet
- Having difficulty making eye contact
- Dwelling on negative thoughts and “catastrophizing”
- Feeling empty and not being able to enjoy the moment
- Checking things multiple times (e.g., “Did I lock the door?” “Did I turn off the stove?”)
- Alternating between periods of procrastination and frenzied productivity
- Being vulnerable to turning to drugs or alcohol to cope with the anxiety
It’s also common for people with high-functioning anxiety to simply hide these symptoms and put up a facade of a person who has it all together.
What high-functioning anxiety can feel like
Although it can come with some social rewards, such as professional success and a reputation for being resilient and competent, living with high-functioning anxiety is a challenging and often painful way to live. That outward success comes at a steep personal cost, and it’s one that prevents people from enjoying a calm, relaxed life.
It is also extremely isolating, since the sufferer often doesn’t want other people to know what they’re experiencing, so they keep their difficulties to themselves. People with high-functioning anxiety are skilled at hiding, and this is also a very damaging way to live. It prevents people from showing their true selves and making authentic connections with others.
If you struggle with anxiety, you may be able to relate to some of these experiences:
- You have put considerable effort into creating a “false front” that masks your true feelings and you can’t imagine revealing them to anyone.
- You try to push your feelings down, with the intent of facing them later on, but there never seems to be a good time to start tackling your issues.
- The people in your life would be surprised to learn that managing anxiety is a daily battle for you.
- Your anxiety is a huge factor in your decision-making. You engage in activities that help you quiet your overwhelming thoughts (including using alcohol or other substances) rather than pursue things you’re truly interested in.
- On some level, you know that your anxiety is diminishing your life and keeping you within narrow limits.
- You can accomplish what you need to do to keep your work and home life running, but you don’t step outside your routines and the thought of trying something new is extremely intimidating.
Why people avoid seeking help for high-functioning anxiety
Help is available for high-functioning anxiety. However, there are many reasons why people who are struggling don’t seek help.
Here are some of the thoughts that may have stopped you from getting help:
You don’t want to lose out on the “benefits” of your anxiety
High-functioning anxiety can often have positive outcomes in your life, such as a fast-tracked career. You may worry that your work performance will drop or your social life will suffer if you don’t keep up your current level of vigilance.
You feel ashamed
Reaching out for help feels like a failure or an admission of wrongdoing, so you avoid doing it. You may also worry that no one will believe you or support you because you’ve never spoken up about your difficulties before.
Your anxiety has become normalized
If you’ve been living with anxiety for a long time, you may have come to believe that your struggle is normal and is something that everyone experiences. You may also think it’s simply the price you pay for success or that you just handle stress differently than other people.
You don’t fit the culturally accepted idea of an unwell person
You may believe that having a job, a home, and a social life means that you can’t really be in need of help. You may also believe that you don’t deserve help because there are other people who are having a more difficult time than you.
You don’t have to manage alone
Because of their desire to maintain a calm and collected persona, people with high-functioning anxiety often try to manage their anxiety on their own. This often doesn’t work and leads to more self-blame, which can actually increase their level of anxiety.
If this sounds familiar, know that you don’t have to go it alone. You can receive the help and support you need to change your life.
What to do about high-functioning anxiety
There are many ways that you can start to heal your anxiety. Changes in your mental and physical habits can have a meaningful impact on making life more manageable and enjoyable.
Ways you can help yourself
Whether or not you are currently seeking professional help, you can start using these tips right away to help reduce your anxiety.
- Limit your caffeine intake
- Eat a well-balanced, healthy diet
- Exercise regularly
- Establish a regular sleep routine (however, if racing thoughts are keeping you up, get up and occupy yourself with other things until you feel tired)
- Do deep breathing and muscle relaxation exercises
- Devote a little bit of time (10–15 minutes) every day to improving your mental health
- Bring gentle awareness to your thought patterns (such as making negative and fearful predictions about the future) and consider how they may be impacting your moods
- Actively choose to redirect unhelpful thoughts to more realistic or helpful ones (i.e., “I’ve managed this successfully before and I can do it this time, too”)
Seeking professional help
If the symptoms described above resonate with you, it’s a good idea to speak with your doctor. Your doctor can help provide you with support and resources to reduce your anxiety. Many people find that reaching out to a medical professional provides a significant amount of relief and is the turning point in changing their life.
If you do receive a formal diagnosis with an anxiety-related disorder, rest assured that there are many reliable treatment options available to you, including cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness training, and prescribed medications.
Even if you don’t receive an official diagnosis, these treatment options may still be useful to you. Many people find that a combined approach to treatment, which includes therapy, mindfulness, and medication, is highly effective at treating their anxiety.
We’re here to help
The health, well-being, and success of our patients is our top priority at Tikvah Lake Recovery.
We want to help you achieve a solid and enduring recovery, which is why we work with you to create a highly individualized treatment program tailored to your specific needs and circumstances.
For more information about how we can help you or your loved one, contact us today.