High Functioning Anxiety – What Is It and Treatment Options
High functioning anxiety is not currently recognized as a mental health diagnosis1. Rather, it’s an umbrella term, that describes people who live with anxiety, but are able to function reasonably well in their everyday lives.
If you have high functioning anxiety, you’ve probably noticed that your anxiety serves as a driving force in your academic, professional, and personal life. However, on the inside, you may feel a sense of fear, be preoccupied with negative thoughts, or find it difficult to relax.
Fortunately, anxiety is highly treatable. Understanding your high functioning anxiety can help you take control of your mental health, identify the connections between anxiety and productivity, and live a more fulfilling life.
How common is anxiety?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental disorders in the United States, with approximately 19% of U.S. adults2 having an anxiety disorder.
Of those 19% of individuals with anxiety disorders, some people may consider their anxiety to be high functioning. However, because high functioning anxiety is not a diagnosable mental health condition, it’s difficult to know how many people experience this type of anxiety daily.
What does high functioning anxiety look like?
Individuals with high functioning anxiety are often very successful. If you have high functioning anxiety, you might get to work earlier than your coworkers, dress neatly, have your assignments already prepared for the day, but constantly feel a sense of worry. Your coworkers may say that you’re extremely driven, that you’ve never missed a deadline, or that you never call in sick.
Despite your great work ethic, you’re secretly struggling with constant feelings of anxiety and stress. You may experience anxiety in the form of nervous energy, fear of disappointing others, or fear of failure. If this situation sounds familiar, you may experience some of the common characteristics of high functioning anxiety, which can be both positive and negative.
For some people, high functioning anxiety can serve as a driving force in achievements and success. On the surface, you might appear successful in your academic, professional, and personal life. The “positive” characteristics of people with high functioning anxiety include3:
- Extroverted and outgoing personality
- Punctual (arriving early for work and appointments)
- Proactive (planning for all possibilities)
- Organized (making lists or keeping calendars)
- Outwardly calm and collected
- Passionate and always willing to help others
Although, you may often appear successful on the surface, those with high functioning anxiety face an internal struggle on a daily basis. While others may perceive the characteristics of high functioning anxiety as part of your personality, these attributes are driven by a constant underlying stressor.
Sometimes, the characteristics of high functioning anxiety remain hidden, and others may never notice, despite your achievements and success. If you have high functioning anxiety you may experience the following struggles3:
- Talking a lot, or nervous chattering
- “People-pleasing” to avoid driving people away or letting others down
- Nervous habits (playing with your hair, biting your lip, cracking your knuckles)
- Overthinking and dwelling on the negative
- Constantly asking for reassurance
- Avoiding eye contact
- Difficulty saying “no”
- Insomnia and fatigue
- Inability to “enjoy the moment”
- Comparing yourself to others
- Using substance abuse4 as a coping method
What does high functioning anxiety feel like?
If you’re struggling with high functioning anxiety, you may experience symptoms that are categorized under generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), but you’re able to hide those symptoms from others. Many people with high functioning anxiety experience the symptoms of GAD at a subclinical level, meaning, that the disorder isn’t severe enough to present observable or definite symptoms. This is especially true if your anxiety doesn’t affect your personal and professional lives, but you live with anxiety and worry often.
Because you’re not outwardly expressing your feelings, you may experience a general sense of dread or constantly feel tense, but you accept these as normal parts of your life. The symptoms of anxiety, such as nausea, digestive issues, fatigue, and muscle aches, might also be something you experience frequently.
Even if you’ve accepted your anxiety symptoms as a normal part of life, they can still be problematic. “You’re experiencing somewhat frequent symptoms of anxiety, and it’s distressing and showing up more often than you would like,” according to Debra Kissen5, Ph.D. and co-chair of the public education committee for the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. “Treating feelings of anxiety–even if they don’t meet the criteria for a disorder–can help you live a meaningful, satisfying life,” she adds. “It’s thriving versus just surviving5.”
Over time, hiding and avoiding feelings of anxiety and worry can have a negative impact your mental and physical health6. Without treatment, anxiety can lead to respiratory disease, gastrointestinal problems, heart disease, chronic pain, and potentially substance abuse disorders.
Even if you’ve never been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, talk with your primary care provider about your concerns with high functioning anxiety. A trusted health care professional can provide support and give you a referral to an experienced mental health professional.
For many people with anxiety, a comprehensive treatment plan is the most effective way to managing symptoms. While the best course of treatment will depend on your specific situation, some common approaches to treatment7 include:
- Support groups
If you’re looking to beat your anxiety once and for all, our residential treatment center can help. At All Points North Lodge, you can recover from anxiety disorders, along with other mental illness and addiction in a beautiful setting surrounded by nature located in Edwards, Colorado.
To learn more about our programs or to schedule a consultation, contact our admissions specialist today.
- Short, Annabel. “What Is High Functioning Anxiety and Is It Real?” SACAP, The South African College of Applied Psychology - SACAP, 15 Mar. 2021, www.sacap.edu.za/blog/applied-psychology/high-functioning-anxiety/.
- NIMH. “Any Anxiety Disorder.” National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Nov. 2017, www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/any-anxiety-disorder.
- Cuncic, Arlin. “What High Functioning Anxiety Feels Like.” Verywell Mind, 18 Nov. 2020, www.verywellmind.com/what-is-high-functioning-anxiety-4140198#:~:text=Characteristics%20of%20people%20with%20high,plan%20ahead%20for%20all%20possibilities).
- ADAA. “Substance Use Disorders: Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA.” Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 2021, adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/co-occurring-disorders/substance-abuse.
- Gardner, Amanda. “What Is High-Functioning Anxiety-and Could You Have It?” Health, 8 Jan. 2018, www.health.com/condition/anxiety/high-functioning-anxiety-disorder-symptoms.
- Fifer SK, Mathias SD, Patrick DL, Mazonson PD, Lubeck DP, Buesching DP. Untreated Anxiety Among Adult Primary Care Patients in a Health Maintenance Organization. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1994;51(9):740–750. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.1994.03950090072010
- The National Institute of Mental Health. “Anxiety Disorders.” National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, July 2018, www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders/.