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What is high-functioning anxiety?

May 1, 2023

On the outside, you seem cool, calm and collected. You’re the first one in the office, you never miss a deadline and you remember all of your friend’s birthdays. But on the inside, you’re battling with constant worries and concerns: was that thing you said rude? Have you missed an important email? Did you file your taxes correctly last year?

If this resonates with you, you may be experiencing high-functioning anxiety.

What is high functioning anxiety?

High-functioning anxiety isn’t a formal diagnosis, rather it’s a way that anxiety can manifest itself. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s not a serious issue with real consequences on your mental health.

High-functioning anxiety refers to someone who experiences anxiety but still manages their daily life well. In fact, instead of holding them back, their anxiety might actually propel them forwards, or at least it appears to on the surface. For example, if someone is worried about being seen as a failure or not being good enough, the presence of these fears may push them to overcompensate and excel in life.

Often, people with high-functioning anxiety are overachievers and perfectionists. They could be successful in business, an incredibly good friend or a top student. They may appear to have their lives together and to be thriving. This makes high-functioning anxiety difficult to spot - the people who experience it could be the last ones you expect.

While people with high-functioning anxiety are generally good at keeping up external appearances, internally, they might be feeling worried, stressed and overwhelmed, to name just a few emotions.

Placing a certain amount of pressure on ourselves can be a good thing; it might prompt us to go for a promotion or learn a new skill. However, it becomes a problem when it negatively impacts our lives and wellbeing.

Let’s say that you’ve got into the habit of staying late at work to impress your boss, then when you get home, you’re busy keeping an immaculate household and going above and beyond to help your friends, leaving no time to rest. Living this way may cause you to experience burnout, where you feel physically and emotionally exhausted.

Ultimately, it’s not sustainable to be ‘perfect’ or to over-perform in every area of our lives. We only have so much energy, and eventually, something has to give. If you’re experiencing high-functioning anxiety, the longer you go without addressing it, the worse toll it can take on your health.

What high-functioning anxiety looks like

On the outside, you may seem:

  • Organised and orderly
  • Out-going and social
  • Proactive and productive
  • Busy
  • Very agreeable or a ‘people-pleaser’

On the inside, you may feel:

  • Anxious for long periods of time
  • Unable to switch off and relax
  • Fearful of disappointing others
  • Prone to over-thinking and over-analysing situations
  • The need for perfection
  • Irritable
  • Emotionally and physically exhausted
  • Unable to sleep well

Managing high-functioning anxiety

  • Recognise the symptoms

Although high-functioning anxiety has its positives, for example being successful at work or getting good grades, these shouldn’t come at the cost of your mental health. Be sure to notice when you’re putting too much pressure on yourself and what the consequences of this are - are you exhausted or unable to stop worrying?

And, if you find yourself applying pressure, what are the reasons behind this? Perhaps you feel the need to be perfect or you’re scared of disappointing others. Understanding where your feelings are coming from can help you to address them and move forward.

  • Remember to relax

It’s important that you make time to relax, whatever that means to you. Give yourself permission to do exactly what you feel like doing, rather than what you think you should be doing. You might want to watch a TV show, play video games or read a book. As long as you’re genuinely enjoying yourself, this time will help you to recharge and de-stress.

  • Set boundaries

If you’re experiencing high-functioning anxiety, the chances are that you’re used to taking on a lot of things at once, both at work and in your personal life. You may find it hard to say no because you’re worried about what this says about you, or you don’t want to let other people down (this is also known as ‘people-pleasing’).

However, we each only have so much time and energy and it’s important that we can put our own needs first. Setting boundaries is a way of protecting our physical and emotional wellbeing. If someone or something is asking too much of you, be sure to communicate your boundaries and give yourself permission to step away.

  • Speak to your GP

If you’ve been struggling with your mental health for a few weeks or more, it could be time to get in touch with your local GP, particularly if this is a new problem. They will be able to advise you on potential lifestyle changes and what treatment options are available, whether that’s medication or some form of therapy.

  • Try talking therapy

ieso offers Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) for a range of mental health issues, including anxiety. CBT is a form of talking therapy which can help you to address where your anxiety is coming from, how to challenge your negative thought patterns and how to cope with them in the future. Find out more.

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This blog has been written by a member of the clinical team at ieso.
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