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What Does High-Functioning Anxiety Look Like?

Adults |

Anxiety can feel paralyzing at times for many of us – it can become so overwhelming that it gets in the way of enjoying life and completing daily tasks, sometimes leading to irritability, disorganization, relationship troubles, or difficulty fulfilling responsibilities at work and school. But what about the people who are always going above and beyond: those who consider themselves late if they’re not early; the employees of the month who always look their best no matter the occasion, are always willing to lend a helping hand, and somehow still manage to have time for a fulfilling social life. Is it possible that these people, too, are struggling with anxiety underneath it all?

High-functioning anxiety is not an official clinical diagnosis. Typically, anxiety meets the clinical diagnostic threshold when it causes significant impairment in several areas of life, be they personal, professional, or social. For this reason, some folks who struggle with anxiety but don’t necessarily experience significant impairment are often described as having “mild anxiety.” This, however, fails to capture the very real experience of so many high-achievers who may outwardly appear to have it all figured out, but struggle internally with symptoms of anxiety that, however invisible, feel anything but mild. Nowadays, more and more mental health professionals acknowledge that not only do people living with anxiety experience impairment on a broad spectrum of severity, but that mild impairment does not necessarily imply mild symptoms. 

This type of anxiety often flies under the radar for several reasons: one big one is that, for people with high-functioning anxiety, anxious thoughts can act as a catalyst for action. Those coping with high-functioning anxiety may go above and beyond at work because they’re deeply afraid of failure. They might take on too much or have difficulty saying no because the thought of potentially letting others down is too much to cope with. These examples highlight the seemingly positive and attractive attributes of a person with high-functioning anxiety (e.g. hardworking, helpful, selfless) – and also the troubling causes that underlie them (i.e. an intense fear of failure or of being a disappointment). In addition to frequent people-pleasing behaviours and overworking, people with high-functioning anxiety often also struggle with…

  • Overthinking – spending a lot of time worrying about the “what ifs”
  • Ruminating on negative thoughts
  • Trouble sleeping (insomnia) or unwinding, relaxing, or quieting their mind
  • Feelings of impending doom or fear – often without a discernable cause
  • Nervous habits – nail biting, lip biting, skin picking
  • Physical symptoms like gastrointestinal upset or a racing heart
  • The “crash” – putting on the mask of a calm exterior gets exhausting: periods of high productivity might be followed by lower-functioning periods or isolating oneself in order to recoup

This doesn’t mean that all forms of anxiety are bad – after all, anxiety exists for good reason. In many ways, anxiety is meant to act as a motivator. In healthy amounts, anxiety brings our attention to the issues that need it and keeps us safe. But, however high-functioning you may be, high levels of anxiety are incredibly hard on the body as well as the mind, and can even lead to heart, respiratory, and gastrointestinal issues later in life. Left unchecked, anxiety symptoms may become more severe and more difficult to keep under wraps – in other words, anxiety symptoms that once didn’t interfere with one’s daily life can eventually become unmanageable and lead to more significant impairment.

Unfortunately, those living with high-functioning anxiety often avoid seeking the support they need, believing their symptoms aren’t “bad enough” to warrant professional help. Whether or not you believe your anxiety is a clinical problem, the truth is that if something is negatively impacting your overall quality of life, you are deserving of whatever help and support you need. Getting help for high-functioning anxiety doesn’t mean that you will suddenly lose any of the positive attributes that you may have associated with it – you can still be your hardworking, helpful, and organized self, but these traits may eventually stem from desire rather than fear. Learning healthier coping mechanisms for anxiety, often with the help of a therapist or counsellor, can help you take control of your life and emotional experience so that you can still do all of the things you want to do, but without jeopardizing your mental health and wellness. If you’re considering taking the step of seeking professional support for anxiety, please click here to read more about our counselling services and get started. You shouldn’t have to go it alone.