The Characteristics of High Functioning Anxiety


High functioning anxiety is not a recognized mental health diagnosis. Instead, it's evolved as a catch-all term that refers to people who live with anxiety but identify as functioning reasonably well in different aspects of their life.


According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), around 19% of adults in the United States have an anxiety disorder.


Some people may consider themselves in the "high functioning" category, but it's difficult to know precisely how many have this type of anxiety.


If you have high functioning anxiety, you probably notice that your anxiety propels you forward rather than leaves you frozen in fear.


On the surface, you appear to be successful, together, and calm—the typical type A personality who excels at work and life.  However, the way you feel on the inside may be very different.


What High-Functioning Anxiety Looks Like

Someone with high functioning anxiety may be the picture of success. You might arrive to work earlier than everyone else, impeccably dressed, with your hair neatly styled.


Coworkers may say you are driven in your work—you've never missed a deadline or fallen short in a given task.1 Not only that, but you're also always willing to help others when asked. What's more, your social schedule also seems busy and full.


What others might not know (and what you would never share) is that you're fighting a constant churn of anxiety beneath the surface of a seemingly perfect exterior.


It may have been nervous energy, fear of failure, and being afraid of disappointing others that drove you to success.


Though you desperately need a day off work to get yourself together, you're often too afraid to call in sick. Nobody would ever believe something was wrong because you always portrayed yourself as fine.


If these characteristics sound familiar, here's a look at what you might experience or what others might observe of you if you have high functioning anxiety.


Positive Characteristics

The potential benefits of high functioning anxiety can be seen in the outcomes and successes that you and other people observe.


On the surface, you may appear very successful in work and life, which may be objectively true if you only evaluate yourself based on what you achieve.


Characteristics of people with high functioning anxiety that are often thought of as positive include:

  • Outgoing personality (happy, tells jokes, smiles, laughs)

  • Punctual (arrive early for appointments)

  • Proactive (plan for all possibilities)

  • Organized (make lists or keep calendars)

  • High achieving

  • Detail-oriented

  • Orderly and tidy

  • Active

  • Helpful

  • Appears outwardly calm and collected

  • Passionate

  • Loyal in relationships

Negative Characteristics

In the case of high functioning anxiety, a struggle often lies beneath that veil of success. The anxiety you feel about your success inevitably must come out.


Others can perceive characteristics of high functioning anxiety as being "cute" or just part of your personality, and in reality, these attributes are driven by underlying anxiety.


Other characteristics of high functioning anxiety are internal and may never be noticed by others—even though they cause you a great deal of stress.


People don't always know that these actions are caused by anxiety, and they may view them as part of who you are. Despite being regarded as "high functioning," you may experience the following struggles in your day-to-day life.

  • "People pleaser" (afraid of driving people away, fear of being a lousy friend, spouse, and employee, fear of letting others down)

  • Talking a lot, nervous "chatter"

  • Nervous habits (playing with your hair, cracking knuckles, biting your lip)

  • Need to do repetitive things (counting stairs or rocking back and forth)

  • Overthinking

  • Lost time (arriving too early for appointments)

  • Need for reassurance (asking for directions multiple times or checking on others frequently)

  • Procrastination followed by long periods of crunch-time work

  • Avoiding eye contact

  • Rumination and a tendency to dwell on the negative ("What if?" thoughts and dwelling on past mistakes)

  • Inability to say "No," always having an overloaded schedule, being constantly busy

  • Insomnia (difficulty falling asleep or waking early and being unable to fall back asleep)

  • Racing mind

  • Others think that you are "difficult to read" (stoic, unemotional, cold)

  • Limited social life (turning down invitations)

  • Inability to "enjoy the moment" (being unable to relax and be in the present or expecting the worst in any situation)

  • Feeling intimidated by the future

  • The tendency to compare yourself to others (falling short of expectations)

  • Mental and physical fatigue

  • Loyal (to a fault) in relationships

  • Potential for alcohol or substance abuse as an unhealthy coping method

Challenges

A high-functioning person is often regarded as an overachiever. However, this perception is short-sighted because it fails to consider the struggle (and, perhaps, anxiety) required to achieve that level of success.


If you asked most people who know you, they probably would not know that you struggle with anxiety every day.


Deep down, you know that your anxiety limits your life—even if you don't let on.


Perhaps you can achieve essential tasks (such as those relating to work and housekeeping) but feel your life is limited in other ways (for example, you never do anything outside your comfort zone.


Your anxiety probably dictates your actions. You likely choose activities that calm your racing thoughts rather than pursuing activities because you would enjoy them or because they would expand your horizons.


If you have high functioning anxiety, you've likely become adept at presenting a false persona and never showing your true feelings to anyone.


Instead, you keep it all bottled up inside and compartmentalize your feelings.


Getting Help

There is help out there for people dealing with any form of anxiety, including high functioning forms. However, specific characteristics of high functioning anxiety may have prevented you from seeking help.


Some possible reasons you might not have sought help for high functioning anxiety include:

  • You consider it a double-edged sword and don't want to lose the positive influence of anxiety on your achievements.

  • You are worried that your work will suffer if you are not constantly driven to work hard out of fear.

  • You might think that because you seem to be achieving (strictly from an objective standpoint), you do not "need help" for your anxiety—or perhaps that you don't deserve help.

  • You might think that everyone struggles the way you do and may think of it as normal. On the other hand, you might believe that you are just "bad" at dealing with life stress.

  • You've never told anyone about your internal struggles, and your silence has reinforced the feeling that you can't ask for help.

  • You might believe that no one would support you in asking for or seeking help because they have not seen you struggle.

When you feel isolated and alone, it's harder to reach out to others. As more people talk about and identify with having "high functioning" anxiety, it may become easier for people to seek help.


Thinking of anxiety in both its positive and negative terms may help to reduce stigma. We all need some level of stress to get things done in life.


Rather than view anxiety as a weakness, reducing stigma has allowed society to highlight when people with anxiety can live full and productive lives.


How "High Functioning" Is Determined

There is little research on high functioning anxiety, but we know that there is an optimal level of anxiety (not too low or too high) that fuels performance.


Based on this concept, your ability to function at a higher level might be increased if you had a mild to moderate level of anxiety (as opposed to severe anxiety).


IQ may also play a role in how well people with anxiety function in work and life. A 2005 study found that financial managers with high anxiety levels made the best money managers—as long as they also had a high IQ.


Daily Tips

Whether you've already sought professional help or are still in the process, here are some tips you can try on your own to reduce your anxiety.

  • Commit to spending 10 minutes a day working on your mental health.

  • Before doing any cognitive work (changing your thoughts), look at lifestyle changes such as limiting caffeine, eating a healthy diet, and getting regular exercise.

  • Sleep hygiene is essential, too, such as sticking to a regular bedtime and not staying in bed if your mind is racing. Instead, get up and do something else until you feel tired.

  • Look at some of your thought patterns. For example, anxiety involves a lot of pessimistic predictions ("What if I don't make this deadline" or "I know I will make a fool of myself during this presentation!").

  • When you notice a negative thought, try countering it with something more realistic or helpful, such as "I always make my deadlines, and even if I miss this one, it won't be the end of the world."

  • Find coping strategies for nervous habits such as biting your lip or chewing your nails. Practicing deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation can help control tension.

  • Learn how to use a competing response to address your nervous habits. This technique has you perform an incompatible action with the nervous habit—such as chewing gum to keep you from biting your lip.

Ask yourself why you hold on to your anxiety. Are you afraid that you will stop being an overachiever if you are no longer driven by anxiety?


These are real concerns that you will need to address as you work on reducing the effect your anxiety has on your life. This will involve refuting the belief that you can't accomplish things without anxiety.


It may take some adjustment, but you will find a new groove that gives you a healthy balance between your mental well-being and getting things done.


High functioning anxiety can be a double-edged sword. You might be afraid to let go of something that feels like part of your personality but know that you don't need to be secretly anxious to achieve and succeed.


If you or a loved one are struggling with an anxiety disorder, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.






Article Courtesy of:

Arlin Cuncic

A Very Well Mind

Medically reviewed by

Steven Gans, MD

283 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All