What is High Functioning Anxiety, and How Do I Manage It?

anxious woman sitting in the corner of a room

Most people have heard of the term anxiety, the medical term for a diagnosable mental illness as well as a separate feeling of uncertainty, worry, and restlessness. Today, an estimated 40 million adults or 19.1% of the U.S. population struggles with anxiety. Some of those disorders are obvious with people suffering having difficulty functioning and living their life. In other cases, people can deal with even extreme symptoms of anxiety without losing their ability to work, take care of family, or take care of their responsibilities. This “high functioning anxiety” often goes under the radar, because it doesn’t come with the obvious symptoms of debilitation that often result in diagnosis and treatment.

However, if you or a loved one is struggling with anxiety, it can be crippling to your mental health, your wellbeing, your physical health, and your future. Even if you’re apparently able to navigate life around your anxiety, it can still dramatically reduce the quality of your life and make it impossible to function in others, and may result in a breakdown if you don’t get treatment. Understanding how high functioning anxiety impacts your life, how you can treat it, and how to manage it will help you or your loved one to get the help you need and to improve your life.

What’s the Difference Between High Functioning Anxiety and “General Anxiety Disorder”

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is typically diagnosed based on how it impacts the individual’s life. For example, if it impacts your ability to work or go to school, your ability to leave the home, or your ability to socialize. People often go to treatment because they can’t do basic things that they feel they should be able to, like going to parties or driving a car.

However, the symptoms for high functioning anxiety and general anxiety disorder are otherwise exactly the same. For example, the DSM-5 diagnoses both with having three or more of the following symptoms for more days than not over the past 6 months:

  • Feeling keyed up, on edge, or restless
  • Tiring easily or being fatigued
  • No concentration or mind blanking out
  • Irritability or mood swings
  • Muscle tension
  • Sleep problems whether difficulty falling asleep, restless sleep, or unsatisfying sleep

The difference is that the person with high functioning anxiety is able to mask those symptoms. This means that they can prioritize functioning or getting something done over whatever they are feeling. Often, that means they feel just as bad, they’re just hiding how they feel because they feel they have to or need to for whatever reason.

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How Does High Functioning Anxiety Happen?

a man with High Functioning AnxietyHigh functioning anxiety often happens when people experience anxiety about not being good enough, about not meeting goals, about not achieving responsibilities, or about being a failure. Often, people with high functioning anxiety look like perfectionists, control freaks, and can be irritable and even annoying about their own tasks. They may be extraordinarily critical of themselves and others. They may be afraid of appearing inadequate or not being good enough. And, often, they constantly feel on edge, like they’re on the verge of losing control, or like bad things are about to happen. That can result in significant stress and decrease in quality of life, because it will continue to feel like nothing is ever good enough. Anyone can be at risk of high functioning anxiety. However, people who grow up with a high pressure to excel, with parents who have anxiety, and who work in high stress jobs are more likely to have it.

High functioning anxiety can happen to anyone. Even if you have a stable family, supportive childhood, a supportive boss, and room to fail. You can still struggle with high functioning anxiety.

Treatment for High Functioning Anxiety

Anxiety is an extremely treatable disorder. In fact, many people can receive treatment for anxiety and see reduction or abatement in symptoms that last for years. Treatment isn’t guaranteed to be effective, but it can greatly improve your quality of life by giving you tools to cope with, manage, and minimize symptoms of anxiety. That treatment typically starts with cognitive behavioral therapy. Here, you get help understanding the roots of anxiety, redirecting anxiety, and learning better coping and mitigation strategies. This means you look for strategies to change how you think, to interrupt negative cycles, and to interrupt or soothe triggers when they happen – before putting yourself through a cycle of anxiety. This often works very well, because anxiety is a negative cycle that becomes worse the longer it goes on, as you become more stressed, feel less and less in control, and feel worse and worse.

People with high functioning anxiety are also given help with:

  • Embracing problems and flaws. This happened and it’s okay. This happened and it’s not okay, but it will be. This is flawed. This isn’t perfect. It’s okay. That can be extremely difficult for a person with high functioning anxiety but is an important part of letting go of anxiety. For this reason, complimentary therapies like music and art therapy are often used to introduce concepts of failure and it doesn’t have to be perfect.
  • Building a healthy lifestyle with structure and a healthy rhythm but with room for error. It’s important to get up and go to bed at about the same time every day – but it doesn’t have to be perfect, and you should have margin for error and days to sleep in. The same with meals, which should be about 80% healthy. Introducing margin for error, comfort, and taking time off is important.
  • Building support networks and asking for help. People with high functioning anxiety often don’t ask for help because they’re afraid that makes them look like a failure. But, learning how to ask others for help, to get input from others when needed, and to build a support network can greatly reduce feelings of anxiety – as well as things to be anxious about to begin with.
  • Prioritizing life and setting goals accordingly. It’s common for people with high functioning anxiety to hyper fixate on a single goal and work towards that. Like having the job, car, house, marriage, kids, etc. Prioritizing what matters and identifying what you really care about can allow you to step back and release some of the stress surrounding what other people tell you that you should want.
  • Learning to accept and give feedback. Taking even a slight bit of criticism can be extremely hard for someone with high functioning anxiety, but it’s important to learn how to do. Letting go of having to be perfect and having to please everyone will also allow you to set better boundaries for yourself.
  • Learning to say no and to set boundaries rather than taking on everything, heaping on more stress, and just dealing with it. Setting limits, deciding what you are capable of, and allowing yourself to say “this is enough” is an important part of managing high functioning anxiety.

In some cases, people with high functioning anxiety may also need medication to manage symptoms. However, chances are high that you can improve quality of life and how you’re able to manage symptoms of anxiety with a few months of treatment, with counseling and therapy tailored to your behavior and needs.

Millions of Americans struggle with anxiety. If you or a loved one are dealing with anxiety and feeling anxious about life, it’s important to talk to your doctor and to look into getting help – even if you’re not falling apart, you can still prevent things from getting worse, you can still improve your quality of life, and you can still get better.

If you or a loved one needs help with mental health treatmentdrug rehab, or alcohol rehab Compassion Recovery Center is here to help. Contact us to ask about our modern and effective treatment programs.

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