What is High-Functioning Anxiety?

stressed woman at computer rubbing temples

As emotional beings who live on a chaotic planet, I think we can collectively agree at this point: anxiety is on the rise. That isn’t just based on sheer assumption either. As the World Health Organization (WHO) recently found, reports of anxiety have increased by 25% across the globe. Many of us know the common signs of anxiety to look for—shallow breaths, rapid heart rate, tremors, numbness, sweating, irrational or intrusive thoughts, reckless actions, and panic or hypervigilance, to name a few obvious symptoms. 

But what if anxiety masquerades as something more subtle? Or what if it manifests in behaviors and achievements that our society tends to glamorize? How do we spot this high-functioning anxiety—much less deal with the challenges it can present? Well…we could start with some basic recognition that, even if it’s not always as noticeable as other mental health concerns, high-functioning anxiety is still a real issue worth taking seriously. So here’s what to know about this tough to detect, easy to dismiss form of anxiety. 


What Does It Mean to Have High-Functioning Anxiety?

High-functioning anxiety is not an official mental health diagnosis. Still, researchers at the South African Applied College of Psychology contend that, when overlooked, this issue can affect physical wellness, relationships, work-life balance, and inner resilience. However, because the impacts are usually gradual—not to mention, the behaviors are frequently celebrated—someone who lives with high-functioning anxiety often has no idea.  

The more common anxiety reaction is to feel a sense of overwhelming panic that immobilizes the brain and activates a freeze response. But those who have high-functioning anxiety tend to feel a restless or frenetic energy which hurls them forward into a fight response. In other words, a person with this form of anxiety might not seem anxious at all.

Our culture loves to use descriptors such as perfectionist, overachiever, successful, productive, ambitious, driven, goal oriented, or top performer to lionize those with high-functioning anxiety. But this issue can be debilitating for someone who carries it around on a regular basis. Just because their symptoms aren’t necessarily visible does not make their experience invalid. They might appear calm on the outside, while in the throes of turmoil inside. It’s important to be aware of (and sensitive to) the effects of high-functioning anxiety:

  • Constant worry or overthinking
  • Excessive fear of failure 
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritable or restless demeanor
  • Rumination on past mistakes
  • Need for reassurance
  • Extreme organization skills
  • Obsessive desire for control
  • Refusal to delegate tasks
  • Angry outbursts if plans deviate
  • Chronic muscle tension
  • Insomnia or sleep disturbances 
  • Harsh, relentless inner critic
  • Procrastinating then hyper-working
  • Rigid or unrealistic expectations
  • Feeling unable to say “No”

At face value, someone with high-functioning anxiety will often come across as firmly together, continually motivated, intensely energetic, fiercely passionate, and brilliantly accomplished. Those glossier qualities do an excellent job of masking the less desirable, more compulsive  traits underneath. However, if high-functioning anxiety continues to remain unchecked below the surface, harmful repercussions can fester over time. 


How Can High-Functioning Anxiety Impact Mental Health?

No matter how stable a person might look, all forms of anxiety—even high-functioning —can escalate into other mental health concerns. If anxious thought and behavioral patterns are never dealt with at their source, the inner turbulence will only worsen. This can lead to emotional burnout, depression, chronic fatigue, or depersonalization (a sense of apathy to or detachment from oneself), the Frontiers in Psychology Journal points out.  

In many cases, it’s just a matter of time until someone with high-functioning anxiety loses a grip on their calm “I got this” facade. Without constructive self-care outlets through which to process that release of nervous energy, all sorts of problems can occur:

  • Job performance benchmarks can suffer. 
  • Relationships can start to feel tense or volatile. 
  • Unhealthy coping mechanisms can develop. 
  • Emotional responses can become erratic. 
  • Simple tasks or decisions can feel paralyzing.
  • Immune resistance can begin to weaken.
  • Sleep, nutrition, or exercise habits can decline.
  • Life in general can seem out of balance or control.   

If the behaviors associated with high-functioning anxiety sound all too familiar, don’t brush these symptoms aside. Otherwise, you could plummet from high-functioning to barely even functional. Be intentional about your own mental health, practice self-care and compassion, then focus on healing anxious tendencies right at their core. Check out this list of mental health resources to guide you on the journey back to inner peace and balance.

About Author

Mary-Elizabeth Meagher is a freelance writer, social media marketer, travel enthusiast, musical theatre nerd and self-described bohemian. She lives and seeks adventure in the Arizona desert, and she also blogs over at Health Be a Hippie—her personal contribution to making the internet a more authentic, vulnerable and empowering place.

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