High-functioning anxiety looks harmless. On the outside, you’re a hard worker with stable mental health. Some might call you a little stuffy, but bosses and coworkers love your dedication and seemingly boundless energy. You arrive on time, complete projects early and impress your superiors.
At home, your living space is clean and tidy. You write everything on the calendar and adhere to a strict routine. You’re popular in your social circles because you get along with almost everyone. Other people envy you because you appear to have your life in order.
In fact, your “perfect” exterior masks your anxiety, panic attacks, racing thoughts and insecurities. You worry that you’d disappoint people if they knew the truth. As your stress increases, you might be unable to hide your anxiety for much longer.
Defining High-Functioning Anxiety
High-functioning anxiety is a form of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) that’s nearly invisible from the outside. People with high-functioning anxiety can go to work or school, attend social functions, raise children, travel and make significant decisions without appearing distressed. Instead of showing symptoms, they mask their anxiety by adhering to social norms.
People with this condition can experience various anxiety disorders, including GAD, phobias, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some are so adept at masking that they can have a panic attack in public without anyone noticing. They often adopt unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as maladaptive daydreaming, to distract themselves from their racing thoughts.
What Makes High-Functioning Anxiety Different?
High-functioning anxiety has “strengths” that make people dismiss the possibility of a mental disorder. Friends, relatives and coworkers might spot the following traits:
- Maintaining a tight schedule
- Always arriving on time
- Producing quality work
- Expecting the best from yourself
- Wearing professional attire
- Completing every project you start
- Staying calm in challenging situations
- Keeping your area clean
- Receiving frequent promotions
In fact, people with high-functioning anxiety often don’t realize they have the condition. They assume their racing thoughts, perfectionism and self-criticism are inherent personality traits. Other common beliefs are “everyone has panic attacks before presentations” and “burnout is just part of a high-pressure career.”
Challenges of Living With High-Functioning Anxiety
Friends and relatives don’t always take high-functioning anxiety seriously. In their minds, anxious people suffer from irrational phobias. They have panic attacks whenever they leave the house or interact with another person. Someone with a mental illness couldn’t possibly have a normal life.
This mindset makes it difficult to seek help. In fact, your bosses and coworkers might not want you to change. They see your anxiety as “perfectionism” and “overachieving,” which results in quality work. Because they don’t notice your emotional exhaustion, they accuse you of exaggerating your problems.
Other challenges include:
- Taking on more work than you can handle
- Battering yourself with constant self-criticism
- Getting angry at people who don’t meet your standards
- Neglecting sleep and self-care
- Refusing to take breaks and vacations because it’s “lazy”
- Obsessing over the future
- Resorting to toxic coping mechanisms, such as alcoholism
- Trying to please everyone at your expense
- Engaging in nervous habits, such as fidgeting
Internalizing anxiety is mentally exhausting. You work just as hard as everyone else with half the energy and a fraction of the sleep. Sometimes, you mask your feelings so much that you lose sight of your true identity.
Unfortunately, perfectionists are also less likely to seek help than other people. You might feel like talking to a counselor is “making excuses” and “slacking off.” If hiding your anxiety has worked this long, why not keep doing it? Some even believe they don’t deserve counseling.
What Causes High-Functioning Anxiety?
High expectations lead to internalized anxiety. If your parents expected you to pass every test or your boss demands perfection on every assignment, you criticize yourself whenever you fall short. Your fear rises as you try to work faster and harder than everyone else.
Bullying and abuse make you feel afraid and question your self-worth. Other triggers include death, divorce, job loss, illnesses and physical injuries. Friends may tell you you’re handling the situation well, but you’re secretly terrified that the incident will happen again. You’re constantly on edge, looking for ways to prevent it.
How Do You Treat High-Functioning Anxiety?
Because “high-functioning anxiety” isn’t a diagnosis on its own, therapists start by diagnosing the core issue. According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, nearly 7 million people suffer from GAD. Your counselor may diagnose you with GAD or another condition, such as OCD or panic disorder.
Sometimes, a simple chemical imbalance causes an anxiety disorder. Medication, such as Buspar and Celexa, could ease the symptoms. Anxiety linked to environmental factors might require talk therapy. During each session, you’ll challenge negative thought patterns and uncover more realistic perspectives.
Your therapist may suggest coping mechanisms that support your progress between appointments. Common methods include:
- Socializing with friends
- Practicing breathing exercises whenever you feel anxious
- Meditating for 10 minutes each day
- Writing your feelings in a journal
- Eating a healthier diet
- Exercising several times a week
- Sticking to a sleep schedule
- Spending more time outdoors
- Listening to relaxing music
- Picking up new hobbies
In some cases, counselors suggest major life changes. If your job causes extreme stress with few benefits, you could talk about switching careers. Other options include ending a relationship, moving to another state or finding a safer neighborhood. Your anxiety may decrease when you leave a high-pressure environment.
Some individuals need treatment for more severe disorders, such as trauma and substance abuse, that manifest as panic attacks and racing thoughts. Facing the past can alleviate built-up fear and tension, letting you relax again.
Seek Professional Help
If you’re wondering if you have high-functioning anxiety, an objective, third-party perspective may provide answers. Contact our 24/7 hotline to discuss your situation with a counselor. We can verify your insurance coverage if you’re thinking about starting a program. Talk to us about inpatient care, outpatient care and neuro rehab.