High-functioning anxiety isn’t necessarily an official diagnosis of anxiety disorder. Rather, it’s a phrase we use for people who live with anxiety but are able to function relatively well in their day-to-day lives.
On paper, one can argue that people with high-functioning anxiety don’t really have a problem. In some cases, anxiety may even propel someone forward, instead of holding them back.
But just because someone looks good on the outside, doesn’t mean they’re perfectly fine on the inside, too.
People with high-functioning anxiety still suffer from the negative health impact related to Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). The World Health Organization estimates that 300 million people around the world suffer from anxiety. About 40 million Americans are diagnosed with GAD. Out of that number, approximately 18% say they have high-functioning anxiety.
So what does it look like?
According to Lynne Siqueland, Ph.D. of the Children’s and Adult Center for OCD and Anxiety,
“As therapists, we talk about a lot of people even with diagnosed anxiety disorders as ‘high-functioning,’ and many of them are. They are doing really well in their jobs, in relationships and raising kids, despite having significant anxiety.”
What makes them different then?
High-functioning anxiety manifests in different ways compared to people with debilitating anxiety.
People with GAD have intense feelings of worrying and stressing that almost incapacitates them.
Those who have high-functioning anxiety, on the other hand, can appear in control and “on top of things.” But on the inside, they’re barely fighting to survive. They can even be living in constant fear all the time.
“Much of anxiety is internal-uncontrolled worry or social evaluation, and no one would know unless the person has a lot of physical symptoms of avoidance,” adds Siqueland.
“Many people with mild to severe anxiety will do the essential tasks but limit other experiences or opportunities, and this is what sometimes leads them to treatment.”
One particular sign of high-functioning anxiety is an obsession or fixation on things. As a way to make them feel safe, they become unreasonably fixated on things in life that give them a small sense of security.
Do you think you have high-functioning anxiety? You just might, if you are obsessed with these 7 things.
1. Having a perfect career.
You might think you’re simply a workaholic. But if you fixate on your career goals, while feeling insecure and anxious about your progress, then you might have high-functioning anxiety.
You’re constantly working because you’re afraid you might lose traction. In fact, you’re scared to take a day off. You’re even afraid of making demands from your boss.
Mental health organization, Bridges to Recovery explains why,
“High-functioning anxiety sufferers generally push through their feelings and do what they have to do, even though they frequently feel discomfort before, during, and after their encounters with people or environments that cause them stress.”
You’re obsessed with having that position, succeeding at your projects, and having a perfect career because that’s the only aspect you can hold onto.
2. Numeric milestones.
You promised yourself you’ll have your own car by 21, a house by 30, 1 million in your savings account. In fact, you want to achieve these numeric milestones so bad, that it’s your driving force in life.
It’s not a bad thing, necessarily. It can even feel safe. It creates a structure for you to work towards.
But it’s a double-edged sword.
When you’re reaching that age, you get anxious, worried, irritable. You feel like you’ve failed. When you don’t have that amount of money on your bank account, you feel stressed, as if you’re going to get bankrupt.
For someone with high-functioning anxiety, this fixation only creates a huge amount of pressure.
3. Dietary choices.
So you’re not really allergic to gluten, but you’re obsessed about eating only gluten-free. It can be as innocent as that.
Or it could be more serious.
Unfortunately, that’s not usually the case. High-function anxiety can also come with an eating disorder diagnosis.
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According to Eating Disorder HOPE,
“Often, it is the case that anxiety precedes an eating disorder. In struggling with severe anxiety, for instance, being able to control the aspect of one’s life, such as food, weight, and exercise, indirectly gives the suffer a false sense of control, which can temporarily relieve symptoms experienced due to anxiety.”
4. Clothing and style choices.
Are you obsessed about how you look because you want to emulate a particular persona to the world?
Sure, we all have those days when we feel like we have nothing to wear. Nothing works.
But to people with high-functioning anxiety, it’s an everyday struggle. If you stress about your outfits on a daily basis, allowing it to ruin your mood or measure your conference, you might have high-functioning anxiety.
5. Not going to the doctor.
Some people are scared of doctors and medical examinations to the point they avoid them at all costs.
But for people with high-functioning anxiety, it’s worse. In fact, you do everything you can, as long as you never have to do a medical exam again.
(Dating someone with anxiety? Check out this article: Loving someone with anxiety: 10 things to know.)
Going to the doctor gives you so much anxiety, that you’re obsessed with avoiding it.
It can be associated with your need for control. You don’t want your health to depend on other factors, so you’d rather avoid getting professional help.
6. Results from exams, presentations, interviews.
Everyone experiences anxiety before and after a big exam, presentation, or interview. But for people with high-functioning anxiety, it’s an obsession.
And that’s not always a bad thing.
Dr. Carmen Tebbe Priebe, Ph.D., a sports psychologist with the University of Iowa in Iowa City, expresses,
“There are times that anxiety is very motivating, very facilitating. It makes people work hard, so it can seem as if they’re functioning well, but they’re not [always] disclosing everything that’s happening.”
But people with high-functioning anxiety can also exhibit borderline obsessive-compulsive disorder when it comes to exams or presentations.
If you find that your main cause of stress and anxiety is trying to do well or doing perfect on an exam or work presentation, you might be dealing with high-functioning anxiety.
7. Strict and rigid schedule.
Everything must be on schedule. One tiny-hiccup spirals you out of frantic control.
High-functioning anxiety pushes someone to fixate on their schedules. People who experience this have an insanely rigid schedule. They follow their planners to a T.
You become irritated when things don’t go according to plan. Late people annoy you so much. And it affects your mood like no other.
Because you have a desperate need to control things, you do everything in your power to organize every aspect of your life.
And that becomes unhealthy when you become completely inflexible to the things you have no control over.
In truth, most of you are walking around having no idea that we’re experiencing high-functioning anxiety.
You portray a deliberate mask of confidence to the world. But deep inside, you are extremely fragile.
High-functioning anxiety affects us in unique and subtle ways. But in the long run, it may create irreparable effects on our well-being.
If you recognize yourself in most of the signs above, it might be the time to get yourself some professional help.
There is no shame in asking for professional advice. The alternative, after all, is living your life through this anxiety. And that is never a good thing.