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High-Functioning Anxiety: Not All Anxiety Looks the Same in Life

Not all anxiety looks the same. The anxiety symptoms that get the most attention are things like difficulty concentrating, trouble sleeping, feeling restless, and experiencing extreme worry. And while it's important people learn to recognize these anxiety symptoms, not all anxiety looks the same. The symptoms of high-functioning anxiety in men and women often get overlooked.

In fact, some of the signs of high-functioning anxiety can be mistaken for positive traits. This is because, from the outside, it can look like people struggling with this type of anxiety are thriving. But inwardly, they are struggling.

They are top performers on the job. Their house is perfectly decorated. And they're the first to step up and help when someone needs it. It appears they are living an Instagram-worthy, Pinterest-perfect life. But under the surface, anxiety runs rampant. It's a large part of why they seem to have it all together. Their anxiety pushes them to keep all the balls in the air and never let anyone see the struggle. They are the detailed oriented, proactive, high-achievers.

Maybe you can relate.

If so, you're not alone. According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders affect 40 million adults annually. And while high-functioning anxiety itself might not be a mental health disorder, it can lead to other forms of anxiety and depression.

Just because you can function, even at a high level, while dealing inwardly with your anxiety doesn't mean you should continue to navigate the situation alone. There is help available so you can experience relief from the symptoms you're living with and enjoy life more.

What is high-functioning anxiety?

High-functioning anxiety itself is not an official mental health diagnosis. Instead, it's a term used for people living with anxiety (or anxiety disorders) who continue functioning well in their daily lives. However, they often experience stress, worry, and obsessive thoughts. Because they are masters at looking like they flawlessly keep everything together, their struggle often goes unnoticed by friends and family.

To others, someone with high-functioning anxiety doesn't look like they're struggling. Instead, they give the appearance that they have everything put together. Imagine the old duck metaphor. Ducks swimming in the water look calm and at rest on the surface. But their webbed feet are paddling away under the water. So likewise, people living with high-functioning anxiety may appear calm, cool, and collected outwardly, but anxiety is constantly in motion within them.

So, while you may be able to function without help if you have high-functioning anxiety, it doesn't mean you should leave it untreated.

Signs of high-functioning anxiety

Those living with high-functioning anxiety may experience general anxiety symptoms such as:

  • Excessive worry

  • Changes in sleeping and eating habits

  • Restlessness

  • Irritation

  • Headaches, gastrointestinal issues, or chronic pain

  • Difficulty concentrating

But their symptoms don't usually stop there. While these symptoms may play a role in their lives, it doesn't stop them from accomplishing their goals. And sometimes, the fear and anxiety they experience is what drives them to push through and succeed at high levels.

But while high-functioning anxiety can lead to success, it often comes with a cost to their physical health, mental health, and other areas of life, such as their relationships.

Signs of high-functioning anxiety that are often overlooked can include the following:

  • Striving for perfection

  • Unable to delegate tasks to others

  • Mean inner critic

  • Overthinking and rumination

  • The need to control situations

  • Breaking down when things don't go as planned

  • Nervous habits (nail biting, bouncing legs, etc.)

  • Procrastination (especially when unsure of how to perfectly complete a task)

  • Indecisiveness

  • Workaholism (or other addictions)

  • Overcommitting and difficulty saying "no"

  • People pleasing

Impact of high-functioning anxiety on relationships

It can be challenging for those with high-functioning anxiety to be open about their thoughts, feelings, and worries with friends and family. But while they want to appear they are keeping it together, their behavior can negatively impact their relationships, including with partners, children, and closest friends.

It's common for people with high-functioning anxiety to be people-pleasers. They constantly bend over backward to accommodate the requests that come in from all directions. This can quickly lead to an overwhelming schedule, meaning something has to give. Unfortunately, it can often be those closest to them who end up getting the least amount of attention.

Here are some examples of what life with high-functioning anxiety can look like:

  • You promise your kids you'll bake cookies with them, but then a friend needs your help, and you end up on the phone for hours until there isn't enough time left to bake.

  • Your partner is looking forward to a night out, but your boss mentioned a new project as you were heading out the door for the day. So you work late to get a head-start and stay ahead of the game.

  • You've spent all day trying to be everything to everyone and by the time evening rolls around, you just want time to be alone. You want a break from trying to meet the expectations of others. So, you cancel plans with friends because you don't have the energy to hang out.

  • It feels like your partner/parent/child/friend is constantly judging and criticizing you.

  • Regardless of how hard you try, you don't feel "good enough" in your relationships.

These are a few basic examples of how living with high-functioning anxiety can impact relationships.

Tips for dealing with high-functioning anxiety

As with mental health disorders, there are many options for getting help with the symptoms of high-functioning anxiety.

Learn to identify your symptoms

It can help to know how high-functioning anxiety shows up in your life. Once you understand how it affects you, it will be easier to spot it as it shows up in your life. For example, are you ruminating over a conversation you had with a coworker yesterday? Remind yourself that it's likely anxiety at play.

As you start to recognize how it's impacting you, you'll be able to identify the days you are struggling more. This can help you be more aware as you move through the day, so your anxiety doesn't get the best of you.

Change how you think about failure

Many high-achievers can struggle with the fear of failure. And while it can motivate you to do your best work, it can also leave you feeling deflated if you fail. However, experiencing failure is part of life and something you can learn from instead of something you need to feel ashamed or bad about.

Remind yourself that you are not a failure if you fail. Instead, develop the habit of removing the emotion and reflecting on any situations where you failed at a task to see what you could do differently next time. This simple practice can help you learn from failure without allowing it to take you on an emotional rollercoaster.

Practice deep breathing and mindfulness

Anxiety impacts our physical body as well as our mental health. So when you feel symptoms of anxiety kicking in, take a moment to reconnect with your body and the world around you.

Deep breathing can help slow your body's physical response to stress and anxiety. And mindfulness meditation can help you return to the present moment and your surroundings.

Change your inner self-talk

We can easily move throughout the day without realizing what we're thinking about ourselves. Spend some time paying attention to your self-talk and thinking. This can help you identify unhealthy patterns and habits in your thought life. Once you identify them, you can work on replacing them with healthier thoughts.

You can even choose a mantra to introduce to your life by repeating it to yourself daily. This could be something like, "I am doing my best, and that's good enough."

Learn to prioritize and say "no" to yourself and others

No one can be all things to all people. Realistically, you cannot say "yes" to every commitment and opportunity that comes your way. You will end up burned out. Learning to say "no" can be a compassionate form of self-care.

Spend some time thinking about your priorities for this stage of life. Even if you've set priorities before, they may need to change based on your current situation and circumstances.

For example, you used to be the mom involved in all the school activities, but you recently had another baby and no longer have the time you used to. Or you used to be able to take on extra projects at work, but you're in a relationship now and don't want to spend long hours at work outside of your job commitment. Or maybe you're the friend that everyone comes to, but you have a health situation or family situation at home and need to prioritize yourself right now.

It's ok to say no to others. Not only is it ok, but it's also healthy to learn how to set boundaries to protect your mental health and wellness.

Work with a therapist

There are many ways a therapist can help you overcome your struggle with high-functioning anxiety. However, just because you're able to function doesn't mean you need to keep on the same path you're on. Help is available to get you feeling your best in your daily life.

A therapist can work with you to explore the treatment options available and create a personalized plan to address the specific obstacles you're facing.

Are you tired of trying to keep it all together on your own?

You don't have to do it alone. And you don't have to wait to reach a point where you can't function in your daily life before seeking help. We have experienced mental health professionals at The NEST Clinic who can meet you where you are and create a plan to help you feel your best.

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