High-functioning anxiety is when someone may look well put together on the outside, may be high-achieving and accomplished, but has symptoms of anxiety like intense worry, intrusive thoughts, and a harsh inner critic inside.
They may also experience physical symptoms of anxiety but are able to mask their symptoms so others don’t know that they’re suffering.
In this article, we'll take a look at:
What Is High-Functioning Anxiety?
High-functioning anxiety is a condition that affects many people, regardless of their age, gender, or social status.
It’s when someone has anxiety going on internally, yet is successful in their careers, has strong relationships, and life looks good on the outside.
However, they may also feel like they are constantly on edge and that they have to be perfect in everything they do.
They may worry about things that other people would consider to be minor or insignificant.
They may also feel as though something is off and if they just work harder, or worry more, they’ll be able to fix it.
Symptoms of High-Functioning Anxiety
Some symptoms of high-functioning anxiety include:
- Feeling like you have to be perfect
- Needing to be in control
- Being extremely organized
- Having an intense inner critic
- Difficulty relaxing and having fun
- Feeling restless or on edge
- Experiencing racing thoughts
- Having physical symptoms of anxiety like stomach issues
- Feeling like you have to be perfect
- Experiencing worry about things you can’t control
- Fear of failure and procrastination
- People-pleasing and self-doubt
10 Examples of High-Functioning Anxiety
1. Impacts Work
Susan is a top executive at a major company. She is highly successful, but she always feels like she is on the brink of disaster.
She is constantly worried about making mistakes, and she often feels like she can’t relax or take a break.
Even when she’s on vacation, she can’t stop thinking about work.
Susan’s high-functioning anxiety is making it difficult for her to enjoy life and live up to her full potential.
She always feels “on” and feels that if she stops that she’ll be in trouble or will get fired, even though she’s a highly valued member of her company.
2. Impacts Relationships
Ross is very uptight in his relationship. He’s critical of both himself and his partner and tends to nit-pick when his partner makes mistakes.
His partner finds this very difficult because they feel like they can never do anything right.
Ross loves his partner very much, yet is always on the lookout for something being wrong with his relationship.
Whenever he and his partner experience conflict he tends to worry about what that means for the longevity of their relationship.
Ross also has intrusive thoughts about his partner’s exes. His partner has given him no cause for jealousy but Ross can’t seem to let go of thoughts that his partner would prefer to be with someone else.
Because of these things Ross finds it difficult to be really present and relaxed in his relationship.
He misses out on opportunities for gratitude and enjoying time with his partner because he’s so in his head about possible worst-case scenarios.
3. Creates The Need To Be Perfect
Mary feels like she needs to be perfect in all areas of her life.
She’s a perfectionist at work and holds herself, and her co-workers, up to a very high standard.
Her high expectations impact all areas of her life including how she looks, how she eats, and her relationships.
She feels like she can never make a mistake, which causes her a lot of stress and worry.
Sometimes, she avoids signing up for difficult tasks and assignments at work because she fears that she won’t be able to do them perfectly so would rather not do them at all.
4. Extreme Organization
Jenny has always been good at details. She is bothered by grammatical mistakes when she reads and finds it difficult to focus when her house is a mess.
She finds that other people just don’t do things as well as she’d like them to.
Her husband tends to load the dishwasher wrong and puts the towels away in the wrong place.
Her co-workers are sometimes late for deadlines and don’t put files in the right shared folders at work.
These things shouldn’t stress her out yet she finds them intensely stressful. She finds it difficult to relax or let go when things are out of place or not done “correctly” and up to her standards.
5. Feeling The Need For Control
Sam owns a small company that is having a good degree of success.
However, his employees are rather unhappy because Sam always questions everything they do.
Sam tends to micromanage their work and constantly prods them about timelines which they find distracting and defeating.
Sam also has difficulty delegating important things to other people at the office because he doesn’t trust that other people can do it as well as he can.
This is limiting his ability to grow his business, make more money, and create more time freedom for him and his family.
6. Highly Critical
Susan seems to do it all.
She’s president of the PTA and a partner in her law firm.
Yet Susan holds a secret.
She actually thinks she’s a bad person despite all of the evidence that this isn’t true.
Susan tells herself that other people don’t like her, that her work at the law firm isn’t very good, and that she’s too overweight and old to try to date again.
She’s constantly telling herself stories about not being good enough.
What’s worse is that this judgment also falls on other people.
Susan finds herself criticizing other people as well.
Her neighbor says hi to everyone in the neighborhood and Susan finds herself calling him fake under her breath. Susan looks at the other women in her yoga class and rolls her eyes as she tells herself how vain they all are.
These judgments of herself and others make it difficult for Susan to get close to other people and form intimate relationships.
7. Not Feeling Good Enough
Craig feels like nothing he does is ever enough.
When his wife asks him to turn down the television in the evenings so he doesn’t wake their toddler, he says “gee, something else I’ve done wrong” to himself.
Craig feels like he doesn’t work hard enough at his job and that he’s an imposter, even though he’s a highly talented and qualified engineer.
He’s very irritable and angry a lot of the time because he feels as though the world is against him, even though it’s his thoughts about himself that are the biggest problem in his life.
8. People Pleasing
Helen always makes time for everyone else.
Whenever her sisters and her mom need her she drops everything and runs to help. Even when this means that she has to stay up all night to complete a project for a deadline at work.
She always makes sure that she does what other people expect of her or else she begins to feel intense anxiety and fear that people will be angry at her.
9. Physical Symptoms
Ned has high expectations of himself and tends to be hard on himself at work.
Ned has been having stomach issues for about a year. He’s gone to the doctor but they can’t find anything wrong.
Every morning before he goes to work he feels like he’s going to throw up.
He has difficulty sleeping and often has headaches in the evening.
10. Difficulty Having Fun
Cathy has a hard time relaxing.
She tends to have a few glasses of wine in the evenings in order to finally relax.
When she goes to social events she finds that she often drinks too much wine because she feels nervous about what other people think of her.
She’s starting to find socializing stressful because she fears that either people will judge her or she’ll drink too much and embarrass herself.
High-functioning anxiety can be a difficult thing to live with, however, there are some things that you can do to manage your anxiety and make it more manageable.
Positives Of High-Functioning Anxiety
While there are many challenging and potentially negative aspects of high-functioning anxiety there are several potential positive aspects as well.
- High level of productivity and focus
- Able to juggle multiple demands
- Thrive under pressure
- Often multi-talented or Gifted
As you can see, there are many potential upsides to having high-functioning anxiety.
We Need Anxiety To A Certain Degree
In fact, we need anxiety to a certain degree to be successful in life.
For example, without a deadline causing someone a small degree of anxiety they may never finish a project.
Without feeling a bit anxious about meeting their new in-laws they may not be on their best behavior.
When we experience anxiety at this level it can become motivating and inspire us to achieve our goals. It can actually make us more focused and inspired. We may even find that anxiety, when felt on a small scale, helps us to be our best.
Let’s be clear, anxiety is a reality for everyone.
The goal is not to banish anxiety forever. The goal is to be able to work with it.
I discuss this more in my article, Anxiety Is Normal. There’s No Need To Feel Bad About It.
There’s a big difference between anxiety that’s functional and anxiety that becomes self-sabotaging and paralyzing.
It Becomes Harder To See The Problem
The many positive aspects are some of the reasons that people with high-functioning anxiety tend to seek out help later in life or when something bad happens. e.g. they self-sabotage a new relationship or fear success in their business.
People with high-functioning anxiety are often very gifted, multi-talented and have made a good show on the outside of “having it all together”.
These people are often high-achievers who have done well in school, in their corporate jobs, or in their own businesses.
Yet, they feel at a deep level this inner turmoil of things not being quite right.
They feel that if they just keep worrying about the aspects that aren’t complete or are unknown, or if they can manage to be better and a more perfect version of themselves, that things will finally be great.
They don’t realize that they are the reason that they’re not happy and satisfied now (not their life circumstances).
Being this hard on themselves drives them to be successful in many ways, however, it ends up limiting their happiness and satisfaction in life because they’re waiting for the other shoe to drop or feel like something is missing.
Causes of High-Functioning Anxiety
There is no one specific cause of high-functioning anxiety. It is believed to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
Some of the possible causes include:
1. A family history of anxiety or other mental health disorders
A family history of anxiety can cause high-functioning anxiety by way of genetic factors.
If someone in your family has anxiety, you may be more likely to develop the disorder yourself.
Sometimes when a family member has anxiety you’ve learned how to mask the anxiety and look like you have it all together by watching them.
2. A stressful home life or work environment
If you are constantly exposed to stressors in your home or work life, this can lead to high levels of anxiety.
When going through stressful life transitions this can especially be the case.
In fact, any life change, even seemingly positive ones like moving to a new home, can become stressors.
Evaluate your own stressors by downloading the Life Change Stress Test
3. A history of trauma or abuse
Traumatic events or abuse can lead to high-functioning anxiety.
This is because the nervous system becomes more reactive to perceived stress.
A person may become focused on avoiding traumatic events in the future by controlling their environment or worrying about things.
For some people, trauma may mean something seemingly small like getting in a car crash.
For others, it can be a major event like being a refugee.
However, you don’t have to have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to be impacted by trauma.
4. Being a high achiever
Being a high achiever can cause high-functioning anxiety because you are constantly pushing yourself to achieve more and more.
You may be highly gifted and experienced a high degree of success early in life.
Often these experiences can lead you to feel inadequate or anxious when you’re not achieving things.
You may even get your self-worth through achievement.
This constant striving can leave you feeling burnt out and overwhelmed.
5. Being A Perfectionist
People who are perfectionists and have high standards for themselves are more likely to develop high-functioning anxiety.
Perfectionism can both be a cause of, and a result of, high-functioning anxiety.
Anxiety may cause someone to feel more perfectionistic.
However, perfectionism also causes anxiety because they are always striving to be perfect and meet unrealistic standards.
This type of person may never feel satisfied with their achievements and always strive for more.
This can lead to high levels of anxiety because of feeling constantly worried about not meeting your own high standards.
6. Being a people pleaser
People pleasers are always trying to please others and make them happy.
They may feel that if others aren’t happy with them that they’ve done something wrong.
This can cause a lot of stress and worry about what’s going on in other people’s lives.
It can also lead people to not prioritize themselves and what they need to accomplish to meet their own goals.
It can even lead to self-neglect as this type of person may end up focusing all of their energy on caring for others instead of themselves.
People-pleasing can both be a cause of and a result of high-functioning anxiety.
High-Functioning Anxiety vs. Other Forms of Anxiety
There are some key differences between high-functioning anxiety and other forms of anxiety.
Let’s take a look at these differences so that you can fully understand how this condition differs from the others.
The main difference between high-functioning anxiety and other forms of anxiety is that people generally do not have any obvious outward symptoms.
Those with more serious forms of anxiety often experience detrimental effects in their work lives, relationships, and day-to-day lives that are visible to other people.
People with high-functioning anxiety may be able to function adequately at work or school despite experiencing severe symptoms of anxiety on the inside. This can lead to feelings of shame or embarrassment, which can make it difficult for these individuals to seek treatment.
People with high-functioning anxiety may explain their anxiety away and label it as being a hard worker or just being stressed. They may also have learned to successfully “mask” their symptoms by acting as if everything is alright even when it’s not.
Tips Deal With High-Functioning Anxiety
High-functioning anxiety can be a difficult thing to live with.
How to deal with high-functioning anxiety and how to treat it is essential to understand so that you can overcome the self-sabotage, paralysis, and fear of success that so often accompanies it.
Here is a basic overview of some things to do to help manage your anxiety.
- Identify your triggers and learn to manage them better.
- Challenge your negative thoughts and beliefs about yourself.
- Practice relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, or yoga.
- Exercise regularly to help reduce stress and anxiety.
- Talk to a coach, therapist, or counselor.
- Learn what your anxiety is trying to tell you rather than avoiding it
- Learn to take action despite anxiety
- Learn to use your anxiety to your advantage.
High-functioning anxiety can be a good thing if you learn to use it to your advantage.
It can help you be more successful in your work and goals.
However, it is important to learn how to manage your anxiety so that it does not take over your life.
If you find that your anxiety is starting to interfere with your life, it is important to seek help from a professional.