woman with an anxiety attack

Some people seem to have it all together. They breeze through life with little stress and few problems. But for others, even everyday tasks can be a challenge and overwhelming. Life may feel like a never-ending balancing act for people with high functioning anxiety.

High functioning anxiety is a term used to describe people who experience many symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) but can continue functioning in their daily lives. People with high functioning anxiety may feel anxious all the time, worry about things that may not seem important to other people, or have trouble focusing on anything else other than their worries.

Even though they may impress others with their poise, self-confidence, and ability to handle stressful situations, high-functioning anxiety sufferers often struggle with the same issues that people with GAD experience. Many people with high functioning anxiety are successful in work or school, but most often, they live in fear of doing something wrong or being evaluated negatively by others.

The good news is that individuals with high functioning anxiety can learn to manage their symptoms of anxiety and live with reasonable levels of anxiety. The bad news is they are often unaware of how debilitating their anxiety is and feel stuck. There are many reasons why people with high functioning anxiety often aren’t aware of their mental health condition.

What are the symptoms of high functioning anxiety?

For many, the term “anxiety” is interchangeable with the term “stress.” And while stress is a common experience for most, it can be debilitating for those who suffer from high functioning anxiety. Individuals with high functioning anxiety may appear to have it all together. They’re often seen as high-achieving people who are always organized, efficient, and driven. But looks can be deceiving.

Beneath the surface, these individuals are struggling with a constant sense of worry and fear. They have an intense desire to control their excessive anxiety but find it difficult and overwhelming to do. They’re often plagued by a feeling of impending doom. They live in constant fear that something terrible will happen and that they’ll be unable to cope with the crisis.

women with anxiety

High-functioning anxiety often takes the shape of one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Feeling constantly anxious or on edge
  • Difficulty concentrating or focusing
  • Racing thoughts or mind going blank
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Difficulty falling asleep or poor sleep
  • Muscle tension or pain
  • Headaches, stomach upset, rapid heart rate, or heart palpitations

What’s the difference between anxiety and high functioning anxiety?

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health condition in the United States, affecting 40 million American adults in the US each year. There are different types of anxiety disorders, but the most common are generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety disorder.

Many people don’t know the difference between anxiety and high functioning anxiety. Anxiety is what most people experience when they have to give a presentation or speak in public. It’s that feeling of butterflies in your stomach or racing thoughts you get before stressful life events. High functioning anxiety is a more severe form of anxiety that can make it difficult for people to function in their day-to-day lives.

People with high functioning anxiety often have difficulty sleeping, concentrating, and making decisions. They may also experience intense feelings and often worry about things that some people would not worry about.

Normal anxiety is usually a healthy response to being anxious. It keeps you on your toes and gives you an extra energy boost when needed. However, if your anxious feelings are so severe that they affect your ability to get your daily tasks done at work or at home, it may be important to work with a therapist to process your feelings and find the best treatment for anxiety.

woman with anxiety

What causes high functioning anxiety?

High functioning anxiety is caused by a combination of factors, including genetics, environment, and lifestyle. While scientists are still learning about the specific causes of high functioning anxiety, they believe it may be related to a malfunctioning in the portion of the brain that regulates fear and stress. Thus, high functioning anxiety may be caused by a specific genetic mutation or a combination of factors that trigger the brain to over-respond to stress and fear.

There are many different causes of high functioning anxiety, but some of the most common include:

  • Genetics
  • Environment
  • Brain chemistry
  • Learned behavior
  • Coping mechanisms
  • Medication

One theory suggests that people with high-functioning anxiety are perfectionists who strive for excellence in everything they do. This constant pressure to be perfect can lead to a high stress level. Another theory suggests that people with high-functioning anxiety are hypersensitive and constantly scan their environment for potential threats. This constant vigilance can also lead to bad stress and severe anxiety.

What are the treatments for high functioning anxiety?

Although high functioning anxiety can be frustrating and debilitating, various treatments available can help lessen symptoms and improve quality of life. Behavioral treatments include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and relaxation strategies.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. The goal is to teach patients how their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can affect their anxiety symptoms. CBT is often used to help patients overcome fears, such as fear of failure or rejection.

To reduce the fear, the patient works on identifying the triggers for these feelings and learning more effective coping skills. CBT can be used to treat generalized anxiety disorder, high functioning anxiety, social phobia, and panic disorder. Relaxation strategies help patients learn to relax and cope with stress. Relaxation techniques include progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing exercises, guided imagery, and meditation.

People with high functioning anxiety benefit greatly from a self-care plan. One of the most common self-management activities is social support. Social support can include family and friends, as well as professionals. These people can provide the support and encouragement a person needs to get through the challenges of high functioning anxiety.

family support

Your self-care plan should also include eating well, exercising, and taking breaks to relieve stress. These strategies can be as simple as working through a difficult situation by telling a friend or family member about it. It is also important to make time for hobbies and friends to distract the mind from negative thoughts and feelings.

A mental health professional can suggest self-care strategies and teach you how to manage stress and difficult situations. There is no one “cure” for anxiety disorders, but with the right help and treatment, individuals can learn to manage their symptoms and find strategies for high-functioning anxiety. It’s important to seek professional help to have a therapist in your corner while working through this.