In 2013, an estimated 3 million Canadians (11.6%) aged 18 years or older reported that they had a mood and/or anxiety disorder.
More than a quarter (27%) reported that their disorder(s) affected their life “quite a bit” or “extremely” in the previous 12 months. Basic activities and the ability to work are challenging for many.
While high functioning anxiety is not a recognized mental health diagnosis, it evolved to be a “catch-all” term for people who live with anxiety but can function reasonably well in different aspects of their life.
If you’re like me, you may have noticed that your anxiety propels you forward rather than leaving you frozen in fear.
On the surface, you may appear successful, together, and even calm – the way you feel on the inside may be very different though.
A person with high functioning anxiety may be the picture of success.
- arrive to work earlier than everyone else, dressed sharp, with your hair looking good
- be career-driven (your coworkers mention your drive at work). You rarely miss a deadline, fall short in your tasks, and your work has a high attention to detail
- your willing to help others when they ask even though you’re extremely busy with work and your social circle
Underneath all of this perfect exterior, you may be fighting constant anxiety.
It may be nervous energy, your fear of failure, or being afraid to “let down” the people that you admire (parents or mentor) or drove you to success
Though your body and mind need a day off from everything going on, you’ll rarely call in sick or take a “me” day. It may be hard for others to believe something would be wrong, you portray yourself as being fine.
Everything is fine.
If a few of these characteristics sound familiar, here’s a look at what you might experience or what others might observe of you if you have high functioning anxiety.Appearances can be deceiving, here's what someone with high functioning anxiety might look like Click To Tweet
The potential benefits of high functioning anxiety can be seen in your outcomes and the successes that you and other people observe
You may appear very successful in your work and life, on the surface. This may be true if you’re only evaluating yourself based on outcomes and what you achieve.
These are the typical characteristics of people with high functioning anxiety that are often thought of as positive:
- Happy, tells jokes, smiles, laughs, always in a joyful/positive mood (an outgoing personality)
- Punctual – who wants to be late for anything
- Organized – You’ve got to-do lists, calendars, and you know where your highlighters are
- High achieving
- Detail focused
- Orderly, tidy, and neat
- Loyal in relationships to a fault
- Outwardly calm and collected
People don’t know that these actions are caused by anxiety and pressures because it’s apart of them – it’s who they are.
Though it says “high functioning”, day by day it might vary. You’ll have great days, bad days, and day days.
- The “people pleaser” – fear of being a bad friend/person/partner, letting others down, or afraid of pushing people away
- Nervous talk – not fully comfortable in silence
- Nervous traits – playing with your hair, biting your lip, constant leg shaking, cracking your knuckles
- Overthinking, racing mind and rumination (dwelling on the negative or the “what if…” thoughts)
- Need for reassurance (checking on others frequently or double-checking something)
- Avoiding eye contact
- Trouble saying no
- Sleep troubles – difficulty falling asleep, waking up early, trouble falling back asleep
- Hard to be present and “enjoy the moment” (unable to relax easily)
- Comparing yourself to others
- Mental and physical fatigue
Here’s an example…
Sarah is generally satisfied with her life.
She has a great social circle and a family life that brings her joy. She loves spending time with her kids and partner on the weekends, visiting parks close to her home. Things at home are going pretty well.
Sarah’s biggest source of stress right now is work.
She was thrilled to receive a promotion two months ago but is finding the workload hard to keep up with. She’s had to quickly learn a lot of new skills.
During her daily commute to work, she can feel her anxiety rising. In her old job, she was considered a star employee in her department, but since the promotion, she’s missed deadlines and feels like she continually lives in a brain fog. This makes it hard to get her work done.
Her coworkers have noticed that she spaces out in meetings and has talked about feeling undeserving of her new role.
The anxiety Sarah experiences at work cause her to worry constantly about work projects, even when she’s not there. She regularly has trouble sleeping, often waking up in the middle of the night thinking about tasks for the next day.
She’s nervous about a performance review coming up in the next few months — the first following her recent promotion.
If you guess she has high functioning anxiety, we’d say you’re right.
While her life is disrupted by her anxiety about work, she generally feels good about and in control of most areas of her life.
The anxiety is specific to one area and she can work with a therapist to learn skills to manage her anxiety to get back to her normal, confident self.
If Sarah’s condition worsens she may find herself completely overworked and exhausted.
If she starts to consistently miss days from work due to feeling overwhelmed or experiencing panic or anxiety attacks so severe that they kept her from working, then we’d look at Sarah’s situation a bit differently.
In either situation, Sarah could include the support of a therapist or learn coping skills for her anxiety.
She can also learn ways to advocate for herself or manage her workload differently, find support resources from HR, talk to her doctor about medication, or learn appropriate mental health coping mechanisms to help her feel better.
Early Intervention is Key
For any type of “intervention”, it’s easiest done at the beginning.
High functioning anxiety can turn into something a lot more disruptive without proper support or treatments.
It can lead to disruptive sleep, which impacts everything in our life. It can also limit our ability to enjoy the present moments, change our relationships, and question what we’re doing with outlives besides work.
Sarah’s common story is just one example of how a person can live with high-functioning anxiety and still accomplish things in her life.
Would Sarah benefit from a few sessions of therapy? Most likely!
Would she also benefit from learning her own (healthy) coping mechanisms? Also most likely!
Everyone needs help from time to time and it depends on the situation. We often think we’re “fine” or we can just through it for this period and everything will be fine again.
My thought process for getting help is trying it by myself first and then finding an expert if that doesn’t work for me – each situation is different. I just happen to work and enjoy learning about this field, so I don’t often need the outside help (I will go when I can’t control something and need a different view).
If we talk about something outside of my wheelhouse, I’m going to be quicker to find an expert.
There is help out there for people who are dealing with any form of anxiety, including the high functioning forms. However, certain characteristics of high functioning anxiety may have prevented you from seeking help.
There are many reasons you might not have sought help for high functioning anxiety include:
- You find it a double-edged sword and don’t want to lose the positive influence of anxiety on your success
- You are worried that your work will suffer if you are not constantly driven to work hard out of fear
- You believe that you’re achieving/successful (strictly an objective view) it means you don’t “need help” or you don’t deserve help
- You think everyone struggles the way you do because it’s normal for you
- You believe you’re “bad” at dealign with life stress
- You don’t talk about your internal struggles and the silence has reinforced the feeling that you can’t ask for help. “What would they think or say?”
- People may not believe you because they haven’t “seen” you struggle
- You may have a different picture of what anxiety looks like
We have assumptions of what things should look like – you may think ageing requires a cane, bad posture, and no teeth.
It can apply to anxiety as well, it’s not just the person who is housebound, can’t work, bites their nails, or struggles to maintain relationships of any kind.
It can be the fund manager that manages high profile accounts to the person who is smiling while taking your order at Starbucks.
No one is immune to anxiety, high functioning or not.
We don’t often think of the inner turmoil of anxiety as an internal struggle as being reason enough to seek help.
Anxiety can be very much a life of denial. You might even convince yourself that there is nothing wrong—you’re a workaholic, germaphobe, list-maker, etc.
While it can look and feel different from other types of anxiety, it’s still present (even though it’s well-hidden) and can seriously disrupt a person’s life.
There are many resources you can start with on getting help
You can find online programs
- I have one that you can buy that in 30 days teaches you certain exercises to control your thoughts, improves your wellbeing and uses the top science-based ways to improve your mental health. “30 days to better mental health“
- There’s this one from the Centre for Addiction and Mental health
- There’s a great one from Yale on the “science of well-being”
- You can learn CBT to manage anxiety on Udemy – For a small fee you can learn specific techniques that help you manage your anxiety
You can talk with a counsellor – in-person or via an app
- TalkSpace – An app that finds a counsellor for you
- Betterhelp – A great app that connects you to a therapist
- Use the counselling BC website – Find a counsellor close to you
- Just google ” counsellor [ insert your city] “
If you want help or suggestions with your mental health, you can connect with our holistic nutritionist to create a specific program for you.