Updated: Jul 6, 2022
What is High-Functioning Anxiety?
Anxiety can affect people in different ways: some people are floored by it, unable to do every-day activities. Others not only manage their day-to-day activities but even appear to excel at them. This is where the term ‘high-functioning’ comes in.
Whilst is it not a diagnosis, it is a term that many people resonate with and is being used more frequently these days. Perhaps the reason for this is that there’s less stigma attached (I’m functioning despite my anxiety!) and that enables people to take steps towards getting help.
If you sense that those around you believe that your life is sorted and successful but are clueless how much time you spend replaying events and conversations in your mind; trying to avoid criticism and planning ahead, then read on as it sounds like High-Functioning Anxiety applies to you.
Signs of High-Functioning Anxiety
A lot of anxiety in high-functioning people is underpinned by a fear of being criticised, rejected or something bad happening. When you understand this then it’s easier to start spotting the signs.
1. You over-prepare For example you arrive early to everything to ensure there’s no chance of being late. You’re uber prepared for all possible things that could go wrong, for example your bag bulges with items like plasters; spare tights; phone charger; cab numbers; snack. Or you over-prepare for things at work such as researching all the possible questions you could be asked in meetings or presentations.
2. You people-please
You go above and beyond when someone makes a request of you. You replay conversations in your head to check how you came across. You fear being asked your opinion in case it is disagreeable to others or ‘wrong’. You avoid conflict at all costs. All of these behaviours are designed to ensure others are happy and not going to criticise you.
3. You aim for perfection
You have high standards for yourself in all you do; for example you may believe you should cook a meal from scratch every night; never miss a gym session or stick rigidly to set calories in the day. If you’re not sure how to get something perfect you may procrastinate because it feels better to put something off than start something and get it wrong or imperfect. When you aim for perfection this leaves little room for others to criticise you.
4. Your brain never stops
You are constantly analysing and dwelling on things or busily preparing for what’s ahead and playing out all the possibilities so you can prepare. This intrudes on your downtime and can get in the way of sleep or fully connecting with those you care about.
5. You avoid burdening anyone
You never ask for help or share anything of your difficulties. You’re like a duck paddling madly below the surface but appearing serene and calm to everyone above the water. Those around you would be surprised if they knew how much your thoughts are racing or you’re rehearsing what to say. This can leave you overwhelmed by (or avoidant of) social situations, especially when you don’t have full control.
6. You don’t tend to your own needs
With everything going on above it leaves little time to tune in to, let alone tend to, your needs and wishes. This means you rarely take a break or rush moments of self-care like you your shower or lunch. When you do things for yourself (like exercise) it may be because you feel you ‘should’ be doing this rather than because you genuinely want to. This may have gone on so long that you are no longer aware of your needs.
7. You are hard on yourself
There are so many sticks to beat yourself with from the points above: failing to meet a standard; believing you’ve burdened or upset someone. You have a strong inner-critic constantly monitoring how well you’re managing to people-please or get things perfect and putting you down when you put a foot wrong. That same critic then thanks you by criticising you for being like then and never switching off like ‘normal’ people do. It tells you that this is “just you” which creates a feeling of shame and stops you reaching out for support.
Impact on you All of the above behaviours impact on your nervous system, because you are always heightened state of stress and never pausing to take a break.
In the long term this will affect you in the following ways;
Insomnia: difficulties falling asleep due to racing thoughts, problem-solving or planning
Reduced appetite or emotional eating
Being physically ill (prolonged release of stress hormones is linked to certain health conditions later in life like cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease)
It's due to one of the reasons above that someone typically then comes to therapy, even though therapy can help long before to break the cycles above.
Spotting High-Functioning Anxiety
Many people with High-Functioning Anxiety are so good at masking their anxiety that they’re not even aware of it themselves. They often feel like it’s just how they are; that it’s normal to have racing thoughts and to be overly concerned about getting things ‘just so’.
They are accustomed to being exhausted and never having time for self-care and cannot remember a time when it was different. This is because the pathway into this comes from our early life experiences: over-parenting; being given too much responsibility as a child; parents who placed too much emphasis on success or were workaholics. I can address this in more details in a future blog though.
You need to take a good look at the lists above and if you are ticking more than half of these then it’s time to make changes in your life before you burnout.
You may also find this a helpful read: How to mentally 'switch off' when you go on holiday