High-functioning anxiety can cause us to continue taking on outside stress and obligations even if we’re already overwhelmed with what’s on our plates
Living through a pandemic, without question, is causing us invisible stress—a pervasive, ever-shifting, hard-to-define anxiety.
But anxiety itself is a strange beast. It’s so idiosyncratic that it’s difficult to pinpoint a “type” that is most common.
Because while many fear its arrival or are trapped under its spell, others seem to take it all in stride and need only a bit of psychological first aid. Turns out, experts say, you can be high-functioning despite your anxiety.
“The most unusual aspect of high-functioning anxiety is people need it to drive themselves forward in everything that they do,” says counseling psychologist and psychotherapist Lillian Gui. “So instead of being paralyzed by it, like how some people are paralyzed in bed by their generalized anxiety disorder, it drives behavior. They tend to keep it hidden, too, which only deepens the stress they experience and prevents healing from occurring.”
High-functioning anxiety, however, isn’t a diagnosable condition, and so it can be hard to identify because it doesn’t look like the textbook definition of what a mental health issue is.
Are you someone who could be suffering from it? Or do you know someone who might be? Here are some of the silent signs, according to psychologists.
You worry excessively (but nobody notices this)
Even if you know all the calming tricks—deep breaths, magic phrases to calm yourself down, and jotting down your thoughts—you still live with your worries on a daily basis.
Despite your self-care practices, your anxiety may still get the better of you because you simply cannot control it, says Gui.
People who experience it do not look like what we expect a highly anxious person to look like—frozen, unable to make decisions, and failing to get things done due to concentration issues, she says. “Also, people with high-functioning anxiety rarely allow themselves to ask for help or admit there is anything wrong,” Gui says.
You constantly strive for perfection
Generally, people who have this condition are ambitious, perfectionist, and in need of constant reassurance.
“You work long hours and overdo all tasks to ensure you don’t make an error,” says Gui. “There’s also that feeling of constant dissatisfaction with your work or school performance.”
Gui added that people with high-functioning anxiety tend to have an extreme fear of disappointing others or saying no.
“High-functioning anxiety sufferers lack self-esteem and self-confidence, and they attempt to compensate for their insecurities by constantly pushing themselves to do better or to please others,” she says. “Unfortunately, their goals are often unrealistic, and their failure to meet them only reinforces their chronic feelings of tension and inadequacy.”
You have a range of unconscious nervous habits
“Think about when you had a big test,” says licensed psychologist Lucia Jemima Munez-Ata with a private practice at MBS Psychological Services clinic. “You might feel sweaty and tingly. You might feel sick to your stomach. Our bodies are in tune with our minds when we are in stressful situations.”
But people who have high-functioning anxiety, she says, may also exhibit a range of nervous habits. “This includes knuckle cracking, fingernail biting, hair pulling, or lip biting,” Ata says.
You can’t sleep properly
While many people spend their nights now tossing and turning due to the struggle to unglue from the constant scroll of news updates, it’s not uncommon for people with high-functioning anxiety to have trouble falling or staying asleep.
“The quiet and inactivity of the night often bring on stressful thoughts or even fears that keep a person awake,” says Ata. “In addition, a person with high-functioning anxiety may overthink situations and may probably be in alcohol or substance abuse.”
Neither Tylenol nor wine are long-term solutions—they may even worsen your sleep issues. The psychologist recommends talking to a medical professional about solutions for the long haul.
Three tips to help you manage your high-functioning anxiety
Limit your sugar and caffeine intake. Because anxiety is physiological, stimulants may have a significant impact.
Learn some mindfulness strategies. They can help anchor you in the present rather than worrying about the future. Consider alternative therapies such as meditation, acupuncture, and yoga.
When you’re in the middle of an anxiety episode, talking or thinking about it will not help you. Try to distract yourself with your senses: Listen to music or jump rope for five minutes. Remember: High-functioning anxiety happens in your mind and your body so trying to think your way out of it won’t help.