7 Telltale Signs of High-Functioning Anxiety
In this blog article, we’re going to identify 7 telltale signs of high-functioning anxiety. Said another way, we’re going to let you know 7 different ways you can identify that you have high-functioning anxiety.
We will also explore causes of high-functioning anxiety and how to treat this type of anxiety. But what is high-functioning anxiety (also known as productive anxiety)? How do we define it?
What is High-Functioning Anxiety?
High-functioning anxiety refers to people who have anxiety but don’t appear to because they are functioning at a high level. This is also referred to as productive anxiety, because someone who is high-functioning can be very productive, Yet, despite not outwardly appearing to be anxious, they can still be anxious inside. It is important to be aware that this is not an official diagnosis in the DSM, but rather a more common way of considering manifestations of anxiety in the population.
Signs of High-Functioning Anxiety in Adults
When describing ‘high-functioning anxiety’ or ‘productive anxiety’, there are a few common types of descriptors. Please note that these are not formal diagnostic criteria, but rather commonly seen dynamics. It is important to look at the totality of these factors, rather than any one or two.
A joke from my psychology doctoral program comes to mind here. We were learning about ‘obsessive compulsive personality disorder’ (referred to as OCPD) and the instructor said “basically that describes every doctoral student.” If there is a diagnosis in the DSM that comes closest to high functioning anxiety, it is probably this one.
Let’s now look at 7 signs of high-functioning anxiety (productive anxiety):
1) You’re a perfectionist
It’s hard to settle for just average. You have a hard time letting go of tasks until they’re just right. Sometimes ‘just right’ feels very elusive because you keep coming back to the task until you have no doubt it’s correct (side note, wink-wink: is that possible?)
2) You overthink things
Overthinking is an affliction of the successful. It can be hard to turn your mind off and there tends to be an obsessiveness to approaching tasks.
3) You have difficulty sleeping.
There are many causes of insomnia, some of which are related to serious medical and/or psychological conditions. In this case, sleep issues tend to manifest from overworking, staying up late, and practicing poor sleep hygiene.
4) It feels difficult to relax or unwind
It can be hard to get out of the zone of ‘what do I have to do (to succeed)?’ and get into a space of ‘how am I right now?’ or ‘what is it like to just be right now?’ People with high functioning anxiety are so task-focused that they have a hard time getting in the moment.
5) You are a people-pleaser and have a hard time saying ‘no’
People-pleasers often take their need for achievement and transfer it over to the interpersonal space. You don’t like saying ‘no’ to others because you are afraid to disappoint. When you become aware you’ve disappointed someone – which is inevitable because their disappointment may have nothing to do with you – you often feel guilty and may over-apologize.
6) You often see reassurance from others
Getting confirmation that you’re ‘doing the right thing’ eases worries you may have. Sometimes it can feel hard to recognize or hold onto an internal belief that you are on the right track.
7) You use poor coping strategies to deal with stress
This might involve turning to substances to turn-on or wind-down, e.g. coffee, wine, and other substances. Alternatively, it might involve ‘nervous habits’ like nail biting, cuticle chewing, or hail pulling to alleviate stress.
What Causes High-Functioning Anxiety?
Again, keep in mind, this is not an official psychological disorder. Similarly, we shouldn’t think of ‘X causes Y’. But one theme that runs throughout these signs is insecurity – a fear or even belief that ‘I’m not enough.’ A lot of people are working so hard to be successful because they want to compensate for a fear that they are not good enough. In the same respect, many people who fit this description, either don’t have a strong healthy inner voice or don’t trust that inner voice.
Although the reasons this kind of insecurity exists can be complicated and beyond the scope of this blog, they are often relational in nature and rooted in childhood attachment relationships. Perhaps unsurprisingly, healing begins with learning how to be with and love yourself. Caring, empathic relationships also help facilitate this process.
But if High-Functioning Anxiety is Productive… Isn’t That Good?
As with so many things, our weaknesses are also are strengths, and vice versa. It wouldn’t be called ‘high-functioning anxiety’ if people weren’t productive and successful. The question is what is the cost of that success? Feeling tortured, or to a lesser degree, never fully satisfied, is probably not worth the outcome. Moderation is the key. How can we maintain the work ethic and healthy sense of competition without it feeling like it’s ‘win at all costs’? How can we feel that who we are isn’t conditional on what we do?
How to Treat High-Functioning Anxiety
Perhaps as you read the last section of this article, some ideas are beginning to come into your mind about how to treat high-functioning anxiety. The irony is that the treatment is getting at the underpinning of each of the 7 signs.
First and foremost, anxiety therapy often involves a developmental, attachment and relational focus. We want to try to understand better how you came to relate to yourself in this way. What did you learn through relationships and life experiences about who you are and how you’re supposed to be? What messages, life lessons, and ways of being did you internalize from the people most important to you?
Once this understanding begins to be reached, emotions often emerge. Good therapy involves cultivating a permissive presence for these feelings, bearing witness, and ‘giving you yourself’ back with compassion. ‘Feeling’ and ‘healing’ go hand in hand. Healing your relationship with yourself also involves a relational experience with your therapist that is both curious and compassionate. Healing can often involve grieving what may have been lost or never developed. Informed by the affect-focused work of Diana Fosha and Leigh McCullough, I teach my patients that anxiety is often a defense against feeling deeper core emotions such as sadness. You are anxious because you intuitively sense that something is right, but it also scary (but necessary) to make space for what you need to feel in order to heal.
It is also important to recognize that especially early in the treatment, cognitive-behavioral, mindfulness, and hypnotic techniques can be helpful in teaching people how to better manage runaway anxiety and stay grounded. Feeling confident that you have better ways of managing your anxiety creates enough stabilization to do the deeper work.
Interesting in learning more about anxiety therapy? Want to learn more tips for reducing anxiety? Want to talk about your anxiety with a professional? Interested in knowing whether you should see a psychiatrist or psychologist for anxiety? Talk to one of our therapists today and find out more about how to treat high-functioning anxiety.
Read More: High Functioning ADHD in Adults.