High Functioning Anxiety: Causes, Signs & Symptoms, Treatment

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High Functioning Anxiety Meaning - Overview

If you have known people who define the idea of what it means to be an ‘overachiever’, there perhaps may be a more layered undertone. People who are ‘high-functioning’ are more often than not, very anxious people. They are able to mask the symptoms of their anxiety by overthinking, overdoing and of course, overperforming. These, when exercised in a healthy amount and manner can be great but as is with everything in life, there needs to be a balance of things. These things shouldn’t be wearing down on anyone, and because they come off as positive traits it is difficult to spot the symptoms of the disorder underneath it. 


There isn’t a whole lot of research that has been done on the area, but there are some of the general causes that can be present in people with high-functioning anxiety. There also could be a combination of factors, which can include some of the following:

  • Personality- childhood traits of being shy, nervous, socially anxious, or the very opposite such as being controlling and a perfectionist can increase the risk of anxiety showing up as an adult. 
  • Genes- people with a history of anxiety disorders in the family (and other mental health issues as well) have a higher chance of having an anxiety disorder.
  • Exposure to stress and trauma- if an individual is exposed to trauma or stressful life situations, they are very likely to develop anxiety around it. 
  • Drugs or alcohol use- in a lot of cases misuse of drugs and alcohol can trigger anxious thoughts, as well as when going through a phase of withdrawal as well. 


High-functioning anxiety symptoms may include:

  • Controlling nature, especially over situations in their workplace (more so if they happen to be a boss)
  • Being over the top (from an external perspective) and organised
  • Being a perfectionist and needing things to be done a certain way 
  • Being critical to others and self 
  • Extreme high (and often unrealistic) standards from people and circumstances
  • Disproportionate amounts of anger when things don’t go as they planned 
  • Inability to trust people who won’t be able to do the job exactly as they envision it to be in their minds
  • Nail-biting
  • Bouncing legs and feet 

These characteristics are not all bad- in fact they are some of the things that a lot of high achieving people have in common with each other. As is with everything, it is seen how much it affects them on a day to day basis and the people around them. In extreme cases where these things are very seriously affecting you then this is something that you should definitely take up with a professional to ensure proper high-functioning anxiety treatment. 

Is High-Functioning Anxiety An Official Diagnosis?

Technically, no. It isn’t a diagnostic category as enlisted in the fifth edition of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) which is what is used by most mental health professionals all over the world. This is something that is seen in people who have (some) symptoms of anxiety which seem to not affect their day to day goings. They can be high achievers and perform well in stress-related areas, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they don't have any anxiety about it at all. In some cases, this anxiety can boost them to perform even better. However, there is obviously a balance that needs to be maintained. Anxiety at the cost of functioning well isn’t something that can be ignored.  

6 Ways to Cope with High Functioning Anxiety

Can high-functioning anxiety be cured? Maybe not completely, but as with all illnesses there are some things in your control, and there are some things you can do about them.

  1. See your symptoms for what they really are. They are biological, and they should be seen as just that. It is the first step to accepting things the way they are and being able to effectively deal with them later.
  2. Get into things that you fear. Nothing too crazy, but something that you know will not cause you any harm. It can liberate you if the fear is something that holds you back from achieving things and going places in life, perhaps it would be wise to really look into that and tap into that as well.
  3. Anxiety is physical, so do something physical to combat it. Go for a short walk, a run, or perhaps even a few minutes of yoga can make you feel better. Doing these things when you’re feeling stressed out is also a good idea because it regulates your body.
  4. Use mantras more frequently. Do mental checks that can help when you feel anxious. Coach yourself into ‘talking back’ (metaphorically) to the anxious thoughts. This can be very helpful, especially if you’re someone who is a perfectionist. 
  5. Learn to break into your anxious thoughts. If you identify your symptoms then you know when to intervene. It's like a snowball effect that you're essentially trying to prevent, so checking yourself at these points is crucial.
  6. And of course, have a good support system around you. Talk to people about it- you’ll be surprised at the number of people who go through the same thing, if not something similar. Reaching out is important, and having a good knit of loved ones around can definitely make it easier for you!

Treatment Options

The primary treatments for anxiety disorders are psychotherapy and medications and in some cases a combination of both. It can help manage anxiety symptoms, and therapies such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) are effective. They help reduce their anxious thoughts and eventually confront the anxious situations that trigger their anxiety. A therapist can give help towards getting to practises that can help manage their anxiety, such as deep breathing practises, and meditation. Medications can include antidepressants ( in case of high-functioning anxiety and depression), anti-anxiety drugs and short term anxiety relief medication as well. 

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