high functioning anxiety

High Functioning Anxiety: Why We Need to Take It Seriously

When you imagine high functioning anxiety, what do you see?

When you imagine high functioning anxiety, what do you see? Shaking, crying, screaming? Panic attacks, hyperventilating, incoherent sentences? For some people, this is what it is like. But it’s not always the case.

What does “high functioning” anxiety look like?

It looks like you have your life together. You smile, your clothes are freshly pressed, your hair is shiny, you arrive on time. You try your hardest, finish your work on time, help others and have hobbies. High functioning anxiety makes it look like you’re busy living your life—and you are—to a certain extent.

For me, it’s keeping busy so I don’t lose my mind. The more I do, the more tasks I assign myself and the more things I can keep in control, the more I can control my anxiety.

The issue with not speaking out about high functioning anxiety is the risk of people thinking it’s not real. And it is. Because I live it. And countless others live the same life. And when we need to take a sick day, when we are brave enough to take some time for self-care, we need to be taken seriously. I’m not faking being sick. I’ve been faking being well.

12% of Canadians and 18% of Americans will at some point suffer from an anxiety disorder.

When anxiety affects someone’s ability to function on a daily basis, it can be diagnosed but an even greater percentage of people suffer from high-functioning anxiety.

Think of the last time you tried to land a lucrative business deal or partnership. Likely, this time period was characterized by high levels of stress. But there was a very clear stress stimulus: the business deal. With several of these stressful periods in a row, your fight-or-flight (stress) response becomes overactive. Consequences are that eventually, chronic stress turns into chronic anxiety in which you are in a state of hyper-arousal. You might imagine stressful things in the future or ruminate on past stressors even though there is no extreme threat to call for a hyper-aroused state. This is the basis of traditional and high-functioning anxiety. It’s linked to depression, cardiovascular disease, and immune dysfunction. It is believed that anxious thoughts can be rewired and destructive behavior patterns can be changed.

Just like the belief every person with an eating disorder needs to look like they have an eating disorder, the ability to be high functioning doesn’t negate the anxiety. I was in desperate need of a mental health day, but I was too afraid to call into sick to work because I knew nobody would believe me. Because they couldn’t see it. This is the downfall of having an invisible illness. The trouble with having a disorder that masks itself as “just fine.”

Looking at me, you wouldn’t know I struggle with self-harm or eating disorders. You wouldn’t ever guess I have suicidal tendencies. Behind my work ethic and ability to do my job is a girl struggling to breathe because of a small typo in a tweet or because my lipstick might be one shade too bright. I don’t know how I can be high functioning, I just know I am.

It makes it that much harder to ask for help because I don’t think anyone would believe me. I don’t want to be labelled as the girl who cried wolf. I want to be taken seriously. But until we even acknowledge high functioning anxiety exists and it’s a real illness, it will never be part of the conversation. And without awareness, we can’t ever move forward and ask for help.

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Other signs you have high functioning anxiety:

  1. You are a type “A” Perfectionist personality. You may find that you are somebody who has to do things in very specific ways and that you expect practically flawless results. You may even find yourself never satisfied with what you’ve achieved or how you’ve performed.
  2. You put a lot of self-imposed pressure on yourself to the point where you experience constant tension and anxiety. You may find that you are always in a hurry, that you’re always multitasking and that you never find enough time for yourself.
  3. You are a workaholic. Workaholism can lead to high functioning anxiety too. Why? Because if you are that obsessed with your job, you also take it with you at home and in bed. That means never having peace of mind, always overthinking about work situations because you’re trying to solve problems 24/7 and you may catch yourself constantly worrying about what might go wrong with a potential client or project.
  4. You keep yourself constantly busy. You’re constantly in a rush to get somewhere or do something so there’s little time left to relax and enjoy the moment. Ironically, these 2 things are exactly what helps you to focus and get more done.
  5. You are good at pushing your emotions to the side and you find that when they eventually come out, you feel overwhelmed.
  6. You experience irrational fears that to you feel rational. These include the fear of losing your job and going bankrupt, being left by your loved one or having health issues such as getting cancer even if there are no signs or evidence to support those concerns.
  7. You’re constantly worried about something. A person experiencing high functioning anxiety can spend every second being nervous about something, especially since there is always something that needs to be done. Such small moments of uneasiness and panic, when happening throughout the whole day, can lead to feeling like you’re constantly on the edge of a catastrophe.
  8. You don’t sleep well. Having sleeping problems, whether it’s going to sleep or waking up numerous times in the night is another sign of anxiety. A tell-tale sign that you aren’t getting enough restful sleep is waking up feeling groggy. Not sleeping well can be really problematic because it impacts the quality of your day as well as your ability to concentrate and function at an optimal level.
  9. You have physical symptoms. Do you often experience muscle tension, shortness of breath and nausea, or have a dry mouth, irregular heartbeat and loss of appetite? Even one of these can be your body signalling you that there’s something wrong. Your mind is so overwhelmed that all that anxiety has now found its way to your body.

High functioning anxiety can go unchecked because it’s experienced by high-functioning individuals who in the eyes of anybody who knows them, are successful. If what I’ve described sounds familiar, I suggest you make sure that anxiety doesn’t become a permanent part of your life. Acknowledging the issue is the first step.

Erica Chau
I know what it’s like to live and interact with illness, whether physical or mental, and I know there is still stigma around it. I want to use my words and my story to help create a safer and more open world.

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