What Is It Like? Symptoms of High-Functioning Anxiety

Most of us understand what anxiety is. But when the idea of “high-functioning” is introduced, there may be more room for confusion.

In this article, we hope to make the experience of high-functioning anxiety clearer for everyone. That includes sufferers of the condition as well and the friends and family of people who might be suffering in silence.

What are the symptoms of high-functioning anxiety?

High-functioning anxiety (along with high-functioning depression) is not a distinctly recognised clinical condition. Unlike other forms of anxiety, it is not given a definition as an anxiety disorder by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH).

Rather, it is an informal way for us to recognise the experience and patterns of a particular type of anxiety/depression patient.

Therefore, the symptoms of high-functioning anxiety are the same as those suffering from an anxiety disorder. For example, persistent feelings of worry, inability to relax, overthinking, and butterflies in the stomach. Physical manifestations might include sweaty palms or increased heart rate.

The main difference we would expect in a high-functioning is the absence of debilitating responses or excessive avoidance tendencies.

In other words, a high-functioning anxiety patient is one with typical anxiety responses, but not the anxiety behaviours that significantly impact typical day-to-day activities.

Though they may be experiencing pain internally, these patients continue to work/attend school, maintain relationships, and generally keep their life running without special assistance.

Is high-functioning anxiety/depression serious?

If the sufferer can still work, maintain relationships, and keep on top of day-to-day concerns, does this make high functioning anxiety and depression less of an issue than debilitating anxiety and depression (which might look more familiar to us)?

Unfortunately, it is this assumption that makes high functioning anxiety and depression a particularly tricky condition. It is more hidden, and that makes it easier to ignore. Conditions that are ignored are less likely to improve.

Sufferers might want to pretend there isn't a problem, bottling it up and suffering in silence. Friends and family might not be able to recognise a problem, and if they do recognise it they might not understand it. This can make for an isolating experience for the sufferer. As Medical News Today notes, even "Doctors may find it challenging to diagnose an anxiety disorder in people with high functioning anxiety."

Ultimately, those with high functioning anxiety and depression may suffer for longer and are less likely to find treatment.

What is it like to have high-functioning anxiety?

Some patients have described anxiety that “pushes them forwards rather than holds them back”.

Others have emphasised the difference between what they project to the outside world and what they feel on the inside. Externally, they are organised and calm, while on the inside they are overthinking and seeking reassurance.

As you might expect from the above description, some with high-functioning anxiety have noted that others find them “hard to read”.

Jordan Raskopolous describes what living life with high-functioning anxiety was like for them in this TED talk.

Do I have high-functioning anxiety?

Remember, anxiety is a normal emotion that the majority of people experience. Anxiety is expected and potentially beneficial in response to certain events. It is only when anxiety gets excessive, irrational, or becomes a constant drain on a person’s happiness that it needs to be addressed.

It might not be helpful to assume that because you are experiencing anxiety today it is a case of high functioning anxiety. A diagnosis of GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder) generally looks for anxiety that has persisted for 6 months or longer (as explained in this Oxford Medicine paper).

If you are experiencing anxiety, whether mild or a more serious case like GAD, you may consider talking to a therapist.

Read More About Anxiety: Articles On Our Blog |  Anxiety Disorders |  Connection Between Sleep and Anxiety |  About Panic Attacks |  Other Disorders That Cause Anxiety

This article was researched and written by multiple E-Therapy contributors. Are you looking for help with issues relating to anxiety? Find an online therapist easily here, or contact us.