High-functioning anxiety can be incredibly dangerous – especially if you are dismissing it as everyday stress. This type of anxiety is not a recognised diagnosis but rather a level of anxiety that allows you to function on an everyday basis. So, instead of the anxiety crippling you (and forcing you to take action in the way of medication and other treatments), it slowly erodes your well-being. Although this anxiety is often far less debilitating compared to other anxiety, the danger is that it can easily go unchecked, putting you at greater risk of chronic stress, depression and burnout. Identifying the symptoms, dealing with the underlying causes and finding ways to cope are all important when it comes to coping with high-functioning anxiety.
If you find yourself feeling constantly anxious, with panic attacks and a sense of battling to hold it all together, you may be dealing with high-functioning anxiety. Keep reading to find out why this type of anxiety is a problem and learn more about what you can do to prevent things from getting worse.
The Problem With High-Functioning Anxiety
No type of anxiety is easy to deal with and as anyone who has dealt with severe acute or chronic anxiety knows, living with it can be a nightmare. For some people, anxiety takes the form of overwhelm and burnout, resulting in crippling panic attacks and other symptoms, as well as anxiety disorders. For others, anxiety can start off as something manageable that seems like a normal response to pressure. In some cases, that pressure response may not result in anything more than low-grade stress. In most cases, it continues to worsen, taking you closer to burnout each day.
High-functioning anxiety may look very different in each person. It could be invisible in others, with no outward sign of anxiety when dealing with people. It could come across as people-pleasing, overthinking, negative thinking or catastrophising, sleep issues, racing thoughts, inability to relax, constant comparison, fatigue, fear of failure, and unhealthy coping mechanisms like substance abuse.
Because this type of anxiety does not look like anxiety per se, it can very easily go under the radar. Those battling this anxiety will often not realise that they have anxiety. People around them see them as being successful, capable, positive, and calm. They may continue to overload and people please and use unhealthy coping strategies without getting help or addressing the anxiety. Some of the biggest risks of high-functioning anxiety include the following.
- Depression. When any type of anxiety or stress is ignored, there is a greater risk for depression. Because high-functioning anxiety is often invisible and hidden from others in order to maintain the illusion of everything being fine, emotions are typically suppressed. Feelings of failure, negative self-talk, constant worry, fatigue, feelings of worthlessness, and other emotions can all contribute towards depression. If there is an underlying risk factor for clinical depression and medication or treatment is avoided to maintain a sense of control, things can get serious all too quickly.
- Obsessive-compulsive behaviour. In some cases, this type of anxiety has been linked to OCD and other similar behaviour. At its heart, this anxiety is all about control. The problem with control is that we as humans have very little way to control the world around us, no matter how hard we try. When everything around you feels out of control, the one thing you can control is yourself. When that anxiety reaches a tipping point in someone who is already bordering on perfectionism, the need to control amplifies, leading to obsessive-compulsive behaviour such as constant cleaning, repetitive actions or an inability to break set routines.
- Addiction. Untreated anxiety and stress can all too often lead to unhealthy coping strategies. Addiction is a big risk, especially when self-medication is used for comfort. Although there’s nothing wrong with having a glass or two of wine after a bad day or polishing off a bit too much chocolate when you are feeling stressed, drinking too much or too often and over-eating can be problematic. Common addiction problems with high-functioning anxiety include alcohol abuse, drugs (prescription and otherwise), binge eating, smoking, gambling or anything else that becomes hard to stop.
- Health issues. Another risk of unchecked anxiety is health issues. Chronic anxiety can put pressure on your nervous system while causing issues such as fatigue, Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), heart problems, and many others. If you are over-eating or relying on substances to get through the day, you will have even more risk of health problems.
Dealing With High-Functioning Anxiety
The first step in dealing with high-functioning anxiety is realising that you are struggling with anxiety. If you have experienced the symptoms mentioned above or you are feeling like everything is getting too hard to juggle, it is time to speak to your doctor or therapist. Waiting until things get better can be incredibly dangerous. Likewise, dismissing your feelings and seeing them as a sign of weakness is equally dangerous. Learn how to recognise symptoms of high stress so that you can deal proactively.
Coping strategies for this type of anxiety are much the same as any other anxiety or stress. The most important one of all is to learn how to slow down. I know all too well how tough this one can be… for many years, I was operating at an impossible pace and felt that life would collapse around me if I slowed down. It took major burnout for me to realise just how much I was jeopardising my health. And for what? Yes, work is important (especially as a freelancer). But I was hopelessly under-charging my clients, saying yes to everything, setting unrealistic deadlines for myself because I couldn’t handle the thought of letting anyone down. I was pulling all-nighters, fortifying myself with energy drinks. On the outside I was fine. I was going out, having fun with friends, living the ‘good life’. Only I wasn’t… I was living my own version of hell.
I’m not saying everyone is in that same situation. You may be a mom who is trying to deal with homeschooling, housework, work, stress, and myriad other things. You may be working two jobs right now. You may be mostly happy where you are, aside from the fact that you can’t seem to breathe. You NEED to find a way to breathe. Even if it’s just a short break. Yoga, breathing exercises, health diet, boundaries, walking, journaling, gardening, therapy, Zoom tea with people you love, talking… whatever allows you to step away from life for a bit.
As a final note, it is also very important to speak to your doctor or therapist if you are having major issues with anxiety. Medication can be life-saving. Self care is also important but it is not meant to replace treatment. Instead, you should use both strategies for an integrated approach that helps you deal with high-functioning anxiety properly.