What is high functioning anxiety?
High functioning anxiety is when you have a personal or professional life that appears successful from the outside, but you’re a hot mess on the inside.
It can manifest itself in lots of different ways – whether it shows up as overworking, overthinking, not being able to switch off or needing to be in control all the time.
And honestly, it’s exhausting.
What it’s like to have high functioning anxiety?
Our personal lives may be quite good —we may have a stable marriage and thriving kids. We might excel at work where we’re considered hardworking and intelligent individuals who receive promotions without issue… But deep down inside, there is an onslaught of self-doubt and excessive worry about everything imaginable. From how people perceive us to whether we left the stove on—and a deep sense of shame and embarrassment about our feelings.
The problem with high-functioning anxiety is that in many ways we get rewards for our anxiety provoking behaviours (more on this below!) but you can only fool yourself for so long before it takes a toll on your well-being.
The Characteristics of High Functioning Anxiety
Many with high-functioning anxiety report fatigue from all the overthinking, sleeplessness, or difficulty concentrating on tasks. Burnout is one side effect of high functioning anxiety. Being in a constant state of worry and the accompanying tension can’t be good for anyone. It’s really hard to function this way on a daily basis, not to mention tiring. You may also avoid or withdraw from social contact because of tension and worry. Or, your relationships suffer because anxiety can create a huge amount of irritation that your loved ones may bear the brunt of.
What It Looks Like
Essentially, when you have high functioning anxiety, you look fine from the outside, successful even. But inside, you may be experiencing heart palpitations, digestive issues, sleepless nights, and excessive worrying. You may repeatedly seek reassurance from others, or you may be an overachiever who is desperate to impress, pulling out all the stops to keep others happy. Others have been fidgety and find it hard to keep still. Or perhaps you look tired or run down from lack of sleep and excess stress or you’re losing or gaining weight because of either over or underrating due to stress and anxiety.
What can you do to stop high functioning anxiety?
There’s good news; this type of anxiety is highly treatable, and you don’t need to be stuck with it. Your type-A nature may even mean you have a better chance than others at overcoming anxiety as you are more likely to give things a try (and stick to!) things that may help.
Below I’m sharing 7 signs you have high functioning anxiety and how to tackle them:
Many people with high functioning anxiety have a strong need for acceptance and validation, including the need to be seen as perfect.
Anxiety can lead to a fear of rejection, fear of judgment, or shame about who we are, and we may strive for perfection to feel good enough. The anxiety-prone person may feel persistent shame and self-loathing when they fail to meet their excessively high expectations.
This sense of needing to be perfect often leads to fears about rejection or judgment from others. We may push ourselves in relationships or at work because we fear negative criticism.
Perfectionism is often thought of as a good thing; it can be praised and positively reinforced or rewarded by others. But if it leaves you constantly feeling as though you’re not good enough, it’s a problem. You might get stuck in cycles of procrastination because it’s easier to put something off than to do it imperfectly.
If you’re a perfectionist, it’s essential to learn that good enough is enough and that done is better than perfect. An exercise from CBT is to practise lowering your standards, even if only by a little. Doing so teaches you that even if things are imperfect, they can still be ok and you survive!
Waking Up Early or Struggling to Get to Sleep
Are you a member of the 5 AM crew (but you’d rather you weren’t?) When we have high-functioning anxiety, the excess of stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol could mean you wake up early in the morning – or struggle to switch off and sleep at night.
A wind-down routine is an effective way to prevent insomnia in those with high-functioning anxiety.
Are you setting a regular bedtime and making time to unwind beforehand? For example, I aim to be in bed with my head on the pillow at 10 PM, which means I need to start getting ready for bed at around 9:20 PM. That means stepping away from the laptop and my phone and engaging in some relaxing, pre-sleep activities. A wind-down routine should include:
- Reading a book before bed. Lighthearted fiction is best!
- Drinking a cup of herbal tea.
- Taking a bath.
- Inhaling some essential oils
- Giving yourself a facial massage
- Meditating or listening to a hypnosis session
This will help you to unwind and prepare for a restful night’s sleep.
You Can’t Switch Off and Relax
A common refrain that my clients tell me is; ‘I can’t relax, not even on holiday!’. This is classic high functioning anxiety behaviour. When we can’t stop racing thoughts and worry, even during our downtime, it’s essential that you learn some tools and techniques that will help you to calm your mind and relax. Try listening to a hypnotherapy recording (download one I made for you for free below) to quieten your conscious mind and help you to relax your body deeply. Remember that rest is just as important as activity. Repeat after me, ‘I need rest to be at my best!’.
High Functioning Anxiety Leads to Burnout
Are you feeling exhausted in the morning, even after 8 hours of sleep? Crying for no reason? Feeling as though you are at the end of your tether and close to collapse? High functioning anxiety can lead to burnout when you constantly push yourself to meet your excessively high expectations.
Burnout refers to a state of mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion. It's is often characterised by feelings of cynicism, depression, irritability, and even low self-confidence. This overload may be caused by long working hours or heavy workloads, or excessive pressure that we put on ourselves. The message from health professionals is clear; avoid reaching a point of burnout at all costs.
The recovery time can be long and time-consuming, and you'll wish you took better care of yourself in the first instance. Get to know the signs of stress that your body is showing you, and listen. The body whispers at first then starts to shout if we don't pay attention and give ourselves the rest we need and deserve. Build in early nights and prioritise rest and relaxation; rest is productive, and it's essential that we recharge our batteries - otherwise, you'll soon be running on empty.
You're an Excessive Worrier
Hey fellow worrier. I see you. A tiny army of 'what if's march through your mind each night, and the days are spent over analysing and overthinking about every possible outcome of the situation you're in. While a certain amount of worrying is normal - if it's ruining your peace of mind and stopping you from being present - it could be a sign of anxiety.
This type of worrying often has to do with feeling out of control or wanting to control external events with our thoughts. I know, sounds crazy! But we believe somehow that by worrying and fretting, we'll stop bad things from happening. But we need to remember that worrying doesn't stop bad things from happening, and, when you're tense, stressed, and out of the present moment, you're much less likely to be able to handle any challenges that arise. I always try to remind myself, I am most safe and in control when I'm calm.
You're a People Pleaser
A people pleaser puts others' needs before their own, sometimes at the expense of their own needs or even their mental health. Your sense of self and worth may depend on what other people think, or keeping others happy may be very important to your sense of calm.
If others are upset or annoying with you, or you have to say no – it can throw you off balance, so you try to ensure this isn't the case. Being a people pleaser can mean you over-work to keep others happy, and you neglect your own needs – leading to you feel exhausted, overworked, and anxious.
You might worry excessively over what people think of you, as you try to control their perception of you so that it's positive.
But here's the thing about people-pleasing; you can't control what others think of you. Your best bet for being liked is by being yourself and knowing that you will attract the people that are right for you. Plus, people-pleasing is exhausting, and you deserve to get your needs met too. If you're a people pleaser, get into the habit of asking yourself, 'What do I want/need in this situation?' It might be hard to say no at first, but it's like a muscle that gets stronger the more we flex it. When you get better at saying no and putting yourself first, you'll find your anxiety levels reduce.
You Constantly Beat Yourself Up
I know that when we're in a down mood, the voice inside our head can be relentless and toxic, criticising us for all of life's misfortunes or perceived shortcomings. We judge ourselves harshly, which makes us feel anxious so remember
'You are not your thoughts!'
Just because you have a thought doesn't mean you need to listen to them; they're just fears masquerading as facts- narratives from a small part of yourself who is scared and wants control but doesn't believe in you enough to let you be in charge. So when the voice comes, just say to it: 'Thank you for your opinion, but I'm not listening. You're a complex human being who has many facets and aspects of yourself that are good – so stop criticising all of them!
Hopefully, these signs and tips will put you on your way to feeling less anxious.
Famous People With High Functioning Anxiety
Oprah, Stephen Colbert, Kourtney Kardashian, Adele, Ryan Reynolds, Selena Gomez, Taylor Swift, and Missy Elliot are all high achievers who have spoken out about their experiences of anxiety, so you're in great company.
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