High functioning anxiety is similar to other types of anxiety in the sense that you’ll experience symptoms, including over worrying, excessive fears, and overthinking. However, people with this form of anxiety are able to function on a day-to-day basis and may even excel in certain aspects of their lives, such as their careers and schooling.
Throughout this article, we’re going to take a deeper look at high-functioning anxiety, its symptoms, causes, and how to treat it. At the end, we invite you to ask further questions.
What is High Functioning Anxiety?
Since the medical community doesn’t recognize high functioning anxiety as a type of disorder, there’s a lack of research regarding this condition. Still, there are many out there who struggle with anxiety, but are able to maintain their lives. These people are considered high functioning.
It’s difficult to fully comprehend anxiety disorders because they exist on a spectrum. In other words, one person may feel mild bouts of stress while others experience excessive apprehension. ¹
While some medical professionals explain high functioning anxiety as a mild form of the condition, others believe these individuals have subclinical anxiety. This is when people experience anxiety symptoms, but don’t meet the diagnostic criteria for anxiety. For example, someone struggling with insomnia likely has certain symptoms of anxiety, but isn’t necessarily struggling with an anxiety disorder. ²
Subclinical anxiety symptoms can appear as:
- Brief (but recurring)
High functioning anxiety works differently for everyone. Someone with social anxiety tendencies may find they’re able to hide symptoms and appear calm or confident. Another may discover their anxiety isn’t holding them back but rather helping them achieve.
Regardless of these circumstances, anxiety still causes it’s typical symptoms – from excessive worrying and fears to overthinking. In turn, high functioning anxiety may affect other areas of an individuals life, from appetite to sleeping patterns.
Without treatment, symptoms of anxiety can be detrimental to a person’s help. For this reason, it’s important to consult a medical professional even if you’re high functioning.
Signs and Symptoms of High Functioning Anxiety
Since there’s a lack of research, it’s unclear exactly what symptoms are associated with high functioning anxiety. However, most medical professionals agree that this form of anxiety comes with a multitude of anxiety symptoms along with symptoms only present in high functioning, including: ³
- Anticipatory anxiety (feeling anxiety before an event)
- Changes in appetite
- Desire to stay busy
- Digestive issues
- Inability to relax
- Increased heart rate
- Irritability (frustration)
- Overthinking (overanalyzing)
- Rapid breathing
- Sleep problems (i.e. insomnia)
- Thoughts of failure and judgement
People who struggle with high function are likely to only experience a selection of symptoms on this list. Not to mention, you may also experience other symptoms not presented here.
What Causes High Functioning Anxiety?
Currently, there’s a lack of research in the causes of anxiety, including high functioning. However, it’s believed to have to do with one or more of the following:
- Exposure to Stress – Large amounts of stress may lead to an anxiety disorder. This is especially true of trauma which could lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). ⁴
- Genetics – Those with a family history of anxiety are more likely to struggle with anxiety themselves. For example, if your parents have anxiety, you’re at a higher risk of developing it. ⁵
- Health Complications – Certain health conditions can lead to anxiety, such as digestive issues and heart complications. ⁶ ⁷
- Personality Traits – Childhood characteristics, such as shyness or nervousness, can lead to an anxiety disorder later in life. ⁸
- Substance Abuse Disorder – Abuse of drugs and alcohol along with subsequent withdrawal symptoms can lead to anxiety. ⁹
While one of the above factors could lead to anxiety, the condition is likely caused by a collection of factors.
Is High Functioning Anxiety Connected to Depression?
The National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) recently discovered that 60% of those struggling with anxiety also show signs of depression. Furthermore, those who already struggle with anxiety and stress and do not seek treatment are at an increased risk of facing depression. ¹⁰
Since people with high functioning anxiety tend to manage symptoms and their lives, they’re less likely to seek out treatment. In turn, symptoms may spiral out of control and lead to an increased risk of depression.
Currently, there is no research to suggest that high functioning anxiety leads to depression. In fact, since those with this type of anxiety may develop tendencies of overachieving or perfectionism, they may also view their anxiety as a positive trait. However, if you are experiencing symptoms of depression, it’s important to seek out treatment.
How is High Functioning Anxiety Treated?
Currently, there is no treatment method specifically geared towards high functioning anxiety. If you struggle with this condition, it’s likely a doctor will recommend other treatment options typical of anxiety disorders in general.
As of this time, the DSM-5 doesn’t recognize high functioning anxiety as a mental illness. With that said, a mental health professional is unlikely to diagnose you as such. Instead, they may find that you struggle with another form of anxiety, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or PTSD, and diagnose you accordingly.
As mentioned, anxiety disorders exists on a spectrum and there’s a good chance your struggle is a mild form of a type of anxiety.
In order to determine your diagnosis, a mental health professional will run a series of tests. These include a physical exam, a family history analysis, or a psychological evaluation. ¹¹
Since those with high functioning anxiety may not present enough symptoms for a diagnosis, a doctor may find their condition to be inadequate for treatment. In such cases, it’s vital for you to discuss exactly how you feel and how anxiety has effected your life.
Even if your doctor doesn’t come to a diagnosis, there are still treatment methods and coping mechanisms to help you deal with this condition.
If you are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, there are certain medications that can help ease symptoms. These include: ¹²
While each of these medications can limit anxiety symptoms, they aren’t a cure for these disorders. Rather, they can help to provide temporarily relief while you undergo other treatment methods.
Furthermore, it’s important to understand that some anxiety medication is highly addictive. For this reason, it’s vital to only take medication as your doctor recommends.
Psychotherapies (also known as talk therapies) are designed to help you manage anxiety symptoms. While there are a number of talk therapies to choose from, the most common is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT allows you to identify anxious thought patterns and confront situations that cause your anxiety. ¹³
Your therapist can help you manage anxiety through a number of different grounding techniques, such as breathing exercises, meditation, and lifestyle changes. However, you may find one form of therapy better than another depending on the type of anxiety you struggle with.
Other Coping Mechanisms for High Functioning Anxiety
Beyond traditional treatment methods, there are a number of ways to cope with high functioning anxiety. Here are just a few of the many examples:
- Diet – Research has found that our diet plays a big role in our mental health. Certain foods may fuel anxiety disorders, such as sugars, fried foods, processed foods, food additives, and caffeine. ¹⁴
- Herbal Supplements – Certain herbal remedies have found to be helpful for anxiety, including kava kava, passionflower, valerian, chamomile, lavender, cannabidiol (CBD), and green tea. ¹⁵
- Holistic Therapy – Beyond traditional therapy options, there are alternative therapies for those seeking more counseling. These include mind-body therapies (meditation), animal-assisted therapy, nature-based therapy, aromatherapy, and music therapy. Studies have found these therapies work great alongside traditional therapies. ¹⁶
- Lifestyle Changes – Just like our diets, our lifestyles can indicate how much stress we build. For people with high functioning anxiety, they may find themselves in a constant work grind that only leads to stress. It can help to develop certain habits, such as exercising, to help reduce stress and anxiety. ¹⁷
You may find a combination of traditional treatment methods and alternative coping mechanisms to be the most beneficial for you.
The difficulty with high functioning anxiety is the fact that you’re likely able to manage symptoms alongside your day-to-day life. With that, a mental health professional may not be able to diagnose you and give you the proper treatment. However, if you believe you struggle with this form of anxiety, it’s vital to seek out treatment options. Untreated high functioning anxiety could lead to worsening symptoms and eventually inhibit your day-to-day life.
If you’re unable to get the help you need from a doctor, you can still manage high functioning anxiety by enrolling in therapy, making lifestyle changes, and finding herbal alternatives as a substitute for medication.
Still have questions concerning high functioning anxiety?
We invite you to ask them in the comments section below. If you have any further knowledge to share – whether personal or professional – we’d also love to hear from you.
¹ HHS Public Access: The anxiety disorder spectrum
² Journal of geriatric psychiatry and neurology: Subclinical anxiety symptoms, sleep, and daytime dysfunction in older adults with insomnia
³ National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): Anxiety Disorders
⁴ National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): 5 Things You Should Know About Stress
⁵ Dialogues in clinical neuroscience: Genetics of generalized anxiety disorder and other traits
⁶ Annals of Gastroenterology: Psychological disorders in gastrointestinal disease
⁷ HHS Public Access: Anxiety disorders and cardiovascular disease
⁸ HHS Public Access: Anxiety and Anxiety Disorders in Children and Adolescents
⁹ HHS Public Access: Anxiety and Substance Abuse Disorders: A Review
¹⁰ The American Journal of Psychiatry: The Critical Relationship Between Anxiety and Depression
¹¹ Pharmacy and Therapeutics: Current Diagnosis and Treatment of Anxiety Disorders
¹² Dialogues in clinical neuroscience: Treatment of anxiety disorders
¹³ Dialogues in clinical neuroscience: Cognitive-behavioral therapy for anxiety disorders
¹⁴ International Journal of Endocrinology: Diet-Regulated Anxiety
¹⁵ Nutrition Journal (BMC): Nutritional and herbal supplements for anxiety and anxiety-related disorders
¹⁶ HHS Public Access: Use of Complementary and Alternative Medicine in a Large Sample of Anxiety Patients