Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
By: TPG Staff
High functioning anxiety is when someone experiences high levels of stress, tension, worry, and need for control over perceived threats, but their symptoms don’t cross the threshold to be considered a diagnosable condition because they are able to perform daily tasks without impairment.
Common themes associated with high functioning anxiety are fear of failure, fear of making a mistake, not living up to certain standards or expectations, or worrying about how people perceive you.
Why is high functioning anxiety not always obvious?
High functioning anxiety can be difficult to spot because it can, ironically, be useful. On the outside, people may see an individual who gets to work on time, accomplishes many tasks throughout the day, gives good advice to friends and family, and appears overall happy and confident.
This type of anxiety may motivate an individual to work harder to make sure their work and efforts are perfect, which may have led to them being successful in certain areas of their lives. Individuals with high functioning anxiety may be organized, well-spoken, and helpful to others. They essentially have learned to mask their anxiety, making it difficult to identify.
However, they are often so detail-oriented and meticulous because they are trying to prevent their fears from coming true, not necessarily because they value achievement and hard work. Their behavior is driven by fear rather than success and enthusiasm.
There are some drawbacks to high functioning anxiety as well. The private inner experiences of someone with high functioning anxiety is a racing heart, constant second-guessing of self, negative thoughts, feeling like an imposter, difficulty concentrating, sleep problems, urges to avoid social gatherings, muscle tension, difficulty with time management (due to over-preparing or arriving early to events), trouble taking care of oneself, and more.
Symptoms of high functioning anxiety
Listed below are a few common symptoms of high functioning anxiety:
- Over preparing
- Difficulty adjusting to different routines or attachment to current routines
- Frequently being hyper- aware of your surroundings and how others may feel
- Overthinking before or after you speak
- Apologizing often
- Difficulty saying no or setting boundaries with others
- Taking on more work than you can handle
- Working extra but still feeling like it’s not enough
- Attending to others needs first while putting your needs second
- Difficulty getting your day started
- Racing thoughts about small details
- Conflict avoidance
Common cognitive distortions in high functioning anxiety
Cognitive distortions are negative and often extreme thought patterns that lead us to believe things that aren’t always true. They are also known as “thinking traps” because they tend to trap us in anxiety.
It’s all too easy to get stuck in negative thinking patterns, ruminating about the past or future. It’s how our brain is designed. The human brain reacts more strongly to “threats” in order to sustain survival, therefore negative events will be more apparent than pleasant ones.
Everyone falls into thinking traps, but you are more likely to misunderstand situations when you are unhappy, angry, frightened, depressed, or frustrated. And even further, when you don’t eat or sleep well, or take care of yourself, you make yourself more susceptible to thinking traps.
Thinking traps commonly seen in high functioning anxiety:
Black or White Thinking
High functioning anxiety lives in the black and white. Someone who engages in black and white thinking sees things in extremes, perceiving things as being really good or bad. There isn’t a lot of room for the gray area. For example, “If I don’t do well in this meeting, everyone will think I’m a complete failure.” Or, “If I apologize to my friend, they must forgive me completely and not be mad anymore.” Black and white thinking is also called polarized thinking, dichotomous thinking, or all-or-nothing thinking.
Catastrophic thinking occurs when a person assumes the worst-case scenario or believes things are far worse than they are with little to no evidence. Our thoughts may contain words such as always or never. For example, “If I say something wrong to my partner, they will never forgive me.” Or, “If I mess up this work presentation, I’ll always be thought of as incompetent.”
“Should” statements often fuel guilt and shame about past experiences that we can’t change. It also adds extra pressure on us. If you are saying, “I should’ve done it this way” or “I should be able to do that,” try reframing it to “Next time, I can try to do this.”
Focusing on the negatives and discounting the positives. Our brains tend to hold onto the negative things that occur in our lives as a way to protect us. When we are so focused on the negatives, we may have a hard time recognizing the positive. With high functioning anxiety, this may look like focusing on the one mistake you made while not being aware of everything good you are doing on a daily basis.
High functioning anxiety self-assessment
The first step in overcoming high functioning anxiety is awareness. Building awareness and being mindful of when high functioning anxiety is a strength or limitation can help you respond in a more helpful manner.
Ask yourself the questions below to assess whether or not high functioning anxiety is interfering with your health:
- Do you tend to overanalyze or worry excessively?
- Do you worry about many different things?
- Do you have trouble controlling your worries?
- Does your anxiety or worry make you feel tired or exhausted?
- Do you overthink before doing things or making decisions?
- Do you seek approval from others?
- Is it hard to prioritize your work?
- Do you have racing thoughts that interfere with sleep?
- Are you a people pleaser?
- Do you compare yourself to others?
- Does thinking about the future cause anxiety?
- Do you have difficulty relaxing or sitting still?
- Are you easily annoyed or irritated?
High functioning anxiety can be difficult to see because it can motivate behaviors that mask constant worry. Cognitive distortions, or thinking traps, can fuel high functioning anxiety further.
However, high functioning anxiety is still deserving of treatment even if the symptoms do not meet criteria for a clinical disorder.
If you suspect you are suffering from high functioning anxiety, please contact us for a free 15-minute consultation with one of our expert therapists.
The Psychology Group Fort Lauderdale is a local mental health group practice staffed with some of the best psychologists and therapists in Fort Lauderdale. The TPG team specializes in anxiety, depression, PTSD and trauma, relationships, eating disorders, and helping people through general life changes.
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