If you struggle with anxious thoughts that aren’t debilitating but still impact the quality of your life, you may suffer from high functioning anxiety. Unlike other anxiety disorders, this type of anxiety causes people to feel driven to do more rather than leaving them incapacitated with fear. People with high functioning anxiety are often described as being Type A over-achievers, and since they appear to have all areas of their lives in order, onlookers often have no idea they are struggling internally.
If this sounds like you, keep reading for coping tips and strategies to help.
What Is High Functioning Anxiety?
While high functioning anxiety is not a clinical disorder or medical condition, it causes feelings of overwhelm, stress, tension, worry, and generalized anxiety. The difference between high functioning anxiety and other anxiety disorders is that the symptoms it causes don’t interfere with one’s day-to-day life in the same way. Someone with high functioning anxiety can still go to school, hold down a job, manage their own affairs, and socialize with friends and family, and others likely won’t even know they are struggling.
Many successful people struggle with high functioning anxiety. They come across as highly motivated, driven, over-achievers on the surface who seemingly have it all together, but their need to be perfect and please others causes a lot of internal discomfort. If left untreated, high functioning anxiety can take a toll on one’s emotional and physical well-being and lead to further challenges down the road.
14 Signs of High Functioning Anxiety
High functioning anxiety doesn’t produce symptoms that are intense or severe enough for other’s to notice, or to interfere with a person’s daily life. For example, a person with high functioning anxiety may experience a racing heart, unsettled stomach, sweaty hands, and/or other symptoms in response to an anxiety-provoking situation or event, but their symptoms are a little more subtle than someone with full-blown panic disorder. This allows them to push through their discomfort and handle whatever is in front of them, despite how they are feeling internally.
If you think you or someone you love may suffer from high functioning anxiety, here are some common signs to look out for:
- Fear of failure
- Workaholic tendencies / prone to burnout
- Being a people pleaser / finding it hard to say ‘no’
- Tendency to overthink, overanalyze, and second-guess decisions
- Inability to relax due to racing thoughts
- Feeling the constant need to keep moving
- Changes in sleep patterns (insomnia, sleeping more than usual, etc.)
- Feeling anxious in anticipation of future events
- Superstitious thoughts and behaviors
- Difficulty expressing emotion
- Irritable / easily frustrated
- Nervous habits like nail biting, knuckle cracking, and playing with hair, often without knowing
- Dependent on alcohol and/or other substances to relax
11 High Functioning Anxiety Coping Tips
1. LEARN TO RECOGNIZE ANXIOUS THOUGHTS
If you want to know how to stop feeling anxious, a great first step is to take the time to identify what you’re feeling anxious about in the first place. When those familiar feelings of discomfort start creeping in, take a few moments to sit with your feelings and then write a list of all of the things that are causing those emotions to surface. It can be easy to push uncomfortable thoughts aside, but they inevitably end up festering and causing more discomfort over time. Taking the time to identify the things that trigger your anxious thoughts will help you put a plan of action in place, allowing you to take control over your emotions rather than allowing them to take control over you.
2. KEEP THINGS IN PERSPECTIVE
Once you’ve identified why you feel anxious, ask yourself if the things that are weighing you down right now will matter a week, a month, or even a year from now. Some things might, but if you’re a chronic over-thinker and worrier, you’ll probably find you’re giving a lot of weight to things that are relatively inconsequential in the grand scheme of your life. The trick is to get into the habit of checking in with yourself and your thoughts regularly to ensure you aren’t falling into the trap of thinking everything is a catastrophe.
3. STOP TRYING TO BE PERFECT
While there’s nothing wrong with striving to be your best self in every single thing you do, the need to be PERFECT is a common characteristic in people who suffer from high functioning anxiety. Perfectionists have a habit of setting unrealistic standards for themselves, and often engage in procrastination and/or avoidance due to fear of failure. Someone who strives for perfection will never feel as though they measure up, which can cause a whole host of challenges, including depression, anxiety disorders, and low self-esteem. Perfectionists also have a tendency to take on too much in an attempt to win people over and avoid failure. If this sounds like you, remember that perfectionism is a form of self-hatred, and aim for progress instead.
4. WRITE DOWN 3 POSITIVE THINGS ABOUT YOURSELF EVERY MORNING
Many people with high functioning anxiety suffer from low self-esteem and self-confidence, and these feelings cause them to do MORE in hopes they can measure up and prove themselves to others. This makes sense on the surface, but the need to be perfect often results in the setting of unrealistic goals, and when those goals aren’t reached, the cycle just perpetuates itself. If this sounds like you, get into the habit of writing down 3 things you like about yourself each morning to help train your brain to focus on your positive qualities and features. This can seem silly and even a bit tedious, but it can have a profound impact on your internal dialogue. Make sure you write these thoughts out on paper – or store them in the notes app on your smartphone – so they stick.
5. CHALLENGE NEGATIVE THOUGHTS
If you’re looking for tips to help you manage high functioning anxiety, get yourself into the habit of replacing negative thoughts with positive ones. This is a practice that is much easier said than done, and can be particularly challenging for those who struggle with low self-esteem and self-confidence. A great way to master this concept is to write down all of the negative thoughts that creep into your mind over the course of a few days. Next, set aside some time to sit down and turn each negative thought into a positive one. Remember to use factual, positive, and present-tense words. Continue practicing, and over time you will become more comfortable and familiar with the process, allowing you to re-focus your thoughts when you catch yourself spiralling into feelings of negativity.
6. EDUCATE AND EMPOWER YOURSELF
If you struggle with low self-confidence due to fear of failure, educate and empower yourself! Take courses, read self-help books, find a mentor, hire a trainer, and do whatever else it is you need to do to remove those barriers and roadblocks. Remind yourself that in order to be good at something, you have to suck at it first, and resist the urge to give in when things feel too difficult. Your hard work and determination will pay off, your confidence will get a nice boost, and you will (hopefully) benefit from reduced anxiety.
7. TRY THE RUBBER BAND TECHNIQUE
Have you heard of The Rubber Band Technique? The idea is pretty simple: you wear a rubber band around your wrist, and whenever a negative or anxious thought runs through your head, you snap the rubber band and say (or think) the word ‘STOP’. You can follow this up with deep breaths or a sip of water, or you can find ways to replace the negative thought with a positive one – whatever works for you. Give it a try – it’s surprisingly effective! And if you don’t want to wear an actual rubber band around your wrist, these motivational wristbands are a great alternative!
8. FIND YOUR PERSONAL MANTRA
This is sort of a variation of The Rubber Band Technique, but many people prefer this option as you can make it a little more personal. A mantra is a word or phrase that is repeated frequently to keep your mind focused. Mantras are typically used in meditation, but they are also a fabulous tool for those looking to improve their internal dialogue and reduce stress and anxiety. Pick a word or phrase with meaning to you and your specific challenges, and each time you find yourself in a negative mindset, repeat your mantra over and over until your thoughts begin to shift. Some people find it helpful to display their mantra somewhere prominent in their home and/or office, and others go so far as to have their mantra tattooed on their body. The sky really is the limit!
9. DO SOME PERSONAL HOUSEKEEPING
While the cause of high functioning anxiety isn’t well researched or understood, there are many habits that can contribute to our feelings. In addition to struggling with perfectionism and low self-esteem, a poor diet, lack of exercise, drinking too much caffeine, consuming alcohol, lack of vitamin D, and sleep deprivation can all make feelings of anxiety worse.
If you want to reduce your anxiety, getting a handle on these habits is key. It’s also important to do a little bit of inner reflection as well. Are you happy? Do you feel comfortable and confident in your body? Does your career fulfill you? Are you harbouring guilt and shame over something you need to let go of? What is the quality of your relationships with close family members and friends? Be honest with yourself as you ponder these questions, and if you identify one or more areas of your life that cause you feelings of stress, anxiety, and negativity, commit to making some changes and put a plan in place. Get back into a healthy eating and exercise regime, apply for that promotion at work, find a therapist to help you let go of past mistakes, and have those tough conversations with family and friends to help clear the air. Your mind and body will thank you!
10. COMMIT TO REGULAR SELF-CARE
Contrary to popular belief, self-care isn’t selfish – it’s necessary! When we take care of the physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual aspects of our lives, we reduce emotional issues (hello, anxiety!) and the physical reactions they create, leaving us with more energy and motivation, and making us better able to handle the challenges life throws at us. There are many types of self-care you can focus on to help you prioritize and take care of your well-being, and you can make them as simple or complex as you want them to be. Deep breathing, meditation, and yoga are all great relaxation techniques, but if that’s not your thing, there are other ways you can help reduce stress naturally. Here area some ideas to consider:
- Coloring. Adult coloring books gained popularity a few years ago, and for good reason. Coloring relaxes the brain and is a great stress-reducing activity you can use to help keep your thoughts in the present moment. It’s extremely portable, making it a good option for lunch breaks, while traveling, when waiting in doctor’s offices, etc., and there are tons of great coloring apps you can use with your smartphone or tablet.
- Jigsaw puzzles. If coloring isn’t your thing but you like the idea of having an activity you can enjoy either independently or with your family at the end of the day to unwind, jigsaw puzzles are a great idea to consider (this ‘Things I Ate as a Kid’ puzzle is a great one!). My mom and sister were always working on a puzzle when I was growing up, and once the puzzle mat was invented, it made it easy to store during the day.
- Journaling. For those who enjoy writing, journaling is another great way to relax. Writing in a journal provides a great outlet, helps promote a sense of calm, provides perspective, and can help identify triggers and patterns as well as provide solutions. It also forces you to focus only on the topic you are writing about, which is a great way to stay centered and in the moment. We’ve written a whole post about journaling for emotional well-being, including our favorite guided journals and journal prompts, which you can read HERE.
- Relax in the tub. Whenever I ask my friends what their favorite self-care rituals are, the most common answer I get is a hot bubble bath with candles after a difficult day. If you’re looking for ways to relax and reduce your stress that are easy to fit into your schedule, this is a great way to try!
11. TALK TO A PROFESSIONAL
If you struggle with high functioning anxiety and the tips and ideas in this post aren’t helping, don’t be afraid to talk to a professional. As scary as this may sound, it’s essential that you learn to take care of yourself, and it can be extremely therapeutic to unload your worries onto a stranger.
If you struggle with high functioning anxiety, I hope the tips and ideas in this post prove useful to you. Remember to train your brain to recognize and challenge anxious thoughts, opt for progress over perfection, educate and empower yourself, and commit to putting yourself and your needs first.