Do you often find yourself going through paperwork at 6 pm, long after everyone’s left the office? Do you feel like everything you do needs to be perfect in every way possible? Is it all slowly draining up your energy, but you still feel like there’s no other way to get through life?
If you answered yes to all these questions, chances are you’re an overachiever. While you probably knew that already, we bet you didn’t know that high-functioning anxiety may actually be the culprit behind your struggles.
That’s right. Although not technically a recognized mental health diagnosis, high-functioning anxiety is a very real phenomenon. It’s used as an umbrella term to describe the kind of anxiety that can take over as a result of the fast-paced lives many of us lead today.
If you want to know what it's like to have high-functioning anxiety, just ask any super-productive colleague of yours. There’s a reason these perfectionists might only get 4 hours of sleep every night and always walk around with a cup of strong coffee in hand: their brains are constantly working in overdrive, like a Lamborghini driving 200mph, all day, every day.
But like a super-fast Lamborghini, most overachievers with high-functioning anxiety don’t realize something’s wrong until they eventually run out of fuel. If you feel like anxiety is commanding the pace of your life and you’re heading for a crash, take a step back and relax—we got you covered. Here’s everything you need to know to win the battle against high-functioning anxiety.
High-functioning anxiety is a type of anxiety that people push through, in order to become more productive. It’s the fuel that drives overachievers, and it’s as real as any other anxiety disorder. That being said, it’s still not officially recognized as a disorder. That’s mainly because it generally doesn’t disrupt an individual’s quality of life as much as other conditions—at least on the surface.
For a long time, high-functioning anxiety has been shrugged off as a motivating factor that could help people succeed at work and in life—it gets things done. While that much is true, seemingly harmless high functioning anxiety symptoms can easily overwhelm perfectionists, and things can quickly spiral out of control.
High-functioning anxiety can be extremely dangerous exactly because it’s so often overlooked. And it’s often conveniently overlooked, in a paradoxical kind of way.
Most people don’t seek treatment because they’re not really aware of the danger. They’ve learned to live with their anxiety and thrive despite it—and in many cases, because of it. “Why should I treat anxiety if it brings success in my life,” asks the overachiever, without realizing the pressure that’s surely building up inside.
Everything seems to function properly, but strain and tension keep building up inside. Psychosomatic symptoms can swiftly take over, and psychogenic diseases can wreak havoc on the body. Still, most high-performing individuals don’t seek treatment, and burnout seems inevitable.
There is a way out of this vicious cycle, of course. Despite what your boss might say, no adjective can paint anxiety in a positive light—it’s detrimental to your wellbeing, and a productive anxiety isn’t preferable to a productive calm. And the pandemic certainly hasn’t made things easier for any of us, especially in the workplace.
Firstly, we have to learn to recognize the symptoms.
As you’ve probably already guessed, high-functioning anxiety isn’t easy to detect. While there’s plenty of tension and occasional physical symptoms (e.g. body pains, increased heart rate, sweaty palms), these are usually low in intensity and not severe enough to warrant a diagnosis.
This is also the reason why you won’t find many high-functioning anxiety tests out there. That said, there are some things you can look out for.
Here are some of the most common high-function anxiety symptoms:
If these symptoms sound a lot like generalized anxiety disorder, you’re absolutely right. However, unlike GAD, high-functioning anxiety doesn’t come with specific triggers and disrupting physical responses. It’s much more vague in nature, characterized by a distinct discomfort that outside observers usually can’t detect.
Those with high-functioning anxiety often have unrealistic goals and lack self-confidence. Their desire to make up for their insecurities pushes them to do better, but that’s a double-edged sword: They find themselves bound to the needs and requests of others—they constantly seek acknowledgment, recognition, and appreciation.
Yes, of course. The good news is that high-functioning anxiety isn’t as serious as other anxiety disorders, meaning you can turn things around relatively quickly. Unfortunately, identifying the symptoms and accepting that you deserve a stress-free lifestyle will take time and patience.
If you’re looking to take back control and start living your best life again, you need to:
Although less severe and disruptive than other mental disorders, learning how to deal with high functioning anxiety takes time.
Yes, most definitely. As with most anxiety disorders, high-functioning anxiety can often hide behind a range of physical and mental symptoms. People often realize something’s not quite right, but they have trouble connecting the dots. Did you know that a third of the adult population who experience anxiety unwellness issues in North America remain undiagnosed?
One of the main reasons people with GAD and/or high-functioning anxiety go untreated is that both disorders are hard to recognize. If you’ve learned to live with anxiety and your symptoms have become part of your lifestyle, it’s unlikely you’ll make it to the doctor’s office of your own accord.
Along with the high functioning anxiety symptoms we’ve already mentioned, here are some tell-tale signs of GAD:
If any of these negatively impact your daily life, anxiety may be to blame. Don’t wait for things to get worse before seeking medical assistance. Contact a professional today and get the help you need.
Hyperfixation is less of a symptom and more of a way of coping with anxiety and excessive stress. It’s more commonly associated with ADHD and autism, but people with anxiety disorders can definitely show signs of hyperfixation too.
Think of hyperfixation as a self-protective mechanism that keeps you occupied when your brain goes into frenzy mode. It’s a form of escapism, and although relatively harmless, it usually indicates that larger issues are subconsciously being repressed.
Any recurring activity performed with an obsessive passion can indicate hyperfixation (e.g., you spend whole evenings playing video games or binge-watching TV shows; you’re obsessed with cleaning and get irritated with the tiniest amount of dust/dirt/crumbs).
Unlike nervous habits, hyperfixation isn’t just a response to a specific stressful situation. If you haven’t been diagnosed with ADHD or autism and hyperfocus offers relief from stress and anxiety, it may be a sign of something more serious (e.g., bipolar disorder, depression).
If you hyperfixate as a means of fighting sadness and melancholy, we recommend you seek professional help immediately.
No, anxiety isn’t considered neurodivergent for several reasons.
The term “neurodivergent” was used to describe autism in the 90s. Nowadays, the term “neurodiverse”—which is more commonly used and preferred by most in the neurodiverse community—has expanded to include several neurological differences caused by:
While it’s true that individuals who have been diagnosed with the above often do experience anxiety, anxiety itself isn’t neurodivergent.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), 40% of young people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have clinically elevated levels of anxiety or at least one anxiety disorder, including obsessive-compulsive disorder. The ADAA also estimates that one out of two adults with ADHD has an anxiety disorder.
Unlike the developmental differences associated with ADHD and autism, people are not born with mental health disorders, such as GAD, panic disorder, and other phobias. The underlying force behind these disorders is trauma—and this is why they’re often considered forms of acquired perishable neurodiversity.
Long story short - people generally aren’t born with anxiety, and the effects of anxiety and trauma are reversible. Inherent neurodiversity refers only to those neurological differences that develop before birth or at a very young age.
Reports of general anxiety are far more prevalent in high-income countries than medium- or low-income ones. 
Generalized anxiety disorder is closely linked with functional role impairment—meaning it makes life harder for those who suffer. It’s also linked with several comorbidities, including other forms of anxiety, as well as mood and behavior disorders and depression. 
Anxiety disorders are the most prevalent mental disorders in children and adolescents but are still underdiagnosed in the general population. Only a third of teens report seeking help with their anxiety. 
“High functioning anxiety” was the third most popular anxiety-related global search term between 2013 and 2017. 
The economic costs associated with anxiety disorders are large—totaling around €48 billion over 28 European countries, according to one study. Almost half of these costs are due to loss of productivity and earnings; the remainder being direct medical and non-medical costs. 
Around 31% of American adults experience some form of anxiety disorder during their lifetimes. 
22% of US adults experiencing anxiety say it seriously impairs their daily lives, negatively affecting their job performance, school work, or relationships. 
We often hear about the debilitating effects of panic disorder, OCD, and other persistent phobias. Rarely do we hear people complain about the negative effects of high-functioning anxiety in their life. And that’s exactly where the problem lies.
The high performers and overachievers of our modern world can’t have anxiety, right? They’re successful; they’ve learned to push through and carry on, even when things get tough.
In reality, they’ve internalized pain and have somehow made it their own. Some even attribute their success to “productive” stress. But just because someone has a high tolerance to pain and emotional distress, it doesn’t mean they’re impervious to the negative effects of anxiety.
If left unchecked, anxiety will slowly—but surely—take its toll on a healthy person’s body and mind. Of course, not everyone who’s doing well in life has anxiety. But the signs are there, and if you keep your eyes open, you’ll see them too. Listen to your inner self and try to understand your emotions. You’ll soon know if and how high-functioning anxiety affects your life.
Once you’ve identified the symptoms, it’s time to take action. Stop overthinking and let go of your doubts; give yourself plenty of time to relax, and learn to trust your instincts. Eat well, keep fit, and don’t forget to share your feelings and worries with those closest to you.
Remember, professional help is always an option—you need only ask.
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