What is High-Functioning Anxiety?

High-functioning anxiety

Most of us have heard of anxiety, even if we’re not entirely sure what it means. The lack of clarity is understandable. There are different types of anxiety. One type that has recently become more commonly discussed is high-functioning anxiety. This article will help you understand what high-functioning anxiety is, how to identify it in your teens and some ways to help your student break free from it.

What is High Functioning Anxiety?

High-functioning anxiety is a term used to describe individuals who experience anxiety but are able to function and maintain outward success in various areas of their lives. People with high-functioning anxiety may appear calm, competent, and accomplished to others, but internally, they struggle with persistent worry, self-doubt, and high levels of stress.

We should note that high-functioning anxiety is not an official diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). However, the term is used colloquially to describe a particular manifestation of anxiety that may go unrecognized or be downplayed due to the individual’s apparent ability to cope and achieve.

How is it Different?

Psychologist Adam Borland characterized the difference this way:

“With generalized anxiety, we tend to think of the fight or flight response. With high functioning anxiety, there tends to be more of a fight response, where an individual pushes themself to work harder in order to combat the anxiety.”

Another important consideration is that the condition is often not seen because of its upside. Teens with high-functioning anxiety tend to be punctual, good at troubleshooting problems, highly organized and meet goals. These are often seen as positive traits. But when they are coupled with fear, shame or oversized anxiousness, these “pros” quickly become “cons”.

Characteristics of High-functioning Anxiety

  1. Overthinking and Worrying: Individuals with high-functioning anxiety often have racing thoughts and engage in excessive worrying. They may constantly anticipate negative outcomes or obsess over minor details.
  2. Perfectionism: Teens often have high standards for themselves and strive for perfection in various aspects of their lives. They may fear failure, criticism, or making mistakes, which can lead to self-imposed pressure and stress. It is easy for a student to start finding perfectionism becoming a driving force in their lives.
  3. Achievement Orientation: People with high-functioning anxiety tend to be highly driven and ambitious. They may channel their anxiety into overachievement, seeking validation and success as a way to alleviate their internal anxiety.
  4. Fear of Disappointing Others: Students with high-functioning anxiety may have an intense fear of letting others down. Or being perceived as incompetent. They may go to great lengths to meet the expectations of others, even at the expense of their own well-being.
  5. Difficulty Relaxing: Relaxation and downtime may be challenging for those with high-functioning anxiety. They may struggle to quiet their minds, constantly feeling the need to be productive or keep busy.
  6. Physical Symptoms: Teens with high-functioning anxiety may not exhibit obvious signs of distress. They can still experience physical symptoms such as muscle tension, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, or difficulty sleeping.

Treatment Options

Treatment for high-functioning anxiety often involves a combination of strategies, including:

  1. Self-Care: Engaging in self-care activities can be a very effective way to manage anxiety. This can include practicing relaxation techniques, engaging in regular exercise, maintaining a healthy diet, getting sufficient sleep, and setting boundaries to prioritize personal well-being. Many of these techniques are discussed in Beyond the Spiral.
  2. Stress Management: Learning effective stress management techniques, such as time management or prioritization can help individuals with high-functioning anxiety manage their responsibilities better and reduce the negative effects.
  3. Therapy: Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can also be beneficial in helping teens with high-functioning anxiety. They learn to challenge negative thought patterns, develop healthy coping mechanisms and manage stress more effectively.
  4. Support Network: Building a support network of understanding friends, family, or support groups can provide a sense of validation, empathy, and encouragement. Sharing experiences with others who can relate can be comforting and help reduce feelings of isolation.
  5. Medication: There may be times when a healthcare professional feels medication should be part of the strategy to help the teen break free. This decision should be made in consultation with a qualified healthcare provider who can evaluate the individual’s specific needs.

Anxiety is built on lies. Beyond the Spiral helps teens and their families identify some of these lies and gives practical, effective strategies to help break free. Visit our resources page for aides, such as the feelings wheel.