A person with high-functioning anxiety sits at school holding her head.

Is It Nerves or High-Functioning Anxiety?

February 26, 2024

4 min.

If you often feel anxious but still handle your daily tasks well, you might have high-functioning anxiety.

By: Ethan Cohen BSN, RN

Clinically Reviewed By: Dr. Don Gasparini

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Table of Contents

In today’s fast-paced world, many of us deal with stress and anxiety daily, whether at school, work or in relationships. While anxiety is common, there’s a specific form that often goes unnoticed: high-functioning anxiety. 

While not officially recognized as a clinical mental health diagnosis, high-functioning anxiety is a term colloquially used to describe people who experience significant levels of anxiety but are still able to manage their daily responsibilities and tasks effectively. In essence, if you often feel anxious but still handle your daily tasks well, you might have high-functioning anxiety. 

Keep reading to learn more about the symptoms of high-functioning anxiety, its impact on daily life, and how to seek help. 

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What is high-functioning anxiety?

As mentioned, high-functioning anxiety is a mental health condition where people often feel anxious but still handle their daily responsibilities. Although not a formal diagnosis, high-functioning anxiety is a significant mental health challenge. It's also often hard to spot because those experiencing it seem competent and composed, unlike more obvious anxiety disorders.

Those with high-functioning anxiety may excel and seem successful, but they still struggle with persistent anxiety symptoms like worry, perfectionism, and fear of failure. These symptoms can lead to intense pressure and self-doubt, harming mental health and potentially causing other anxiety disorders.

How high-functioning anxiety differs from other kinds of anxiety

High-functioning anxiety

Anxiety

  • Symptoms may be masked by outward competence
  • Individuals may appear competent despite symptoms
  • May be perceived as typical stress or personality

  • Symptoms may vary in intensity and impact daily
  • Symptoms may interfere with daily tasks
  • Often perceived as a mental health issue

Anxiety encompasses a spectrum of experiences, ranging from occasional worry to debilitating panic attacks. More often than not, anxiety is a natural response to stressors and perceived threats, serving as a protective mechanism to prepare the body for action; it can drive us to complete tasks, face fears, or perform better.

As mentioned, high-functioning anxiety differs from other types of anxiety in that people with this mental health condition may appear to be functioning well in their daily lives despite experiencing significant anxiety internally. This contrasts with more recognizable anxiety disorders, where symptoms may be more apparent and debilitating and impact daily functioning to a greater extent.

That being said, high-functioning anxiety can coexist with other anxiety disorders and potentially mask the severity of another disorder’s symptoms. Essentially, high-functioning anxiety can hide symptoms of other anxiety disorders like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, or social anxiety because people appear competent and composed on the outside. Whether your anxiety symptoms are apparent or not, it’s important to seek help if your daily stress and anxiety levels affect your ability to complete tasks and maintain your relationships. 

What are the common triggers for high-functioning anxiety?

High-functioning anxiety is often triggered by factors related to stress and worry. Identifying these triggers helps people understand their high-functioning anxiety and is a crucial first step in finding coping strategies and seeking support. Working with a mental health professional can provide valuable insight into your triggers and teach coping skills for managing negative thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Some common high-functioning anxiety triggers include: 

  • Unrealistic standards
  • Fear of failure and judgment
  • Uncertainty about the future
  • Fast-paced lifestyle
  • Sensitivity to stressors
  • Traumatic experiences

What are the risk factors for developing high-functioning anxiety?

Anxiety disorders are incredibly common. According to research by the National Institute of Mental Health, about one-third of adults in the United States experience an anxiety disorder at some time in their lives. This includes GAD, social anxiety disorder, and panic disorder. 

Of these people, some may struggle with high-functioning anxiety. People with perfectionistic tendencies and high-achieving personalities are particularly at risk for high-functioning anxiety. 

Also, those who have experienced early-life pressure, trauma, or have a family history of anxiety may be more likely to experience high-functioning anxiety.

Unfortunately, ignoring the undercurrent of anxiety and stress in your life (common among those with high-functioning anxiety) can eventually lead to more severe mental health issues, research shows. Thus, addressing these thoughts and anxious feelings before they become a larger issue is important. 

What are the treatment options for high-functioning anxiety? 

Treatment for high-functioning anxiety typically involves a mix of therapies, coping strategies, and, if necessary, medication. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is commonly used to address negative thought patterns and behaviors associated with anxiety. Also, participating in support groups or group therapy allows people with high-functioning anxiety to share experiences, gain insights, and receive support from others who may be facing similar challenges.

Outside of therapy, people with high-functioning anxiety may explore techniques to improve symptom management. One popular coping strategy is mindfulness, like mindfulness meditation, which enhances present-moment awareness. Another coping strategy that may be beneficial is a stress management technique, like deep breathing, that reduces overall anxiety levels. Regular exercise, sufficient sleep, and a balanced diet can also contribute to overall well-being and positively impact anxiety levels.

In some cases, healthcare providers may prescribe medications, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), to help manage symptoms of high-functioning anxiety when a person is also dealing with chronic anxiety. Medication is typically used in conjunction with therapy when treating anxiety. 

A person with high-functioning anxiety wearing a tank top sits on a couch drinking tea.

Anxiety treatment at Charlie Health

If you or a loved one are struggling with persistent ​​anxious feelings, Charlie Health is here to help. Charlie Health’s virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) provides more than once-weekly mental health treatment for dealing with complex mental health conditions, including chronic anxiety, panic attack disorder, and more. Our expert clinicians incorporate evidence-based therapies into individual counseling, family therapy, and group sessions. With treatment, managing your anxiety is possible. Fill out the form below or give us a call to start healing today. 

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