Breaking Down Mental Health Terms: What is High-Functioning Anxiety?

Up until a few years ago, I hadn’t heard of the term high-functioning anxiety. To me, anxiety was something that got in the way of functioning. It made decisions more difficult and tasks harder to complete. The idea of a high-functioning version of mental health challenges is new to me, so I decided to do some research. Today on the blog, I want to break down high-functioning anxiety, what it looks like and how we can manage it.

What is High-Functioning Anxiety?

Before we dive deeper, it’s important to know that high-functioning anxiety isn’t an officially recognized diagnosis. According to Choose Therapy,

High functioning anxiety may allow the person to get an education, go to work, and maintain their responsibilities at home, but it will require great effort and distress. The process will be a struggle, but it will not debilitate them.” – Choose Therapy

Rather than being another form of anxiety, the focus is actually on how we respond to anxious feelings and emotions, rather than those feelings and emotions themselves.

What does High-Functioning Anxiety Look Like?

One of the reasons that you might not hear about high-functioning anxiety that much is that it’s not always easy to spot. In the same way there are various symptoms of anxiety/anxiety disorders, we all have different ways of dealing with anxiety. This can lead to people who could be living with high-functioning anxiety that you may never have guessed.

“As therapists, we talk about a lot of people even with diagnosed anxiety disorders as ‘high-functioning,’ and many of them are,” says Lynne Siqueland, Ph.D. of the Children’s and Adult Center for OCD and Anxiety. “They are doing really well in their jobs, in relationships and raising kids, despite having significant anxiety.”

What is High Functioning Anxiety?

In a culture based largely around productivity, high-functioning anxiety can be something that is ever-present but rarely seen. When the focus is on what we produce, rather than how we produce it, we perpetuate an unhealthy cycle.

High-functioning anxiety also gets linked to other buzzwords of this current moment in culture, including burnout, overachieving and perfectionism. Rather than have conversations about anxiety and the way we deal with it, we have conversations about achievement and success in today’s world. If we want to change the way we think about anxiety, we need to be direct in how we deal with it, and not lump it in with whatever else people are discussing at the time.

How Can We Manage It?

Although high-functioning anxiety is not an official diagnosis, we should still be aware of its effects. Awareness is key when managing any form of anxiety, especially in this case. Rather than focusing on what we do, we should be focusing in how we do it. We may have gotten everything done that we needed to do last week, but at what cost to ourselves? How hard did we push our body, our mind, our health?

Like many other mental health terms, high-functioning anxiety is often misconstrued because of the other connotations attached. Emphasizing our methods over production goes against a lot of our instincts, but the benefits are huge. We can deal with high-functioning anxiety in the same way we deal with anxiety: we become aware of the symptoms and possible triggers, and we can work to manage those symptoms and deal with how we handle that anxiety. With work, education and support, high-functioning anxiety doesn’t have to be as much of a mystery as we might’ve been led to believe.

5 thoughts on “Breaking Down Mental Health Terms: What is High-Functioning Anxiety?

  1. Kris Ambrose September 27, 2022 / 1:30 pm

    Very helpful! Thanks for breaking this down. I have been hearing a lot about “high functioning” anxiety lately and not really sure what it is.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nathan Smith October 4, 2022 / 11:14 am

      I think a lot of people use the term “high functioning anxiety” and don’t always use it in the right context, which contributes to that. Even though it’s not a mental health condition, I hope conversations around things like this continue – it’s been so helpful! Thanks for sharing.

      Like

  2. Alex York October 3, 2022 / 9:52 pm

    Thanks for this breakdown! I juggle anxiety, introversion, and sensory issues myself, and I tend to mask them all fairly well most of the time despite the drain it puts on my energy levels. Personally, I hate that “high-functioning” is used so often as a compliment when in reality, it just means we’re better at hiding our struggles. Like you say, it’s worth considering how we define “success” as a culture. Can we really call it success if it takes such a toll on our well-being?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nathan Smith October 4, 2022 / 11:18 am

      You are so right! I always find it interesting how “high-functioning” can be used in a complimentary way, especially when it’s clear that this takes a toll on people’s energy levels and mental wellness. Hopefully people can be more honest about the toll that certain things take on us, because when that happens change can occur. Thanks for sharing!

      Like

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