Today I am looking at the term High Functioning Anxiety. What is it? Why I think it is important to differentiate from anxiety and how to know, you might be dealing with it.
Book I recommend: First We Make The Beast Beautiful: A New Journey Through Anxiety by Sara Wilson
Hey everyone. So first off I want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart. For everyone who sent me a direct message or an email or commented on social media, I just really appreciated all the warm wishes I got when I came back last week with after a five-month break. It’s a little scary to come back after a five-month break. And so I appreciated all the warm wishes and the support that was just awesome.
And there was one thing that stuck out to me. I received a few messages that were like, I don’t care how often you do a show, I just want you to keep doing them. Which was just really cool to me because I have a very loud Monger who tells me that the rule is I’m supposed to do a podcast every week on the same day and prerecord them and get them out to you and be rigid about it. And that is just not how this podcast thing works for me right now.
And so I appreciated the wiggle room that some people gave me to say just show up. I don’t care how often. So that was so sweet, and it was a great reminder to me how our Mongers can insist that we do something and keep us rigid without us even knowing it. And so it’s helpful where we can add some wiggle room, and then we make up these arbitrary rules and get stuck and freak ourselves out in attempting to follow them.
So I challenge you to think about where do you have an arbitrary rule that you are stuck on following and it’s causing you more and more anxiety because you can’t follow that rule anymore? And whose rule is it? Let’s start challenging these crazy rules.
But that is not today’s topic. Today I want to talk about high functioning anxiety. And I want to share my story around high functioning anxiety and how I came to love working with people who deal with this very real issue.
And so there is a little controversy in the mental health field about separating anxiety from high functioning anxiety because high functioning anxiety is not a separate diagnosis, it’s just anxiety. Generalized anxiety disorder is the typical diagnosis. And so I want to talk a little bit about that controversy and why I think high functioning anxiety deserves its separate category. Not necessarily a separate diagnosis but a separate category because I think people dealing with high functioning anxiety are dealing with different things than people who are dealing with anxiety.
So today I want to share my story and some symptoms you may be having around high functioning anxiety if that’s something you’re dealing with and to start educating you about this very real issue.
I always knew I had anxiety, but I never really related to people who shared their stories around generalized anxiety disorder. I haven’t had a lot of panic attacks in my life. I don’t have a lot of fears or phobias. I don’t have obsessive-compulsive. I just had this low running anxiety all the time. And so I would put myself as a type A personality more so than anxiety, a control freak and uptight and that sort of phraseology that I would use.
And then last year I read Sarah Wilson’s book First, We Make the Beast Beautiful, and I’ve talked about that book here on this podcast before. And if you’ve heard me, I highly recommend it. Some people read it, and they can’t stand the way she writes because she definitely writes with someone who has anxiety. And some people read it and love it.
And I related to her descriptions of anxiety. It was very different than anything I had read before about anxiety because she wasn’t coming at it from a mental health, generalized anxiety disorder perspective. She was coming at it from this is what I deal with with my anxiety. And so it was just a refreshing, an every day look at how anxiety played out for her.
Now, I will also say her descriptions were way more debilitating. Her anxiety is way more prevalent in her life than it is in mine. And it is much more of panic attacks and social anxiety and all the traditional things you see around generalized anxiety disorder. So I didn’t relate totally to what she was saying, but I recognized wow, anxiety plays a big part in my life, bigger than I had known before.
And so I was able to start just labeling the anxiety that would happen in my life and just noticing it coming up and being like oh, I’ve spent so much of my life trying to push this anxiety down and I had developed all these coping skills, but I hadn’t ever faced my anxiety. And so that is what happens with people who have high functioning anxiety because they look super high functioning, thus the term high functioning. They have high-level jobs; they get a lot done. They’re very able to multitask and be on top of things. These are the people that you count on to really go out and go forth and do it.
But the thing that is happening is underneath all of those high functioning skills is a white-knuckling approach — a toughing it out, holding on for dear life. But you look one thing, and you’re feeling another. And that is a big part of what high functioning anxiety does.
So I had gone to therapy for years, and it’s made a huge difference in my life. I’m a big proponent of therapy because I do it for a living and I am going to my therapist. But it wasn’t until I could see my anxiety when it would flare up, not as a personal failing but as a condition that I had to deal with that everything started to change. And so I became fascinated with Mongers and negative self-talk. I had The Happier Approach that I had written, and I realized how much that self-talk plays into high functioning anxiety. And I started reading about high functioning anxiety and I was like yes, this is so familiar.
Because what had happened as I was growing up, I think my parents had high functioning anxiety. And so they taught us and me a lot of coping skills for how to deal with certain situations. So I knew that there was something off, for lack of a better phrase. It wasn’t off, but I knew I needed, I was highly sensitive. I was very aware of my environment, very highly empathetic. And so my parents would teach me how to go out into the world and not get so beaten down by it.
And those coping skills helped me for many, many years. They were wonderful things, and I’m very grateful that my parents gave them to me. And at some point, the coping skills started taking over my life, and the coping skills became more of a problem. The coping skills were how I was white knuckling it. That was how I was toughing it out. I was relying so much on my coping skills that I wasn’t able to be present in my life.
And so that’s what happens with high functioning anxiety. You have coping skills to keep you from feeling your anxiety. And so it’s a double edge sword in that the coping skills can become over the top. And then when you remove the coping skills, you have all this anxiety, and you don’t know what to do with it.
So what is this high functioning anxiety or HFA for short that I keep talking about? Well, here’s a stat for you, from the National Institute of Mental Health, about 40 million adults deal with an anxiety disorder at any given time. And of this approximately 18% fall into this category of high functioning. And it’s essentially silent anxiety hidden behind a smile.
So one thing I like to say that high functioning anxiety propels you forward rather than leaving you frozen in fear. And so that’s what a lot of people think, when they think of anxiety they think of people that are very timid, they worry a lot, they have panic attacks. That’s a strong stereotype, but that does not fit everyone that has anxiety.
But those of us with high functioning anxiety, we are very high achievers. And so it’s hard to recognize that there is anxiety there because we don’t have the stereotypical worry, appearing to be worried and timid and that sort of thing. But we are worried and timid. We just have all these coping skills that make it look like we’re not.
So on the surface, we’re able to appear successful, together and calm. You know, that typical type a personality who excels at everything. But the way you feel on the inside is very different. And no one would believe that something was wrong because you’ve always said you’re fine, you’ve always portrayed yourself as fine. So the symptoms of high functioning anxiety are masked in overdoing, overthinking and overperforming.
And that’s why I think high functioning anxiety is such a problem because everyone looks normal and they have functioned highly in the world, and they’re doing all these great things. But underneath that high functioning is this deep, deep, deep-seated feeling of unworthiness. And so you spent your whole life trying to make sure that people don’t figure out that you’re a big fat fake.
And so because you never deal with what’s really in front of you, you never build loyalty with yourself. And that is why that is such a big theme for me. You never build loyalty with yourself. You’re constantly looking outside of yourself for validation to keep that anxiety down. And if people will validate you and make you feel okay, then you convince yourself you won’t have as much anxiety, which isn’t true.
So what are some of the symptoms of someone with high functioning anxiety? People pleasing. They are loyal to a fault. And so the thing that gets misunderstood is that a lot of people with high functioning anxiety appear stoic or they appear unemotional because they’re so hard driven. They’re so type A., But in reality, they have this super sensitive side that can see through and give people what they need before they even recognize they need it. They’re very highly sensitive; they’re very empathetic.
But that feeling causes too much anxiety. To be that tuned into the world is too stressful. And so they shut it off by becoming more stoic and having a lot of boundaries and keeping people at bay to prevent that idea of oh my gosh, if they see me, they’re going to see that I’m unworthy and they’re going to get a picture of that. And I don’t want them to get too close. And also that it’s too much to have that much in attunement to the world. And so I need to shut it out at sometimes. I need to get rid of it sometimes.
Some other symptoms, quest for perfection. I so want to be perfect. If I can be perfect, I can get this; I can stop that feeling of unworthiness. This is all the rules that I have in The Happier Approach that talk about the rules of the Monger. They’re all around that perfection piece. How can I do it right? How can I make sure that everything goes well? The constant over analysis, rethinking and overthinking and over planning, constantly making sure everything’s okay. That control freak type, type A personality that I was talking about.
Because there are two levels to high functioning anxiety, there’s how you appear and then how you’re feeling. So that’s why it’s so hard to talk about because how you appear is on top of it and together and very high functioning in the world. And it’s also become a way of life for a lot of people. It’s normalized in our society that we are going to be pushing ourselves to the limit and hustling, hustling, hustling.
But the differences underneath it for someone with high functioning anxiety is this overarching feeling of worry and stress and exhaustion and overwhelm constantly. And that constant churning is what makes high functioning anxiety so hard and painful.
Another symptom of high functioning anxiety is rule following. I love this one. I talked about it at the very beginning. Having a rule that I need to get this podcast out in certain times and certain days, that keeps me all hopped up and focused on things that aren’t important. And that’s where high functioning anxiety comes in. If people don’t have loyalty with themselves and have a connection with themselves, then they’re constantly looking outside of themselves to figure out what to do next. They’re following rules; they’re looking at comparison there, seeing what other people are doing. They constantly need validation to make sure that what they’re doing is okay because they need external support because they don’t have a connection with themselves.
One of the stories that I love sharing that illustrates this point is the idea of you’re a little kid, and you see a snake in your living room floor. And if you see a snake in the living room floor and you go to your parents, and they say no, there’s no snake. I don’t know what you’re talking about. There’s no snake there because your parents are busy or they’re dealing with addiction or countless other ways, and you recognize, oh yeah, there must not be a snake. So you go back into the room, and you start playing with this snake in the living room because you convince yourself there is no snake there because those outside of you told you there wasn’t a snake.
And so that’s what happens, we start losing that our trust in our intuition. And if you grow up in a household where there is an addiction or there isn’t super busy or they’re constantly perfectly parents that are concentrating on you and they go into the room with you when they say yes, there is a snake, we need to get rid of it, let’s go get rid of it, that’s a very different way of growing up. So if you were taught not to trust yourself for a variety of reasons, then that makes it harder to trust yourself as you get to be an adult. And thus you get into this high functioning anxiety piece.
So I have a video on show notes that will explain this a little more. I’m not a big fan of the video itself, but the symptoms it talks about are excellent, and I think it’s a great way. So if this is intriguing, you head on over to the podcast page and check out that video because I think it will be helpful.
So the main thing that fascinates me about HFA is that it is a double edge sword. On the one hand, it keeps us motivated, responsible, successful. It has a great payoff. And there are so many people that have ridden their high functioning anxiety to high places in our culture. And on the backend it leaves us exhausted, constantly worried, overwhelmed. And so it has become normalized in our culture that that’s the way we’re supposed to be and we’re not.
So some common assumptions for people with HFA are that you’re worried that your work will suffer if you don’t have this constant drive. If you’re not driven by this fear, your works going to suffer. That’s why the main myth in The Happier Approach, the main myth of the Monger is that you need the Monger. Because that worry is so prevalent that if I don’t have this push, push, push, I’m not going to get as much done. And it is so false. It is one of the biggest myths we have as a society.
Another myth or assumption that we have is you’re not ill enough to ask for help because you’re so high achieving. And from an objective standpoint, you look totally fine, but you’re not because inside you’re white knuckling, you’re holding on, you’re just barely making it through the day because you have so much pent up anxiety and doubt.
And we have an image of what it means to have an anxiety diagnosis. And we envision a person who was housebound or can’t work or struggles to maintain relationships of any kind, which is how Sarah Wilson talks about her anxiety in her book. And that isn’t necessarily what high functioning anxiety is. And that’s why I think it needs its own category. Because too many people are saying well, I don’t have anxiety. I’m totally fine. And meanwhile, they do. They’re just super high functioning, and they don’t recognize it. They don’t notice that it’s happening.
And then the last assumption that I want to talk about is the idea that I don’t need to get help because it’s not that bad. This is just “life stress.” And I hear that all the time in my office. I’m just a little stressed. I’m just a little overwhelmed. It’s more than that people. I’m here to tell you if any of this is resonating with you, it’s more than just life stress. Not everyone in the world feels like this.
And that was the biggest ah-ha for me when I was reading Sarah Wilson’s book, is I was like oh, not everyone is feeling like this. Not everyone feels this inner turmoil or this constant Monger who is more demonic than just a little bitchy. That’s the difference. When I started sharing in The Happier Approach about my Monger, I would notice that people had different reactions. People would be like oh yes. Wow. Yeah, I relate to what your Monger is saying. And some people were like yeah, I have a Monger, but she’s not quite that loud, or she’s not quite that mean.
And so the louder your Monger is and the more she’s controlling you, it’s more likely that you have the high functioning anxiety piece playing out here because self-doubt and inner critic and that super, super, super loud monger is a sign of this HFA because that’s what keeps us in line. The Monger keeps us from achieving, achieving, achieving, achieving, achieving and also keeps us in the worry and the doubt. And is this going to keep going? And so that’s the double-edged sword of this.
So I just wanted to do an intro to HFA. I have a lot more to say about this, and I want to dive into the different areas of this topic and the different places where this shows up because there are so many, because there are so many unique and interesting symptomology that we have normalized in our society that is anxiety. And when I have started doing The Happier Approach, practicing ask, building loyalty with myself and I’ve been teaching my clients those same strategies; things are shifting. HFA isn’t taking over their lives anymore. And that’s what’s awesome about this.
So as a friend of mine said, I was always labeled as type A and controlling, and she said, but when I realized it’s anxiety that’s doing this, I was like oh I can fix anxiety. It was a whole new open window for her rather than just constantly beating herself up for being overly controlling and stoic and unfeeling and type A. Now she can see oh wait, all of that is me trying to keep my anxiety at bay. So it’s a fascinating subject, and I can’t wait to explore it more with you guys.
If you have any questions on this or want to hear more about how to deal with it or anything, please send me an email firstname.lastname@example.org. I absolutely love hearing from you. And if you want more resources, you can check out my website and read The Happier Approach because it is for people that have HFA.
And that’s the show. Thanks so much for listening. The Happiness Hacks Podcast comes out whenever I want it to. That’s a new line there. 🙂 And if you want to follow me on Instagram @nancyjane_livehappier, that would be awesome. Also, ask I said, please send me an email, email@example.com. Don’t forget to head over to the show notes and check out that video on high functioning anxiety. And until next time, here’s to living happier.
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