How is High Functioning Anxiety different from plain old anxiety?

How is High Functioning Anxiety different from plain old anxiety?

High Functioning Anxiety is my specialty, and even though I talk about it on my podcast every week, I realize I have never written a post about it. So today I wanted to walk through some symptoms of High Functioning Anxiety.

But first, how is High Functioning Anxiety different from plain old anxiety?

Officially, you can get diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, which has the following symptoms.

Signs and Symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder

  • Feeling nervous, irritable, or on edge
  • Having a sense of impending danger, panic, or doom
  • Having an increased heart rate
  • Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation), sweating, and/or trembling
  • Feeling weak or tired
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Experiencing gastrointestinal (GI) problems

High Functioning Anxiety isn’t different because of the symptoms you have but rather your response to these symptoms. The response to general anxiety is usually living in a constant state of fight or flight, whereas for those with HFA, their response 99% of the time is to fight, meaning when they feel anxiety they tend to push harder and hustle more. While people who do not have HFA tend to engage in flight, they withdraw from life, pull back from the areas that are increasing their anxiety.

This distinction is important because when someone withdraws or pulls back due to their anxiety, others in their life tend to notice and offer to help. But since people with HFA have mastered the “I got this” and “everything is fine” response to their anxiety, it stays hidden and most people close to you have no idea you are dealing with anxiety. So it is a double-edged sword. On one side, you are experiencing anxiety and all the pain that comes with that and on the other side, you are hustling so hard to make sure no one sees you sweat.

Here are some common ways HFA shows up:

1. People describe you as a “Type A” perfectionist.

In everything you do, you want it to be the best! You tend to look at things as black/white or right/wrong and have all or nothing thinking.

2. Achievement is THE most important.

“I get more done the busier I am” is a common refrain from those who have HFA. This refrain is also a myth. People with HFA have a to-do list a mile long and often escape into accomplishing rather than dealing with their anxiety. You can also get fixated on “milestones of achievement,” such as graduating college, earning a certain promotion, getting married, having kids, etc. When you don’t hit those milestones by your pre-conceived deadline, your anxiety will increase.

Achievement can also show up in how you rate your day. Frequently, people with HFA define a good day vs. bad day solely based on how productive they are.

3. You are more than just a people pleaser — you have a crippling fear of letting other people down.

Disappointing people can send your Monger into overdrive (see below where I talk about being kind, empathetic, and loyal). With those three traits and your overactive Monger, you tend to spend a large amount of time making sure everybody else around you has their needs met, often to the detriment of your own.

4. You can be a bit rigid and controlling.

In order to calm the constant push for doing it perfectly, you can be rigid and controlling in your routines and habits. This rigidity gives you a false sense that you are on top of things and handling all that is coming at you. It can show up in your schedule, what you eat, or how you dress and having a lot of rules for the “right” way to do things, from how to load the dishwasher to raising kids. In reality, this rigidity keeps you separate from your life and cut off from those around you. This is a great way to notice when your anxiety is spiking: the higher your anxiety, the more rigid and controlling you will become.

5. Saying no fills you with shame.

You never say no because 1. that would be admitting you can’t handle something, 2. you might disappoint someone, and 3. FOMO is real (what if you made the wrong decision). So you rarely say no and often take on more than you can handle.

6. You rarely sleep through the night.

Waking up at 3am with your Monger chatting a mile an hour. Insomnia is a common trait of those with HFA. When you push down all your anxiety throughout the day and engaged in the fight response, your anxiety tends to come up to visit in the middle of the night.

7. People misunderstand you.

People with HFA are some of the kindest, empathetic, and most loyal people I know, and yet they tend to be described as stoic and unemotional. Why? Because one way to keep your anxiety squashed down is to compartmentalize everything (especially those emotions!) and keep everything logical and rational.

8. It shows up in your body.

For many of us with HFA, the physical symptoms—the constant knot in your stomach, back pain or headaches—are the first time we realize we might have anxiety. Nervous ticks such as biting your nails, twisting your hair, tapping your feet, or cracking your knuckles can also be signs of your High Functioning Anxiety.

You don’t have to experience all of these symptoms to have HFA, just enough to recognize you don’t want to live with HFA driving your life anymore. Two challenges of treating HFA is the shame factor (the idea that you can’t let anyone see your anxiety) coupled with your desire to “do it right” and make everyone happy.

Often in traditional one-on-one coaching sessions, clients spend the majority of their session dancing across the surface of their lives or sharing with me how they were doing it right. It makes real change challenging, which is why I started using Voxer with my Coach in Your Pocket clients. Voxer is a voice messaging app that allows clients to check in with me in their own time rather than having to come to my office and sit across from me, where their desire to please may start running the show. With Voxer, clients can be in the comfort of their own space and share what is really going on.

This type of working with clients is perfect for people with HFA. It allows us to cut through so many of the coping mechanisms that block traditional therapy and make real genuine progress. If you would like to learn more about Coach in Your Pocket, I am offering free 30-minute consultations. Schedule your call with me and we can see if it might be a good fit for you.


New on The Happier Approach Podcast

My guest on the podcast this week is Shannon Siriano Greenwood of Rebelle Con. Shannon went through her share of burnout. She hit her rock bottom and was able to climb back out, but her story is far from simple. Shannon is committed to change and to mental health as an on-going daily practice. As you will hear, some days she nails it and some days she has a lot of room for growth. Listen to the full episode on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or over here.