High Functioning Anxiety Versus Generalized Anxiety Disorder

One of the keys to understanding how to deal with high functioning anxiety is understanding how it’s different from generalized anxiety or what most people think of as “regular” anxiety. 

How you can treat high functioning anxiety and deal with it in your day to day life can be very different from someone who has more traditional anxiety symptoms.

If you’ve been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder but it doesn’t feel quite right to you because you don’t have some of the classic symptoms, you may have high functioning anxiety. 

While it’s a type of anxiety, knowing the specifics of what high functioning anxiety is may resonate with you more and help you get more effective treatment for your high functioning anxiety.

Symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder & High Functioning Anxiety

How is high functioning anxiety different from plain old mental health anxiety? This is where the confusion tends to start. The symptoms of anxiety don’t actually differ from high functioning anxiety. Officially, you can get diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder by an anxiety specialist, which has the following symptoms.

  • 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

You can still experience these symptoms with high functioning anxiety but your response to these symptoms is often very different. How you cope with anxiety is what separates high functioning anxiety from general anxiety—and this is where most people get tripped up about dealing with their anxiety if they’re high functioning.

The signs of high functioning anxiety can help you better pinpoint that your response to anxiety is different than for GAD. If you’ve felt like your anxiety diagnosis wasn’t right, it may be because of the differences in response to symptoms between these two types of anxiety.

Coping with Generalized Anxiety Disorder Versus High Functioning Anxiety

The response to general anxiety is usually living in a constant state of fight or flight, whereas for those with high functioning anxiety, their response 99% of the time is to fight, meaning when they feel anxiety they tend to push harder and hustle more. 

People who do not have high functioning anxiety tend to engage in flight. In many cases, those with generalized anxiety disorder use coping behaviors focused on removing them from anxiety causing situations:

  • Withdraw from life and pull back from the areas that are increasing their anxiety
  • Have breakdowns or mentally “shut down”
  • Experience phobias to avoid sources of anxiety 
  • Use obsessive-compulsive behaviors to seek control

Because these are usually very obvious, people around them tend to notice and offer to help, which can help those with generalized anxiety get the help they need.

People with high functioning anxiety, however, deal with their anxiety very differently and often seek to control situations that cause anxiety. Instead of running from anxiety like those with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, they try to fight it by using these kinds of anxiety coping behaviors:

  • Seek control by being high achieving
  • Have black/white or right/wrong thought processes
  • Fixated on milestones, achievements and productivity
  • Will do anything to not let others down
  • Focused on routines, habits, and rigidity
  • Insomnia, nervous ticks and physical ailments showing up as flight response

Often we see these habits as good things, especially in the workplace, which can reinforce your anxiety responses. We often don’t see the issues someone with high anxiety is struggling with because they’re predominantly internal. As well, those with high functioning anxiety don’t want to let on that they’re struggling because that may symbolize a lack of control—and it can become an endless cycle.

Treating High Functioning Anxiety Is Different From Generalized Anxiety Disorder 

You don’t have to experience all of these high anxiety symptoms to have high functioning anxiety, just enough to recognize you don’t want to live with high functioning anxiety driving your life anymore. 

Two challenges of treating high functioning anxiety 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 with an anxiety coach, 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. As a mental health coach, I use Voxer to allow clients to 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 high functioning anxiety and how they are coping with stress and anxiety. 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.