High functioning anxiety is not the same as generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). But, with anxiety being a complex, nuanced condition, it can be difficult to tell exactly what you're experiencing - and how to help yourself get better.
What is high functioning anxiety?
"High functioning anxiety is a form of anxiety where the person living with the condition can find themselves constantly looking for perfection in everything they do," explains Nicky Lidbetter, CEO at Anxiety UK. "As a result, they may be externally seen as a high achiever or someone who is doing very well in life," she adds.
While for some people that might mean holding down a senior role in their career, for others it can mean success in other areas of life, such as relationships or personal achievements.
What are the symptoms of high functioning anxiety?
High functioning anxiety tends to be masked very well, making it tricky to spot. However, there are some common behaviours to look out for if you think you or someone you know is experiencing it.
Sufferers of high functioning anxiety can appear to others as being 'always on the go', which Nicky says is often due to "excessive worry preventing them from being able to relax and wind down".
Those with high functioning anxiety are also "typically over-critical of themselves despite their personal achievements and successes," the expert notes. This often runs alongside an ongoing need to seek reassurance from others, "especially people they are close to, to help combat the feelings of anxiety."
Being just another type of anxiety, high functioning anxiety can manifest itself both mentally and physically. You may constantly find yourself overthinking things, exhausting yourself with 'what if' scenarios, and facing the constant sensation of being on edge, even when there is no obvious reason to be nervous or panicked.
Physically, you might notice changes in your sleep patterns, muscle tension, and even your heartbeat - but because high-functioning anxiety typically means you continue with your daily life whilst enduring these symptoms, it often becomes difficult to diagnose the condition, or reach out for help.
What’s the difference between high functioning anxiety and generalised anxiety disorder?
"Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) is a form of anxiety that can be a constant experience for those who live with the condition. People who experience GAD can wake up feeling overwhelmed with anxiety and worry, and go to bed feeling the same way," explains Nicky. "The worry experienced is long-term and has been described as worrying about worrying."
This is different to someone with high functioning anxiety. "By contrast, individuals who experience high functioning anxiety try to push away their anxiety through achieving in their work and personal lives. They set incredibly high standards for themselves, keeping busy and being wrapped up in work, which serves as a distraction."
In other ways, however, GAD and high functioning anxiety are very similar. "Both conditions are characterised by anxious thoughts and worry which can often be referred to as 'over-thinking'," says the expert. "This over-analysis of all aspects of the person’s life can cause a persistent and even constant state of anxiety and stress. There is also similarity in terms of exhibiting an inability to 'switch off'."
How can I manage high functioning anxiety?
Managing anxiety can feel like a mountain to climb, but it can be achieved, reassures Nicky. "Making some simple lifestyle changes that can make a big difference. Limiting caffeine consumption, exercising regularly and getting enough sleep can help to reduce anxious thoughts and have a positive impact on your mental health.
"Talking about stress and anxiety however is also very important and accessing evidence based treatments such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)," Nicky adds. "Talking therapies play a vital role in the treatment of anxiety. Anxiety UK has a nationwide Approved Therapist service which provides access to counselling, CBT and clinical hypnotherapy."
The expert also suggests trying to combat anxiety by "reading self-help materials or practising mindfulness and meditation through popular apps such as Headspace (which is available to members of Anxiety UK)."
Different people find different routes beneficial. The important thing is to identify the different options available and determine which work best for you as an individual. "Whether it is talking openly to friend and family or your GP, using self-help resources, or accessing support through organisations such as Anxiety UK there are support options available, so focus on what works best for you," says Nicky.