5 Sneaky Signs of High Functioning Anxiety

Symptoms of high functioning anxiety can be sneaky. They can disguise themselves as traits or characteristics that go unnoticed—or they may even be praised. Here are the hidden symptoms of anxiety and what to do if you recognize any of them.

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Jun 28, 2023 UPDATED
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Many people with high functioning anxiety don't even know they have anxiety.

For instance, you may be wondering: What's the difference between regular anxiety and high-functioning anxiety?

What is it like to have high-functioning anxiety?

What are symptoms of high-functioning anxiety?

Is high-functioning anxiety an anxiety disorder?

What's the treatment for high-functioning anxiety?

We'll illuminate the differences and highlight the sneaky signs of high functioning anxiety.

What's it like to have high-functioning anxiety?

People can appear to be high-functioning on the outside while struggling on the inside.

Read on to learn more about the symptoms of high-functioning anxiety.

The Monarch Directory by SimplePractice can make it easier to find a therapist near you who specializes in treating anxiety.  

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What is high functioning anxiety?

I'm a high-achieving stress ball.

While some stress is normal—and can even be beneficial to us, there is a difference between stress and anxiety. There are specific criteria that help therapists diagnose anxiety disorders with relative certainty, but not everyone suffers from anxiety in the same way.

The weird thing is, as a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC)—who specializes in the treatment of anxiety—I initially had a hard time identifying my own anxiety.

From the outside, I appeared to be hard-working and organized.

Some people can appear to be high-functioning on the outside while struggling on the inside.

However, on the inside, I experienced all the symptoms of anxiety disorder, including intense feelings of impending doom, fear of failure, a racing heart, etc.

Although not officially listed and described in the American Psychological Association (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), it's often referred to as high functioning anxiety.

High functioning anxiety symptoms and signs

Here are five signs you might have high-functioning anxiety that isn't being treated.

1. You struggle to truly relax

Self-care has been a hot topic in the past few years, and I strongly believe that taking steps to prioritize our own self-care is an absolute necessity. 

high functioning anxiety

It may seem like it should be easy and effective to sit down with a book and a glass of wine and call that relaxing. However, that might not work for you. It might not always get you feeling relaxed, or it might not ever work for you.

For those of us who live with anxiety on a daily basis, it may require genuine effort and focus to slow the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system and shift into the parasympathetic (calming) nervous system. 

As a licensed mental health counselor—who specializes in the treatment of anxiety—I had a hard time identifying my own anxiety.

A mindfulness exercise that I use myself and teach to my clients is: when you sit down to relax, take a couple of minutes to do a full mental scan of your body.

What do you notice?

In order to experience the physical benefits of downtime, your nervous system must recognize that you are safe and calm.

If your heart is racing, you have trouble slowing your thoughts, or feel fidgety, you might not actually be relaxed at all. 

2. You snack when you feel stressed

Now, of course, there’s nothing wrong with snacking. As a mindfulness therapist, I help clients raise their self-awareness and become clear on why they are reaching for food.

Mindless snacking can be a maladaptive coping method for stress that easily gets overused.

Going through this process myself, I noticed any time I experience acute stress, I immediately look for a treat.

For example, if I'm sitting in traffic in my car, I eat Oreos. When I'm sitting at the table in my house paying bills, I eat potato chips. If I'm working on a deadline at my desk, I eat string cheese.

Sound familiar at all?

Through the lens of anxiety, one might notice that food is not what they truly want or need in the midst of a stressful, irritable moment.

Instead, the snack or food simply serves as a distraction that lets us slow down momentarily. Mindless snacking can be a maladaptive coping method for stress that too easily becomes overused.

3. You’re known for obsessively over-planning

If I had a dollar for every time someone said to me, “Wow, you planned for everything, didn’t you?” I'd be sipping coconut water on the beach for the rest of my days. 

As a young person, I was praised for being responsible.

As a mom, I'm praised for being prepared.

And, as a clinician, I'm congratulated for having a plan for almost any client scenario. 

body scan

The emotional toll and mental energy required by someone living with high functioning anxiety, however, is absolutely exhausting. 

My tendency to go above and beyond when planning ahead is purely to calm the fear of the unknown, and to control outcomes as much as possible, thereby reducing my anxiety. 

Over-planning isn’t bad.

If you lose interest in doing things because of how much work it takes just to leave the house you may have untreated high-functioning anxiety.

That said, over-planning can be problematic when it causes us to feel drained, overwhelmed, or exhausted. 

If you notice you lose interest in doing things because of how much work it takes just to leave the house you may have untreated high-functioning anxiety.

This over-planning might be another maladaptive coping method for stress, rather than a productive trait.

4. You have a tendency to “give up” when overwhelmed

Giving up is sometimes coded in our minds as a “lazy behavior,” but in many cases, this is not true.

When anxiety peaks, people often describe feeling paralyzed and not being able to muster up the energy to even begin to clean the house or go grocery shopping. 

Anxiety is debilitating. It’s exhausting to always be feeling “fight or flight.”

When people become flooded or overwhelmed, the thinking brain shuts down, as if a switch was flipped. 

It may feel counterintuitive, but here's what I recommend you do in these types of situations.

If the thought of doing household chores, completing a work task, or even socializing seems impossible—let yourself give up and avoid it.

When anxiety peaks, people often describe feeling paralyzed and not being able to muster up the energy to even begin to clean the house or go grocery shopping. 

After you relax and the stressful, exhausted, burnt out feelings subside, sometimes a more clear path appears, or motivation returns. Then, the activity may not seem so impossible.

There can be an incredible freedom that comes with identifying and naming anxiety as it shows up for you.

You don’t have to suffer through untreated symptoms.

There are many viable treatment options available, including therapy with a licensed counselor who specializes in treating anxiety.

My personal favorite is mindfulness. Mindfulness and mindfulness-based therapy (MBT) can be an incredibly gentle way to manage symptoms that otherwise may make it more challenging for you to live your life and do the activities you enjoy. 

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5. You have trouble taking your workout to the next level

This one is incredibly sneaky. And it took me quite a while to nail down what was happening.

In my twenties, I ran half marathons and distance races with friends.

Three kids and one chronic illness later, I assumed my distance running days had ended forever. 

My workouts felt terrible. I hit a wall at two miles, and I couldn’t seem to get past it. 

As I addressed my anxiety symptoms, I noticed a shift in my performance at the gym.

My stride became longer, and I was less sore after my workouts. I regained control of my breathing and could focus on body mechanics as I ran instead of fighting incessant negative thoughts mile after mile. 

As I addressed my anxiety symptoms, I noticed a shift in my performance at the gym.

The less worry and tension I held, the more I allowed my body to move like the runner I used to be. 

Almost any athlete will tell you that mindset is half the battle.

For those of us with high functioning anxiety, your racing thoughts don’t just stop when you hit the gym. 

If you notice that your workouts have plateaued and you live with anxiety, it could be worth it to find a therapist who can support you in achieving your zone of optimal performance, where muscles relax, breath becomes steady, and you can release ruminating thoughts. 

How to find a therapist who can help with high functioning anxiety

If anxiety is interrupting your day-to-day functioning, speak with your primary care physician and/or a mental health professional such as a counselor or therapist about what you're experiencing.

Monarch can help you find a therapist who specializes in treating anxiety—many who have online booking and offer telehealth video sessions as well as free 15-minute initial consultations.

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Talking with someone may help address and alleviate your anxiety symptoms.

Do I have an anxiety disorder?

Take our 2-Minute Anxiety Assessment to find out whether you may have an anxiety disorder.

Simply answer a few quick questions, and you'll receive your personalized results.

The quiz was developed based on the GAD-7, a widely used tool to screen clients with anxiety symptoms.

That said, your results from the quiz should not be viewed as a replacement for professional treatment. 

Check out profiles of mental health professional near you who specializes in anxiety. You can also choose to browse therapists and counselors who accept your insurance.

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When discussing with your doctor or therapist, it will be helpful to describe details about the symptoms you're experiencing. 

READ NEXT: What's Causing My Anxiety, and Will It Ever Go Away?

Need to find a therapist who specializes in treating anxiety? Check out the Monarch Directory by SimplePractice to find licensed anxiety therapists near you with availability and online booking.

Article originally published Mar 16, 2023. Updated Jun 28, 2023.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2017). Any anxiety disorder. Retrieved from National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) website: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/any-anxiety-disorder 

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