Recognizing High-Functioning Anxiety – Medscape

Motivated, calm, and high-functioning. On the surface, you are the epitome of success. You arrive at work early. You are driven, meet all deadlines and, in fact, excel at tasks. Not only are you successful in your work, but also you appear well put-together — not a single hair out of place. You have a busy social life, always smiling, laughing, or generally in an uplifting mood. On the surface, you have everything together. 

Inside, you’re drowning. You’re in constant survival mode — always overthinking, ruminating, and fearful. Your need for self-preservation is in overdrive. You use your anxiety and fear as motivation. You are a people pleaser, need constant reassurance, and are unable to enjoy the present moment. You have an inability to say no regardless of your overloaded schedule. You are mentally and physically fatigued and overworked beyond the brink of exhaustion. You need to take time off but can’t bring yourself to do so. Others wouldn’t see you in this light because you always appear to be doing well. 

The portraits I’ve painted here sound like two different people, but in fact are representative of one. High-functioning anxiety, while not a formal health diagnosis, is a term that broadly encapsulates individuals who experience anxiety but also function well in their day-to-day lives. On the surface, individuals with high-functioning anxiety appear to be “perfect” but in actuality are under constant stress and anxiety in fear of disappointing others. They are perceived as overachievers, but this perception fails to recognize and acknowledge the mental health toll required to achieve at such a high level.

I came across this concept when a friend sent me a post on social media. It was a completely new but oddly familiar concept when I first read about high-functioning anxiety. In fact, I related to this concept almost immediately based on interactions with friends and colleagues, and their recollection of stressors over the years in high-stress, high-functioning environments. 

In addition to personal interactions, I’ve seen anxiety and mental health at large become more “normalized” on various platforms (eg, Instagram, TikTok) over the years. Interestingly, normalizing these concepts could be beneficial. For example, they increase awareness, encourage conversations (eg, creating communities), and minimize the barriers toward understanding and respecting individuals who experience high-functioning anxiety. However, social media also has the potential to be harmful (eg, “humorizing” the concept or turning it into memes, diminishing the experience).

However, the question that nagged at my mind even further was: What reasons are there, if any, for why high-functioning anxiety is not recognized as a formal diagnosis? Is this concept too new? Difficult to diagnose? Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that high-functioning anxiety is debilitating and impairs one’s quality of life. There appears to be a need to formally recognize this subtype of anxiety and invest more time and research. Increasing the sphere of knowledge may bring more good than harm, as a way to let others know that it’s okay. 

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About Leanna Lui

Leanna M.W. Lui, HBSc, completed an HBSc global health specialist degree at the University of Toronto, where she is now an MSc candidate. Her interests include mood disorders, health economics, public health, and applications of artificial intelligence. In her spare time, she is a fencer with the University of Toronto Varsity Fencing team and the Canadian Fencing Federation.