According to the National Institute of Mental Health, around 40 million adults in the United States suffer from anxiety every year and nearly 18% of those adults are considered to be “high functioning.” High functioning anxiety is considered to be a hidden problem, but its effects can be detrimental.
What is High Functioning Anxiety?
High functioning anxiety occurs in a person who experiences typical anxiety symptoms, but they are able to mask their symptoms to appear as though they are functioning well. On the outside, people with high functioning anxiety may appear high achieving and dependable. In reality, these individuals often experience worry, fear, and obsessive thoughts. They typically have an underlying fear of failure driving the anxious thoughts.
There are different forms of anxiety including generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and social anxiety disorder. These types of anxiety differ from high functioning anxiety in that the person with GAD or social anxiety disorder may turn to avoidance strategies or “flight” responses to cope with their anxiety. A person with high functioning anxiety, however, will mostly turn to fight responses to cope with their symptoms.
While high functioning anxiety is not currently recognized in the diagnostic and statistical manual (DSM-5) as a distinct mental health disorder diagnosed by medical professionals, there are still treatment options such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and other commonly used modalities. Meeting with a mental health professional can help you discover effective treatments for you.
There are many signs and symptoms of high functioning anxiety. People with anxiety may seem as though they are perfect in their daily life; they look put together, may hold leadership positions, arrive places early, and are always busy. However, in reality, this person may experience debilitating symptoms of anxiety. Common symptoms of high functioning anxiety include, but are not limited to:
- Rumination and excessive worry
- Inability to relax and live in the moment
- Insomnia and fatigue
- Never being able to say no
- Substance abuse
Individuals with high functioning anxiety will maintain a persona for those around them while experiencing an internal struggle. These patterns and compartmentalization lend itself to additional mental health concerns where the person may experience both anxiety and depressive symptoms.
The Impact of Anxiety on Relationships
High functioning anxiety has many intrusive symptoms that affect not only the person with high functioning anxiety but also the people they hold close relationships with.
People with high functioning anxiety may be reluctant to discuss their experience. This is because they do not want to break down the persona that they have created; however, this can lead to disagreements and mistrust within the relationship as there is a fundamental misunderstanding between partners.
Since people with high functioning anxiety typically experience symptoms of being a workaholic and a perfectionist, maintaining close romantic relationships can be challenging. They may prioritize their work and spend more time than necessary on tasks since they feel everything needs to be perfect. The more time they spend on work, the less time they have to dedicate to their relationships. Even when they are with a partner, they may be thinking about what needs to get done at work or errands that they need to run. These symptoms may cause the partner to feel neglected or as if they are not a priority.
People with high functioning anxiety often have people-pleasing tendencies and do not want to let people down. This is driven by their fear of failure. This means they may exhibit fawn responses and have a hard time setting boundaries for themselves. They may not be completely satisfied with the way things are in their lives, but they will have a very hard time admitting it.
Individuals with high functioning anxiety may feel the need to isolate themselves. They may withdraw from their partner if they feel taken for granted, not in control, or if they just feel the need to be alone. Those with high functioning anxiety may not feel they are worthy of love which could be another reason for their untimely isolation.
How to Support a Partner with High Functioning Anxiety
It can be challenging to know how to best support a partner with any type of mental illness. The best way to provide support is by asking your partner what they need from you to feel supported, but there are also some ways to show them you are there for them.
Be open to listening.
A person with high functioning anxiety may struggle to communicate what they are thinking or even appear emotionally unavailable. Allow them to discuss what they are worried about and try to encourage them by reminding them of their strengths. You do not need to solve the problem for them, just listening to them can be an act of support.
Support your partner in their treatment.
It is important to note with any mental illness that it is no one else’s responsibility to “cure” a partner or make them feel better. There are ways to be there for your partner by listening and asking them what they need from you to feel supported, but a great way to help is to support them in their treatment. Support can look like helping them find a therapist, taking up meditation together, or going with them to pick up medication.
High functioning anxiety may seem like a hidden problem, but its implications are anything but. It may seem challenging at times to have a relationship as someone or with someone who has high functioning anxiety, but having an understanding of how it can affect your relationship and what you can do to support yourself and your partner can help the relationship thrive.