High Functioning Anxiety

High Functioning Anxiety

High Functioning Anxiety

Picture yourself sitting in the biology class of Std 10th. It is the first time we all familiarised ourselves with the incredible survival and defense mechanisms of our extraordinary brains and bodies. The teacher animatedly gives us the example of coming face to face with a hungry beast all alone in a dense forest. We learn how the adrenaline rush helps prepare ourselves for a life-threatening emergency through the famous “triple F” response: Fight, Flight or Fight. We gape in awe as we discover how our sensory inputs of sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch-trigger powerful responses in our bodies. We have just understood how a dangerous situation gives us a rapid heartbeat enabling us to think and act fast, tunnel vision, and dilated pupils for focused clarity, elevated breathing rate, and even the capability to respond to a physical attack. Evolution ensures that fear and anxiety can be useful servants for self-preservation. However, we go on to realize that anxiety also has the potential to be a terrible master.

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines anxiety as an ‘emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure. A 2020 estimate by WHO informs us that 38 million Indians suffer from anxiety. With an anxiety disorder, a person becomes fearful in situations that do not call for it. It can be in anticipation of events that might happen in the future or how others are going to perceive our behaviors and actions. Sometimes, one may feel anxious for no identifiable reason at all! An intense feeling of dread, restlessness, excessive worry, nausea, thumping heart, sweating, light-headedness, breathlessness, sleep disruptions, and inability to concentrate are some of the common symptoms that are experienced by those in the throes of anxiety. Living with anxiety is like constantly facing that hungry beast and experiencing sensory overload as one goes about their day, surviving instead of thriving. 

Some persons who experience anxiety, however, find that their intense fear is like a double-edged sword; propelling them forward instead of freezing them. This is what we understand as high functioning anxiety. It is always there pushing them to do more, be better, achieve more, and “power through”. It may even appear commendable to others but underneath this confident exterior, is a fight to make it through the day. This inner and silent turmoil often gets masked by a generous dose of extroversion, laughter, success, and achievements. The same ability to power through drives them to overcome visible signs of anxiety in public. In reality, the person might be suffering intensely and end up pushing themselves to the point of burnout. These symptoms, mistaken for the usual stress, can have detrimental effects on physical and mental health. 

Although invisible, high functioning anxiety demonstrates various emotional and behavioral tendencies that can take a toll on one’s quality of life. One feels the compulsion to please people in order to create a safe environment. They endure racing thoughts and overthinking spirals, making it impossible to relax and difficult to sleep. Disruption of routine can make them upset, and the fear of saying “no” can always keep them on their toes. When anxiety is unchecked for prolonged periods of time, one can become prone to substance abuse, eating disorders, workaholism, depression, impaired cognition and memory, inability to make basic decisions, chronic physical illnesses of the stomach and heart, putting things off as a temporary relief which adds to stress later (procrastination), angry outbursts, and the risk of worsening pre-existing medical issues. 

There are various challenges with high functioning anxiety that make it difficult to acknowledge and reach out for help. Since persons with high functioning anxiety often tend to be overachievers striving for perfection, they may end up feeling that they are just “bad” at dealing with life stress. The awareness of their anxiety can fuel further anxiety! They may have never shared about their internal agony and their silence reinforces the feeling that they can’t ask for help. Observers do not see any unusual behavior, either. Additionally, the stigma around mental health creates a sociocultural environment of denial and dismissal, more so in the case of high functioning persons. Questions such as “You are young, energetic, successful and in love. Why must you be anxious at all?” seem to invalidate and belittle one’s lived experiences. One may even be faced with a competitive streak when sharing! “You have worries? You think so. Wait till you hear my worries!” Moreover, while anxiety is recognized as a diagnosable disorder (DSM-5), high functioning anxiety as a diagnosis has been conventionally debatable.

If you can relate to the lived experiences of high functioning anxiety, it is important to reach out for help. AtEase offers tools, coping mechanisms, and therapy that can make anxiety disorders, including high functioning anxiety, manageable and treatable. It is empowering to move from a position of questioning what is wrong with oneself to the position of working on one’s issues and eventually resolving them. It is exhilarating to be thriving instead of merely surviving! Talk with our AtEase experts today!


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