15 Sneaky Signs of High-Functioning Anxiety

a person shows signs of high functioning anxiety

High-functioning anxiety can be hard to spot because people who have it often appear calm, well-prepared, and successful.

Sometimes, anxiety is quite obvious. It’s the voice in the back of your head whispering, “Something bad is going to happen.” It keeps you awake at 2 a.m., replaying an embarrassing moment from five years ago. At its worst, it triggers panic attacks, breathlessness, and sweaty, shaky hands.

Other times, anxiety is not so obvious. It manifests as an inability to relax and let your guard down, keeping you on high alert. It’s a mind that can’t stop thinking and planning, as you strive to lock down every little detail, convincing yourself that this is what being “proactive” and “productive” means.

High-functioning anxiety is as sneaky as it is insidious. Let’s look at some common signs of high-functioning anxiety so you can see if you might have it.

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Introversion and Anxiety

But first, a disclaimer, since you’re reading this on my website about introversion:

Not all introverts experience anxiety, and yes, extroverts and ambiverts can also have it. Introversion and anxiety are not the same; introversion is defined as a preference for calm, minimally stimulating environments, while anxiety is a general term for mental health conditions that cause excessive fear, worry, and nervousness.

Nevertheless, for many introverts, anxiety is a regular and unwelcome part of their lives. Laurie Helgoe, a psychologist, author, and my friend, explains this in her article, Revenge of the Introverts. She states that anxiety is statistically more common among introverts than extroverts, partly because introverts tend to be more self-critical, but also more realistic in their self-assessments. Helgoe writes, “Call it depressive realism.”

So, if you’re an introvert like me, there’s a good chance that you might experience some form of anxiety.

What Is High-Functioning Anxiety?

High-functioning anxiety is tricky to spot because those who have it don’t usually show the common signs of anxiety. On the outside, they might look like high achievers who have everything under control. They don’t obviously avoid or back away from challenges. Many are successful in their jobs, active in their communities, and have good relationships.

But under this outward success, they’re dealing with worry, fear, and high levels of stress, or they always feel on edge. It’s not clear to others that their actions are driven by fear.

The Mayo Clinic describes high-functioning anxiety as a type of generalized anxiety disorder that often goes unnoticed or undiagnosed. This happens when someone with anxiety symptoms pushes themselves to face their fears and is good at hiding how they feel.

High-functioning anxiety isn’t officially recognized as a medical condition, but more therapists are talking about it with their clients. It can happen to anyone, no matter their age or gender, but some people are more likely to experience it. Women, for instance, are more than twice as likely as men to have an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. This might be because of social pressures, gender roles, and worries about relationships. Also, you might be more at risk if anxiety runs in your family or if you were raised by anxious caregivers or those who had high expectations of you.

Wonder if you have it? Here are 15 signs of high-functioning anxiety. The more points you relate to, the more likely you have it.

Signs of High-Functioning Anxiety

1. You’re always prepared.

Do you find yourself always preparing for the worst-case scenario? This is common for people with high-functioning anxiety. You might over-prepare because you’re worried about what could go wrong.

For example, I once had my suitcase lost by the airline on a trip to Thailand. I had to wear the same clothes for days, which bothered me to no end. Now, I always worry it’ll happen again (even though it hasn’t), and that it’ll spoil everything. So, I pack extra underwear, clothes, and toiletries in both my checked bag and my carry-on. It’s a hassle to prepare duplicates, but I can’t get rid of that worry.

If you have high-functioning anxiety, you’re probably seen as the person who’s always ready for anything. Your careful planning often turns out to be useful, but few people know the true reason behind your “always prepared” approach.

2. You’re panicking inside, but you look calm outside.

People with high-functioning anxiety are good at hiding how nervous they feel. They might look calm and in control, even though they’re actually really scared on the inside. They’ve become skilled at keeping their emotions to themselves. This is another reason why high-functioning anxiety is often called a “secret” anxiety.

3. You see the world as more threatening.

Even if you doubt your anxiety and often second-guess yourself, your feelings are real and not “just in your head.” Researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel found that anxious people actually perceive the world differently compared to those who aren’t anxious. In their study, people with anxiety had a harder time telling apart a safe stimulus from one that was previously linked to a threat. This suggests that anxious individuals tend to overgeneralize from their emotional experiences, seeing danger even in harmless situations.

4. You always feel like you need to be busy.

This is a big issue for me, and it’s especially tough because I’m an introvert who needs alone time to recharge. (Want to learn more about being an introvert? Check out my book, The Secret Lives of Introverts, which has been called a “manifesto for all the quiet ones and the people who love them.”)

For introverts, feeling like you need to stay busy doesn’t necessarily mean going to lots of social events or filling every weekend with activities. Instead, you might feel you have to constantly get things done, stay “productive,” or keep everything under control. Even if you don’t realize it, keeping busy might be your way of distracting yourself from your anxiety and feeling in control — something people with anxiety often want.

5. You’re successful.

People with high-functioning anxiety often seem like they have it all together because they are goal-oriented, organized, pay attention to details, and plan for every possibility. This helps them advance in their careers and succeed in their lives. But the problem is, they never feel it’s enough — they always think they should be doing more.

6. You worry about letting others down.

Another sign of high-functioning anxiety is trying hard to please others. You might feel so worried about disappointing someone that you end up working all the time to make everyone happy, even if it means neglecting your own needs. This trait is also common in highly sensitive people.

7. You chatter nervously.

Introverts have a reputation for finding small talk annoying, but introverts with high-functioning anxiety might be different. They might talk a lot, especially when they’re nervous, and this can sometimes make them seem like extroverts.

8. You’ve built your life around avoidance.

Another sign of high-functioning anxiety is feeling the need to limit what you do to avoid feeling overwhelmed. This is different from introverts who choose less social interaction because they enjoy alone time and need it to recharge. Those with high-functioning anxiety avoid things that trigger their anxiety, like travel, social events, or conflict. They prefer routines and familiar situations because they feel safer and more in control.

9. You try to be perfect.

You might think making everything perfect, like your work or how you look, will ease your worries. Being careful about these things can be good, but for people with high-functioning anxiety, it often comes with stress. You might think in extremes, like “If I’m not the best, I’m the worst.” You set really high standards for yourself and are scared of not meeting them.

10. You ruminate and overthink.

Introverts often overthink because of how their brains work (there’s more about this science here). Add high-functioning anxiety, and it can really overload your mind. You might be hard on yourself, keep thinking about past mistakes, worry about “what ifs,” find it hard to decide on things, and not enjoy the moment because you’re expecting something bad.

11. You have aches, repetitive habits, or tics.

Psychotherapist Annie Wright says that anxiety can show up in your body as muscle tension or pain. You might also do things without realizing, like picking at your skin, tapping your foot, or scratching your head, as ways to release nervous energy. You might do these things even if you seem calm in other ways.

12. You feel tired all the time.

When you have high-functioning anxiety, you’re constantly alert and your mind is always active, which can make it difficult to fall or stay asleep. Even if you do manage to sleep well, you might still feel tired during the day because handling constant anxiety is really tiring.

13. You get startled easily.

This happens because your nervous system is always in high gear. Sudden noises like a loud bang, an ambulance siren, or other unexpected sounds can unsettle people with high-functioning anxiety.

14. You get annoyed and stressed quickly.

Since people with high-functioning anxiety are always dealing with some level of stress, they tend to get upset or irritated more easily by small issues that others might not find bothersome.

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15. You can’t just “stop” being anxious.

Telling someone with anxiety to “just stop it” isn’t helpful. As the researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science noted, the brains of anxious people are a bit different from those who aren’t anxious — so they can’t simply switch off their anxiety.

However, there are ways to manage your anxiety – I’m learning to do this myself. If you want to start dealing with your anxiety, check out some helpful articles below.

Anxiety resources: