It’s a secret form of anxiety because people who experience it are often high-achievers who seem to have it together.
Sometimes anxiety is obvious. It’s the voice in the back of your head that whispers, “Something bad is going to happen.” It keeps you awake at 2 a.m. replaying something embarrassing you said — five years ago. At its worst, it brings panic attacks and breathlessness and sweaty, shaky hands.
Other times, anxiety is not so obvious. It’s being unable to relax and to let your guard down because you’re on high alert. It’s a mind that won’t stop thinking and planning, because you need every little detail locked down, and hey, isn’t this what it means to be “proactive” and “productive”?
High-functioning anxiety is as sneaky as it is insidious.
Introversion and Anxiety Aren’t the Same
But first, a disclaimer, because you’re reading a website about introversion:
Not all introverts experience anxiety, and yes, extroverts and ambiverts can have it, too. Introversion and anxiety aren’t the same thing; introversion is defined as a preference for calm, minimally stimulating environments, whereas 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: According to Dr. Laurie Helgoe, it’s statistically more common in introverts than extroverts.
If you’re reading this, you may be one of those “unlucky” introverts like me who battles it everyday.
What Is High-Functioning Anxiety?
The reason high-functioning anxiety is so sneaky is people who experience it rarely — if ever — show any of the most common anxiety signs. Outwardly, they appear to be keeping it together, and they may even lead very successful, high-profile lives. No one can tell from the outside that they’re driven by fear, and in fact, they may not even realize the true roots of their own actions.
High-functioning anxiety is not an official diagnosis, but it is something many people identify with, and something more therapists are starting to share with their clients. It’s probably most closely related to Generalized Anxiety Disorder, which affects 6.8 million adults in the U.S., women being twice as likely to experience it as men.
Do you have high-functioning anxiety? Here are 15 signs. The more signs that resonate with you, the more likely it is you have it.
Signs of High-Functioning Anxiety
1. You’re always prepared.
Does this sound like you? In any given situation, your mind jumps to the worst-case scenario. As a result, you find yourself over-preparing.
For example, my suitcase was lost by the airline when I flew to Thailand. I had to wear the same clothes for days, which bothered me to no end. Now, whenever I travel, I have the irrational fear that it will happen again (it hasn’t), and it will RUIN. EVERYTHING. So I pack underwear, a change of clothes, and some toiletries in both my checked luggage and my carry-on. It’s really annoying to prep duplicates, but I can’t shake the fear.
If you have high-functioning anxiety, people probably see you as the reliable one — and often your preparations do come in handy — but few people (if any!) know the real root of your “ready for anything” mentality.
2. You may be freaking out on the inside, but you’re stoic on the outside.
People with high-functioning anxiety don’t show how nervous they are. They may appear completely calm and together even when a storm of fear is raging on the inside; they’ve learned to compartmentalize their emotions. This is another reason high-functioning anxiety is called a secret anxiety.
3. You see the world in a fundamentally different way.
Although you may question your anxiety and second guess yourself, your feelings aren’t “just in your head.” Researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel found that people who are anxious actually see the world differently than people who aren’t anxious. In the study, anxious people were less able to distinguish between a “safe” stimulus and one that was previously associated with a threat. The researchers believe this shows that anxious people overgeneralize their emotional experiences — even if they aren’t actually dangerous.
4. You constantly feel the need to be doing something.
This is another big one for me, which creates a real problem because I’m also an introvert who needs plenty of downtime to recharge. For introverts, this symptom doesn’t necessarily translate to attending lots of social events or packing their weekends with plans. Rather, you may feel a compulsion to always be getting things done, being “productive,” or staying on top of things. Whether you’re consciously aware of it or not, being busy may distract you from your anxiety and give you a sense of control — something anxious people crave.
5. You’re outwardly successful.
Because people with high-functioning anxiety are so achievement-oriented, organized, detail-oriented, and proactive in planning ahead for all possibilities, they’re often the picture of success. Problem is, it’s never enough — they always feel like they should be doing more.
6. You’re afraid of disappointing others.
People with high-functioning anxiety are often people-pleasers. They’re so afraid of letting others down (again, me!) that they work around the clock to keep everyone happy — even if it means sacrificing their own needs. This is also a common struggle of highly sensitive people (HSPs).
7. You chatter nervously.
Introverts are known for only speaking when they have something meaningful to say, but that’s not always the case for introverts with high-functioning anxiety. They may chatter on and on — out of nervousness — and get mistaken for an extrovert.
8. You’ve built your life around avoidance.
People with high-functioning anxiety shrink their world to prevent feelings of overwhelm. This is different from introverts who limit social obligations because they enjoy being alone and need that time to recharge their energy; people with high-functioning anxiety avoid intense emotional experiences like travel, social events, or conflict because they trigger their anxiety. Instead, they stick to routines and familiar experiences that give them a sense of comfort and control.
9. You’re a perfectionist.
This may look like trying to calm your worries by getting your work or your appearance just right. Of course, being conscientious about these things can bring positive results, but for people with high-functioning anxiety, it comes at a cost. You may have an “all-or-nothing” mentality (“If I’m not the best student, then I’m the worst”). You may have unrealistic expectations of yourself, and a catastrophic fear of falling short of them.
10. You’re prone to rumination and overthinking.
Introverts are already prone to overthinking on account of the way their brains are wired (read more about the science behind overthinking here). Throw in high-functioning anxiety, and you’ve got a recipe for mental overload. People with high-functioning anxiety may do a lot of negative self-talk, replay past mistakes, dwell on scary “what if” scenarios, struggle to make decisions, and struggle to enjoy the moment because they’re expecting the worst.
11. You have aches, repetitive habits, or tics.
According to psychotherapist Annie Wright, anxiety sometimes manifests physically in the body as muscle tension or bodily aches and pains. Similarly, you might unconsciously pick at the skin around your nails (me again!), tap your foot, scratch your scalp, or do other repetitive things that get your nervous energy out — even if you appear composed in other ways.
12. You’re tired all the time.
If you have high-functioning anxiety, you’re always on high alert, and your mind is always running, making it hard to fall asleep or stay asleep. Even when you do sleep well, you may feel tired during the day because dealing with a constant underlying level of anxiety is physically EXHAUSTING.
13. You startle easily.
It’s because your nervous system is kicked into over-drive. A slammed door, an ambulance siren, or other unexpected sounds may really rattle people with high-functioning anxiety.
14. You get irritated and stressed easily.
People with high-functioning anxiety live with constant low-level stress, so they quickly get agitated by minor problems or annoyances that others would brush off.
15. You can’t “just stop it.”
“Just stopping it” isn’t an option for people with anxiety.
In fact, the above-mentioned researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science found that people who are anxious have somewhat different brains than people who aren’t anxious, so they can’t control their anxious reactions.
However, you can learn to cope with your anxiety — I am. Want do start dealing with your anxiety? Below are some articles that will help.