“High-functioning anxiety” is a term that’s tossed around a lot in conversations and popular media to describe people who perform well in their daily lives but may push aside internal struggles with anxiety. But it’s not a recognized disorder, says Maya Pinjala, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist at Henry Ford Health. So it’s important to look below the surface at what’s causing these feelings.
“People with high-functioning anxiety are often successful in work, school or at home. But they also experience ongoing worry and stress. Some of these individuals may have an anxiety disorder but don’t recognize it, or hesitate to get help for fear of being judged. That’s why we want to raise awareness about anxiety symptoms and treatments that improve quality of life and overall health.”
Recognizing Anxiety Disorder Symptoms
About 20% of people in the U.S. have an anxiety disorder, but only 40% of those diagnosed with anxiety seek care. Left untreated, anxiety can contribute to chronic health conditions like digestive problems, high blood pressure (hypertension) and obesity. Anxiety also increases the risk for depression and substance use disorders.
Someone with so-called high-functioning anxiety could actually have one of several anxiety disorders, says Dr. Pinjala. Anxiety symptoms (and severity) and coping mechanisms vary from person to person, but tend to fall into several categories:
- Cognitive symptoms: Anxiety can cause difficulty concentrating and focusing on a task. Some people may experience fears of the worst happening, losing control or being judged by others.
- Behavioral symptoms: People with anxiety may be nervous, irritable, impatient and easily frustrated. Some people with high-functioning anxiety may also overprepare at work or school to avoid failure. Others may ask for constant reassurance about how they perform daily tasks at work, school or home.
- Physical symptoms: Sometimes, anxiety can cause physical responses, such as shortness of breath, sweating, muscle tension, digestive problems, headaches and difficulty falling or staying asleep.
People with high-functioning anxiety may not recognize these symptoms or they might minimize the impact symptoms have on daily life. Often these individuals wait to seek care until they experience depression symptoms, such as feelings of reduced motivation, hopelessness and loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed.
“We don’t want people to wait until their internal struggles lead to health problems or depression. If they recognize anxiety symptoms sooner, they can receive treatment, minimizing the cycle of negative thoughts,” says Dr. Pinjala.
Anxiety Disorder Treatments
“Some stress and mild anxiety can help motivate us to meet a deadline or work towards a goal,” says Dr. Pinjala. “But when anxiety interferes with your quality of life, it’s time to seek help. Your mental health impacts your overall health.”
There are a variety of effective treatments for anxiety disorders, including:
- Lifestyle changes: Practice self-care with regular exercise, good sleep habits, a balanced diet, mindfulness meditation and relaxation techniques. Stay hydrated. Take all prescribed medications to manage chronic conditions.
- Medications: Treatments include anti-anxiety medicines like benzodiazepines, buspirone and beta-blockers. Other treatment options are antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) or tricyclic antidepressants.
- Therapy: Talking with a therapist or counselor can help you identify anxiety triggers and manage your symptoms. Therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is proven effective in reducing anxiety by helping you recognize distorted thinking and learning techniques for reframing your perspective.
“Don’t hesitate to ask for help. You may prefer to talk with a therapist rather than take medications. Or you may want to start with lifestyle changes like exercise. Many paths provide relief,” says Dr. Pinjala. “Your doctor or therapist can work with you to develop a treatment plan to manage your symptoms.”
Dr. Maya Pinjala is a neuropsychologist who sees patients at Henry Ford Behavioral Health - Seville, One Ford Place, Henry Ford Medical Center - Ford Road and Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital.