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10 Things Only People With High-Functioning Anxiety Will Understand

On the outside you may seem fine, but on the inside? Not so much.
High-functioning anxiety is often a mechanism used to protect yourself from undesirable outcomes.
High-functioning anxiety is often a mechanism used to protect yourself from undesirable outcomes.

Anxiety is best known for manifesting in more obvious ways ― think panic attacks, mood swings and excessive rumination ― but it can also marinate below the surface. You may feel distressed yet you continue to operate in your day-to-day life, meaning no one around you really knows what’s happening with you internally.

This particular form of anxiety is often referred to as high-functioning anxiety. It’s not a clinical diagnosis, but rather a catch-all term to describe the experience of someone living with a sizable amount of anxiety, but without the “functioning” limitations required to meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder, according to Washington-based licensed clinical psychologist Alicia Clark, author of ”Hack Your Anxiety.”

One way to understand high-functioning anxiety is as a mechanism of protecting yourself from undesirable outcomes: “If someone is able to psychologically prepare for all possible negative outcomes, then they may believe they can avoid feelings like disappointment or failure,” said Carly Claney, a Seattle-based licensed clinical psychologist. So not only are you rewarded with an avoidance of a negative outcome, but the achievement of a successful one, and usually at the same time.

If this description is starting to sound like your autobiography, you’re definitely not alone. (And you can manage and treat it.) Below are just a few other truths of what it’s like to live with high-functioning anxiety, according to experts:

1. You excel in your career but struggle in your personal life

Personal lives are messy and uncontrollable, and defining success in this area of your life isn’t as clear-cut and measurable as career goals typically are, Claney said.
Personal lives are messy and uncontrollable, and defining success in this area of your life isn’t as clear-cut and measurable as career goals typically are, Claney said.

A common issue that can happen when you have high-functioning anxiety is the tendency to apply the same patterns of behavior that help you excel in your career to your personal life, said Simon Rego, chief psychologist at Montefiore Medical Center and associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

However, the people in your personal life aren’t your colleagues or subordinates and things outside your job will rarely go the same way as they do inside your cubicle. Personal lives are messy and uncontrollable, and defining success in this area of your life isn’t as clear-cut and measurable as career goals typically are, Claney added. This can be super-difficult to cope with, to the point where you rarely feel like you measure up outside the office.

2. It looks like it’s ambition that’s driving you, but it’s really your anxiety

On the surface, habits, like working long hours and instantly replying to emails, may come off as ambition. In reality, it’s actually your anxiety calling the shots. What fuels you isn’t a strong desire to succeed, so much as the fear of not succeeding. Being afraid of undesirable outcomes, such as losing your footing, ruining your reputation, or straight-up failing at your job, can be significant drivers of this behavior, Claney said.

3. You seem like you have it all together, but getting through the day is often difficult

On the surface, habits, like working long hours and instantly replying to emails, may come off as ambition. In reality, it’s actually your anxiety calling the shots.
On the surface, habits, like working long hours and instantly replying to emails, may come off as ambition. In reality, it’s actually your anxiety calling the shots.

“Understanding that a key way of managing anxiety is to take control, people with high-functioning anxiety tend to be planners and list-makers,” Clark said. “In staying on top of things, they can keep their anxiety in motion, which helps them live their life optimally.”

But because you constantly expect yourself to go the extra mile in every area of your life, these lists and schedules can be more grueling than is reasonable, Clark added. As your anxiety builds and fatigue sets in, you might find yourself prioritizing your time in the form of avoidance or flaky behavior, which can exacerbate your anxiety even more.

4. Your routine getting disrupted makes you feel upset

When your go-to move for coping with your anxiety is planning ahead (having routines helps create certainty in your life, Rego said), an outside force derailing your plans can be upsetting.

“Responding with upset feelings may be a secondary emotion to fear in this situation,” Claney said. Because getting disrupted also means being unprepared, the fear of losing control can lead to more anxiety.

5. Your mind never stops, even when you’re exhausted

As your anxiety builds and fatigue sets in, you might find yourself prioritizing your time in the form of avoidance or flaky behavior, which can exacerbate your anxiety even more.
As your anxiety builds and fatigue sets in, you might find yourself prioritizing your time in the form of avoidance or flaky behavior, which can exacerbate your anxiety even more.

“People with high-functioning anxiety might conceptually recognize the need for balance and rest in order to keep using their anxiety effectively, but stopping to relax or tune out isn’t always easy,” Clark said.

For example, evenings are usually filled with chores, or guilt about not getting chores done if there’s rest. And when you do attempt rest, it’s usually in the form of tasks or hobbies that are (slightly) less taxing.

6. When you’re with others, your mind is often elsewhere

With high-functioning anxiety comes mental preoccupation, which can leave you stewing about work when kicking back with friends or obsessing over the spat you had with your partner during a meeting.

“Because you’re used to processing things quickly, and often in your head, being fully present with others can be a challenge,” Clark said. When you’re used to the rush of being “on” all the time, this can make downtime feel unsettling, no matter how much you care about the people you’re spending time with. As a result, this can cause ― you guessed it ― more anxiety.

7. You get upset over things most people don’t think are a big deal

A minor irritant to most can be a major irritant for someone with high-functioning anxiety.
A minor irritant to most can be a major irritant for someone with high-functioning anxiety.

People with anxiety tend to be sensitive to their environment. “You feel things more deeply, are more aware of subtle differences and are almost always using internal resources to tolerate irritants in the background, even if you aren’t consciously aware of it,” Clark said. (Think: uncomfortable clothing, temperature, noises, bright lights.)

A minor irritant to most can be a major irritant for someone with high-functioning anxiety. The more you need things to be a certain way to manage your anxiety, the more upset you’ll become when things, well, aren’t, Rego added.

8. You frequently cancel plans because you don’t have the energy to put on a show

It takes a tremendous amount of energy to maintain the excessively high standards that can come with high-functioning anxiety.

“It’s exhausting to be worrying all the time and to create routines to increase certainty in order to cope,” Rego said. This can result in bailing on plans you’ve made because you feel that you don’t have the bandwidth to “perform” for others.

9. Days off feel like more work than work

“Your feelings of ‘failure’ or being ‘out of control’ may not make sense to others, and you may feel invalidated by others’ encouragement or praise,” Claney said
“Your feelings of ‘failure’ or being ‘out of control’ may not make sense to others, and you may feel invalidated by others’ encouragement or praise,” Claney said

A day off for someone with high-functioning anxiety is when you can finally get to all the other things you have on your to-do list, as opposed to using the day to recharge.

“Facing chores, and a longer to-do list than there is time to finish it, with a depleted energy level can make these days feel even more taxing than a work day,” Clark said. And odds are, you round out your days off focused more on what you didn’t accomplish than what you did.

10. Your feelings get dismissed by others because not only do you seem fine, you’re excelling

Perhaps the most frustrating reality of living with high-functioning anxiety is the misunderstanding that comes with it.

“Your feelings of ‘failure’ or being ‘out of control’ may not make sense to others, and you may feel invalidated by others’ encouragement or praise,” Claney said. When your attempt at vulnerability is misunderstood or dismissed, it can solidify the belief that failure really isn’t an option for you and exacerbate your anxiety further.

It can be tiring living with this type of existence, but it can be managed. Chat with your doctor or a mental health professional if your anxiety becomes taxing; you deserve to feel better ― not just in one aspect of your life, but in all of them.

“Living With” is a guide to navigating conditions that affect your mind and body. Each month, HuffPost Life will tackle very real issues people live with by offering different stories, advice and ways to connect with others who understand what it’s like. In May, we’re covering anxiety in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month. Got an experience you’d like to share? Email wellness@huffpost.com.