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High Functioning Anxiety

Anxiety is when you experience more than usual levels of stress or worry about seemingly normal or day to day activities. It is very common in the general population nowadays. But when anxiety becomes extremely severe and starts interfering with daily life, it transitions into a medically diagnosable disorder called generalized anxiety disorder which affects an estimated 284 million people in the world.

The word anxiety immediately brings to mind an image of a person standing in front of an audience, nervous and not able to speak. This image of anxiety has been promoted by the media and has become the layman’s interpretation of what it is. Social anxiety (another form of anxiety disorder) and generalized anxiety disorder are often used interchangeably. Hence, the stereotypical assumption that being shy is a sign of anxiety or that an anxious person would always be shy or timid. In reality, that is only one aspect of what anxiety looks like.

High functioning anxiety is a term made popular by the internet but is not an actual medically recognized disorder. It serves as a sharp contrast to the usual stereotypical image of generalized anxiety disorder, which as assumed, renders a person useless. High functioning anxiety looks like an extremely well put-together person. To the world they seem to have everything in order, they’re successful, competitive and generally very well-liked. If one has high functioning anxiety, he may find that instead of holding him back as anxiety usually tends to do, it ends up forcing him so much forward that he even becomes an overachiever. Someone with high functioning anxiety may be the epitome of perfection. People may say they are driven, competitive, hard working and so on, but fear of failure, worry about lacking behind, or disappointing others, or nervous energy may be the causes of most of their achievements. What people can’t see are the high levels of anxiety behind all these actions. In other words, someone with high-functioning anxiety might experience severe anxious symptoms like worrying a lot, racing thoughts and losing sleep but they white-knuckle their way through it anyway.

If not paid attention to, this form of generalized anxiety disorder goes unnoticed in many individuals since most of its effects end up seeming positive. A lot of times, the person never realizes that this amount of stress isn’t normal. He assumes that that’s how everyone is living every day. For example, a person may take pride in himself on being punctual but it’s really his anxiety that makes him worry about all the things that could make him late so instead he reaches early. This wouldn’t be considered a cause of worry for other people as being punctual isn’t really a sign of declining mental health.

While it may seem like a positive thing that your anxiety makes you an overachiever, it is only short-lived before the negative effects catch up to you. People with such traits end up not doing anything out of their comfort zone because they fear both not being able to be good at everything, and showing to people their vulnerable sides. They always wish to appear effortlessly good at every task. Struggling or showing weakness isn’t an option. High functioning anxious people tend not to do things just for fun and end up becoming competitive or feeling like they need to be perfect at it. This leads them to not being able to expand their horizons or learn new things. More often than not they may also apply this to their emotions where they will feel that their ‘negative’ or ‘weak’ emotions should not be shown to people and so they bottle them up without dealing with them.


A lot of traits exhibited by high functioning anxious people are considered positive and seen as desirable. This is also a reason that even after being diagnosed people do not get treatment because they’re afraid of ‘losing their edge’. Some of these traits include:

  • Socially outgoing (easily making friends or making small talk to new people)
  • Career driven
  • Detail oriented
  • Competitive
  • Punctual
  • Proactive
  • Organized

All of the traits mentioned above seem desirable and something which would lead to success but people don’t always know that these actions are caused by anxiety. They fail to understand how it can lead to such positive habits. Some of the negative characteristics of high functioning anxiety are:

  • People pleaser (need to be liked by everyone and caring about everybody’s opinion of them, fear of disappointing people)
  • Talking too much when nervous
  • Nervous habits (such as playing with your hair, cracking knuckles, biting your lip)
  • Need for reassurance (asking for directions multiple times or checking on their relationship with others frequently)
  • Over thinking and tendency to dwell on the negative (“What if?” thoughts and focusing on past mistakes)
  • Wasting time (arriving too early or doing nothing else for the rest of the day for appointments)
  • Procrastination followed by long periods of intense, stressful work
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Keeping yourself busy to avoid thinking too much
  • Not being able to say ‘no’
  • Always having an overloaded schedule, being constantly busy
  • Insomnia (difficulty falling asleep or waking early and being unable to fall back asleep)
  • Sometimes considered stoic, unemotional or cold by other people for not showing emotions
  • Unable to relax or enjoy the moment and be in the present
  • Potential for alcohol or substance abuse as an unhealthy coping method
  • Comparing yourself to others
  • Too much loyalty in relationships


If this article sounds like it’s describing you and you wish to change that, the first and most obvious way is to seek professional help. But if therapy is not an option, here are some tips that might help. The first step is to start by recognizing your symptoms for what they are. Understand that this is as real as a physical ailment and not something that you should blame yourself for. Recognize your anxiety as an intruder and not as a part of you or your personality and treat it as such. Pay attention to your thoughts and give yourself reminders when you find your train of thought going towards a spiral of anxious thoughts. Allow yourself to have lazy days or days where accomplishing something isn’t important. Explore new territory, as tough as it may be. Recognize that fear may always be a part of your life but it shouldn’t be stopping you from doing whatever you want. Even if it is small, start by pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and allowing new experiences. Eliminate the pressure about disappointing people and look for your own happiness first. Be open with people and seek help from friends and allow yourself to relax once in a while. Self managing anxiety is only possible once you recognize how much of your thoughts are you and how much of them are your anxiety.

Sulmaaz Siddiqui is a student pursuing Psychology from Jamia Millia Islamia.

Edited by: Samra Ejaz

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Jamia Review or its members. 

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Written by Sulmaaz Siddiqui

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