Anxiety is a part of normal life. Humans are programmed to deal with a certain amount of anxiety on a regular basis.
Similar to stress, a healthy amount of anxiety is what drives us to do our best, whether it’s studying for a test, getting regular checkups at the doctor, or thinking through an important life decision.
We all have anxiety at some point. But for the majority of us, it’s situational and temporary.
That said, when fear or intense physical reactions start to creep in along with anxiety, it morphs into an anxiety disorder.
“The symptoms can interfere with daily activities such as job performance, school work, and relationships,” notes the National Institute of Mental Health, which estimates anxiety disorders affect 19 percent of American adults each year.
There are several types of anxiety disorders. They range from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) to various phobia-related disorders. In many of these cases, it can be easy to see how the condition influences a person, especially if it’s tied to something like PTSD or OCD.
But high-functioning anxiety is a little bit tougher to recognize, mostly because those living with it appear to be fine. But deep inside, they’re not.
“High-functioning anxiety is still a chronic mental health issue that has lasting impact on your health, relationships, and self-esteem,” says Dr. Maria Shifrin, a clinical psychologist. “Most people assume that [those afflicted] are just stressed out at work or need a vacation or some other condition they place on their discomfort, when in reality they are suffering from high-functioning anxiety.”
Here’s what it’s like to live with high-functioning anxiety, from four people who do so daily.
- ‘I’m not just a worrywart.’
“Living with high-functioning anxiety is probably similar to those who live with other conditions, but the problem with anxiety is that it cannot be seen. I may tell someone that I’m worried, but this is often seen as a part of my character. You know, ‘Oh, she’s a worrywart.’ No, I’m not. I’m fighting a disease.” — Lynda
“I’d never really understood that anxiety was a diagnosable condition. I was led to believe growing up that I was a ‘baby’ who got upset over unusual things. I think because I’m high-functioning, my anxiety often presents as irritation, anger, and frustration.” — Alex
- ‘Just because you can’t see my illness doesn’t mean it’s not there.’
“One of the things I struggle most with as a person with high-functioning anxiety is the fact that other people, including my family and friends, easily excuse the times my anxiety is giving me problems, because I ‘don’t seem to have anything wrong’ with me. I still have sleepless and restless nights because of overthinking. I still learn every day how a ‘normal’ person is supposed to react to certain situations. It’s much harder to talk about it when it doesn’t visibly appear like you’re suffering.” — Alex
“I think there are misconceptions that high-functioning anxiety is a lot like mania. But for me, that’s not true. Most of my anxiety is internal. I do a damn good job of keeping it hidden, because I have a family (and a brand) to protect. I need people to think I’m dealing with it in healthy ways. And I mostly am. But there’s a big difference in being manic and being anxious.” — Steve
“I have a career I love and a great relationship. I volunteer in my community. I’m out there in the world living, but with an invisible health condition. Sometimes I get really resentful and angry about how hard I have to work to manage my health. I think part of it is genetic, part of it was family of origin experiences, and part of it is my lifestyle.” — Dana
- ‘I can’t just snap out of it.’
“There are days I feel like a science experiment, trying each med my doctor prescribes, hoping one of them will make life normal again. Sometimes the med works for a while and stops. A recent med destroyed my libido for a couple of months. At 35, no longer being able to connect with my wife sexually, adds mountains of shame on top of an already steaming pile of guilt. So I travel back to the doctor’s office for another humiliating visit and tell her just exactly what my side effects are. So we’re trying a new med. And we hope for different results.” — Steve
“I really have to proactively manage my stress level by identifying what adds or subtracts from my energy. I’ve made big life changes to support my mental health. I meditate daily and that helps greatly. I also need regular physical activity. I like bodywork, such as acupuncture and massage. I have to be really careful about getting enough sleep, eating well-balanced meals, and minimizing caffeine. I also meet with a counselor regularly. I have to limit my intake of news.” — Dana
- ‘A good day for me is conscious, not natural.’
“For me, a good day means I don’t check my phone immediately when I wake up. I wait until I’ve had 10 to 15 minutes to meditate on the back porch. A good day means I make it to work on time; I don’t feel the need to apologize for a million little things that no one else is noticing, and I don’t lock myself in the bathroom stall at work for three minutes of silence. I get home, am present with my wife and children, eat dinner, and get five to six hours of uninterrupted sleep. That’s a really good day.” — Steve
“High-functioning to me means that I’m able to be productive. My anxieties don’t stand in my way too much. Most importantly, it means that I’m able to recognize my symptoms, take action, and keep the anxiety from blowing up. Action might mean an anti-anxiety medication, a body scan, deep breaths, or reaching out to safe people to let them know how I’m feeling.” — Lynda
- ‘But the bad days are my normal.’
“Part of what makes a day bad is what I call a nameless fear. You’re afraid, but you don’t know why or what of. It’s not anything rational. You simply feel scared, worried, anxious over something you just can’t name. It’s hard to come down from this, and it happens to me pretty frequently. Bad days are ones where you are scared, don’t know why, and can do nothing — other than to turn to your meds and hope.” — Lynda
“Panic attacks, terror, obsessive anxious thoughts, inability to relax for long periods of time: That’s my mind in a constant state of anxiety. Anxiety to me feels like constant grinding or grating on my brain. I’ve had to miss work or severely cut back on activities during bad anxiety times. I have definitely canceled things at the last minute with friends and family because anxiety was too overwhelming.” — Dana
- ‘I just want to be heard.’
“I’d love for people to treat me with understanding and compassion. Those are the only things I really need. If you let me know I am seen and heard, it changes my whole outlook. I want people to know that this is my normal, and sometimes I can’t just ‘calm down.’ As much as my anxiety may wear them out, it’s even worse on me. Sometimes my hands shake for no good reason, and that’s super embarrassing. But I’m not crazy. I’m just struggling.” — Steve
“Please don’t judge a book by its cover. You have no idea what’s going on under the hood. Please don’t use terms like ‘bipolar,’ ‘worrywart,’ and ‘hot mess’ to describe anyone. It’s insulting and minimizes the struggle to be a functioning and productive member of society. Finally, if you’re feeling this way, please don’t ever think you are alone.” — Lynda