High Functioning Anxiety: Symptoms and Remedies

Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC | Written by Deane Alban

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People with high functioning anxiety are often successful, but they also experience symptoms of anxiety. Here’s how to stay successful and reduce anxiety.

If you’ve ever been called a Type A personality, perfectionist, or workaholic, you may have high functioning anxiety.

High functioning anxiety is not a medically recognized term, but is a commonly used phrase to describe feelings of anxiety experienced by many highly motivated, successful people.

One thing that stands out about people with high functioning anxiety is that, rather than being paralyzed by fear, they use their fears as an impetus to succeed.

But just because high functioning anxiety is not a recognized disorder doesn’t mean that it’s normal or healthy.

The reality is that it takes a great toll on those who have it.

If you suspect you have high functioning anxiety, there’s plenty you can do to reduce your anxiety and remain successful.

What Is High Functioning Anxiety?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is the official list of recognized mental disorders.

There are many recognized anxiety disorders, but high functioning anxiety is not among them. (1)

Mental health is not black and white, it covers a broad spectrum.

On one end is good mental health, on the other is a diagnosable mental disorder.

At least by the current definition, high functioning anxiety fails to meet all the criteria of a mental disorder.

However, the symptoms of high functioning anxiety are very similar to the most common anxiety disorder, general anxiety disorder (GAD).

GAD is defined as excessive worry that is difficult to control and is not attributable to other substances or physical or mental disorders.

Also, to be diagnosed with GAD, you must regularly experience three or more of the following symptoms for the past six months: (2)

  • difficulty concentrating
  • fatigue
  • irritability
  • muscle tension
  • restlessness
  • sleep disturbance

To be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, your anxiety must also significantly interfere with your ability to function at work or school or in relationships.

This is where high functioning anxiety deviates from the criteria of a mental disorder.

People with high functioning anxiety are successful and motivated.

Their fear energizes them to take action.

They use their desire to achieve more as a way to manage their fears.

Some experts believe that people with high functioning anxiety have an anxiety disorder that has not yet been diagnosed.

Others believe that high functioning anxiety is an alternate manifestation of generalized anxiety disorder since both conditions share so many symptoms.

The list of official disorders and their criteria is constantly changing, so it’s possible that, in the future, high functioning anxiety may become a recognized disorder.

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High Functioning Anxiety Symptoms

If you or your friends would use words like workaholic, multitasker, perfectionist, controlling, and Type A to describe you, you are a prime candidate for high functioning anxiety.

The biggest determinant of high functioning anxiety is not your outward manifestation of success, it’s what’s going on inside of you that counts.

Outwardly, you appear to have it all, but deep inside you know your success is hard-won.

Others don’t see your obsessive negative thinking, irrational fears, sleepless nights, and self-imposed pressure.

You live in constant fear of not living up to the expectations you have set for yourself or that you believe others have for you.

Friends, family, and co-workers rely on you because you are dependable and they know you get things done.

Physical Symptoms of High Functioning Anxiety

You may or may not connect the dots that the physical symptoms you’re experiencing are side effects of your anxiety.

Muscle tightness, digestive problems, irregular heartbeat, pain, and the overuse of substances like alcohol and recreational drugs are all signs of anxiety.

Nervous habits such as biting your lip, pulling your hair, tapping your feet or fingers, constantly fidgeting, or obsessively counting are additional signs of repressed anxiety.

Standard Treatments for High Functioning Anxiety

The standard medical treatments for anxiety are anti-anxiety medications and/or psychotherapy.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be very useful for anxiety.

In CBT sessions, you’ll examine how your negative thoughts and behaviors contribute to your anxiety.

You’ll learn how to identify and challenge negative thoughts and replace them with more realistic, positive ones.

Brand name drugs such as Xanax, Valium, and Ativan are usually prescribed for anxiety.

They belong to a family of drugs called benzodiazepines that work as sedatives.

Unfortunately, these drugs are fraught with side effects including a high potential for addiction.

These drugs should be avoided by large segments of the population including seniors, children, and teens.

They not should be mixed with alcohol or other drugs, either prescription or recreational.

And finally, they should not be taken by women who are pregnant, considering getting pregnant, or are breastfeeding.

Why People With High Functioning Anxiety Resist Getting Help

If you have high functioning anxiety, you may not feel inclined to rock the boat and seek help.

You may rightly be concerned that taking a sedative anti-anxiety medication will make you mentally dull or that you’ll become addicted.

You may resist going into therapy — it is not a quick fix and demands a significant commitment of time.

People with high functioning anxiety rarely want to take the time out of their busy schedule for therapy and they certainly don’t want others to know that they need help.

You may wrongly believe that your anxiety is a key to your success and that, if you dial it down, you’ll lose your “edge.”

You may work in an environment where being a stressed-out workaholic is not only expected, but a badge of honor.

Or, you may feel that there’s nothing really wrong with you, and so resist taking measures to help yourself.

And, since your friends, family, and co-workers see you as a success, they are unlikely to suggest that you take better care of yourself — by all outward accounts, they think you’re doing great!

If you exhibit many of the positive traits and coping skills linked to high functioning anxiety, such as being hard-working, punctual, detailed-oriented, and organized, you may worry that if you relax, you will stop being those things.

But, while it may not feel like it, the truth is that your anxiety is detracting from your success rather than contributing to it.

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How You Can Reduce Anxiety and Boost Performance on Your Own

If you’ve read the above symptoms and thought “that sounds just like me,” you may want to get help.

But you may be concerned that if you relax, you’ll fall behind.

You may worry that relaxing equates to “slacking off” and that all your hard-won gains will be lost.

But it’s definitely possible to stay at the top of your game — be successful, keep your edge, and feel more relaxed at the same time.

Some of the most successful people use the same relaxation techniques we’ll be discussing here.

And, in fact, people who use these techniques consider them to be a key to their success — their secret weapon — rather than a hindrance.

There’s no reason that employing these techniques won’t make you more rather than less successful.

You’ll have greater inner peace as well.

It’s a win-win situation.

Meditation

Anxiety doesn’t just make you feel bad, it actually changes your brain.

It causes the amygdala, the brain’s “fear center,” to grow, leading to a vicious cycle of even more fear and anxiety.

Anxiety increases the production of the stress hormone cortisol and decreases the formation of the feel-good neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, and GABA. (3)

A regular meditation practice not only can reduce anxiety symptoms, it also can reverse the damage caused by anxiety.

Upon reviewing over 18,000 meditation studies, Johns Hopkins University researchers determined that the best use for meditation is anxiety relief. (4)

The latest research shows that meditation works as well as commonly prescribed anti-anxiety medications. (5)

Meditation excels at quieting your mind and helping you master negative thought patterns. (6)

So many high profile people and organizations use or endorse meditation that it really can no longer be considered an alternative treatment.

Wall Street brokers and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs famously rely on it to avoid burnout and keep their mental edge. (7)

The US Marines use it to reduce overall on-the-job stress, improve performance, and minimize the effects of post-traumatic stress. (8)

Major corporations like Google, Aetna, Target, Apple, Nike, and General Mills encourage their employees to meditate to achieve peak mental performance. (9, 10)

Some of the most successful people in the world — Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Richard Branson, and Steve Jobs — have attributed their success, in part, to their regular meditation practice. (11, 1213)

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Mind-Body Relaxation Techniques

Meditation may be the most popular mind-body relaxation technique, but it isn’t the only one.

Here’s a sampling of other techniques that have proven useful for anxiety and been embraced by super-achievers:

Hypnosis

Hypnosis is a trance state that’s characterized by increased relaxation, suggestibility, and imagination.

It is thought to work by altering brainwave patterns. (14)

A large body of scientific research confirms the benefits of hypnosis for disorders with a stress-related component, including anxiety. (15)

Throughout history, successful and creative people have used hypnosis to enhance performance, overcome fears, or for general personal development.

Some of the most successful and creative people of all time — including Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla, Sigmund Freud, and Winston Churchill — are believed to have used hypnosis to help them attain their place in history.

Hypnosis can help change negative behaviors quickly
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Autogenic Training

Autogenic training (AT) is a little-known but powerful mind-body technique used by peak performance seekers, including professional and Olympic athletes, military personnel, and NASA astronauts. (16, 17)

A review of 27 studies confirmed that autogenic training is particularly useful for treating anxiety disorders. (18)

Guided Visualization

Guided visualization involves using your imagination to “see” the results you want in your mind’s eye.

Over 200 studies have proven its many health benefits. (19)

Top uses include reducing stress and anxiety and improving quality of life and self-confidence.

Legendary sports figures including Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Michael Jordan, and Larry Bird have used visualization to enhance performance and decrease performance anxiety. (2021)

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Physical Exercise

Getting physical exercise may be the best thing you can do to keep your brain healthy and operating at peak efficiency.

Exercise is particularly effective for anxiety since it reduces the stress hormone cortisol and increases your resilience to stress.

Exercise also increases GABA, the neurotransmitter that slows down brain activity, enabling the anxious mind to relax. (22)

Physical exercise alleviates the symptoms of anxiety and numerous other mental disorders such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. (2324)

Richard Branson, the world’s most fun-loving billionaire, calls physical exercise his “top productivity hack.” (25)

He claims to get four additional hours of productivity every day from the time he spends exercising.

That is an attractive return on investment!

Steve Jobs did much of his best creative thinking while taking walks. (26)

He even held brainstorming meetings while walking.

Research supports that walking can boost creativity by an impressive 60%.

Physical exercise can make you smarter and more productive.

It helps you learn faster and remember more. (27)

And, it makes you better at time management, problem-solving, and decision making. (28293031)

Ditch Caffeine and Take a Nap Instead

It’s no secret that the world runs on caffeine.

But the caffeine in coffee, tea, soda, and energy drinks may be responsible for your anxiety symptoms.

Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant that significantly contributes to anxiety disorders. (32)

There’s evidence that simply quitting caffeine can be even more beneficial for anxiety than taking prescription anti-anxiety drugs!

There are currently four recognized caffeine-related disorders —  caffeine intoxication, caffeine-induced anxiety disorder, caffeine-induced sleep disorder, and caffeine withdrawal. (33)

The World Health Organization and many health care professionals recognize a fifth disorder, caffeine use disorder. (34)

Caffeine so reliably causes anxiety that researchers use it to induce panic attacks on demand when studying panic disorders. (35)

You may be freaking out at the thought of giving up caffeine — how will you stay competitive and productive without it?

There’s a surprisingly simple caffeine-free alternative.

Dr. Sara Mednick is a leading authority on napping and the author of Take a Nap! Change Your Life.

She has conducted human studies on the effects of both caffeine and napping on productivity.

People who took a nap after lunch experienced a boost in performance that lasted the rest of the day and into the evening.

But she was shocked to discover that those who drank caffeine after lunch stayed alert, but experienced a decrease in mental performance.

So, you may both sabotage your mental performance and fuel your anxiety by drinking caffeine.

Consider trading your afternoon caffeine for a power nap.

Some of the most productive and brilliant people in history believed in the restorative value of power naps.

The list includes Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, and numerous US presidents. (36, 37)

No Excuses!

You may be thinking “Who’s got the time to meditate, exercise, or take a nap?!”

If so, take another look at the names mentioned here.

If Richard Branson, Michael Jordan, and Oprah Winfrey can run their businesses and find time to exercise, nap, or meditate, maybe you can too.

[This article contains only a quick summary of some anti-anxiety techniques. Search our site to find in-depth articles on these techniques, plus many other ways to reduce anxiety.]

High Functioning Anxiety: Take the Next Step

If you consider yourself a workaholic, perfectionist, or Type A personality, you may have high functioning anxiety.

High functioning anxiety is not a recognized medical disorder, but it can still cause a lot of misery.

To be diagnosed with general anxiety disorder, your anxiety symptoms must interfere with work and relationships.

But if you have high functioning anxiety, your fear motivates you to excel in everything you do.

People with high functioning anxiety often resist seeking help because they believe that their anxiety is key to their success.

But this fear is groundless.

Some of the most brilliant and successful people throughout history have made anti-anxiety techniques, such as meditation, visualization, exercise, and power naps, a part of their recipe for success.