by Carolyn Moriarty, LCPC
Anxiety is an inevitable part of human life. Some people are more prone to anxiety than others, especially those who tend to have a low tolerance for uncertainty. These people might realize that they are worrying too much but then fall into the trap of “worrying about worry”, ruminating over how it may affect their health or convincing themselves that that they have no control over their thoughts.
In contrast, other people can have positive beliefs about anxiety. They might, for instance, consciously or subconsciously believe that worrying about a problem enough provides them with the control and motivation needed to overcome the obstacle. These people who appear to utilize anxiety to their advantage by becoming fixated on achieving success and avoiding negative outcomes may have what is generally referred to as “high functioning anxiety.”
What is high functioning anxiety?
Stress and anxiety do serve a positive function when they motivate you to work toward important goals and avoid dangerous situations. In healthy doses, they play an important role in your ability to be a high functioning, successful member of society.
Put this way, “high functioning anxiety” almost sounds like a noble attribute. However, this mindset can be problematic if a person firmly believes that they will not be able to function successfully in the absence of excessive anxiety. These people tend to be described by themselves or others as “perfectionists” or “type A personalities”. They may also identify with one or more characteristics of Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD).
While their rigid behavior may create the illusion that those with high-functioning anxiety are always “in control”, this is not necessarily the case. The tricky thing about chronic anxiety, whether it be high-functioning or more objectively debilitating, is that it tends to make everything feel overwhelming and uncontrollable after a certain point.
The takeaway message here is that your personal capacity for anxiety, whether high or low, is not as important as your ability to be aware of personal limitations and how to avoid surpassing them. So, how can you tell when this healthy anxiety turns to unhealthy anxiety?
Once you reach your emotional capacity of how much you can successfully manage, you no longer become efficient at managing anything. This can lead to mental and emotional burnout, which can manifest in various negative symptoms—all of which are not conducive to productivity.
Signs that high functioning anxiety is impairing your daily functioning:
- Emotional signs: decreased motivation, low frustration tolerance, feelings of hopelessness, short temper
- Mental signs: decreased focus and concentration, racing thoughts, difficulty retaining or recalling information, feeling “out of it”
- Physical signs: exhaustion, general muscle tension and pain (headache, stomachache, muscle pain), increased or decreased appetite, disrupted sleep
As mentioned before, experiencing anxiety is inevitable, generally harmless, and sometimes even beneficial. But keep mind that even “high functioning” anxiety is still a form of chronic stress. What becomes most important is monitoring your symptoms and taking preemptive steps to manage that anxiety before it turns to burnout (once you are in an emotionally exhausted state, it will be more difficult to bounce back.)
With that in mind, here are some ways to keep high-functioning anxiety at an optimal level:
Long-term coping skills:
- Accept what you cannot control. Remind yourself that nobody can predict how future events will unfold. Acknowledge that you are feeling uncertain and that anxiety is an inherent part of uncertainty. Rather than resist the anxiety, intentionally confront and acknowledge the worry “it is possible that I could lose my job. Anything could I can’t predict the future”. Worrying about “what ifs” will not change the future for the worse or better, it will only diminish your emotional capacity to cope with whatever does happen.
- Pay attention to what your brain is telling you: Even people with high functioning anxiety tend to perceive the world as more threatening than it really is. These thinking errors, or “cognitive distortions”, occurs when you rely on biased logic to process and interpret information. As a result, you feel this type of chronic anxiety without understanding the real trigger for the emotion. This skewed perspective on reality creates with feelings of distress.
Common types of cognitive distortions include:
- All-or-nothing thinking: thinking in terms of black and white. “Everything must be perfect, or I am a total failure”
- Overgeneralization: applying the outcome a single negative experience to all current scenarios. “The last interview I had was terrible. This interview will be a disaster too. I am not employable.”
- Fortune-telling: immediately jumping immediately to worst-case scenarios. “I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop…I just know that something is going to go horribly wrong.”
- Listen to your thoughts and be mindful of when you are falling into these thinking traps. Ask yourself: what is the evidence for this belief? What is the probability that this fear will come true? Is there a more realistic way of interpreting this situation?
- Practice self-compassion. Anxiety is usually exacerbated and maintained to some extent by the negative self-talk statements outlined above. It is important to remember that no amount of self-criticism will change the past and undo whatever bad thing just happened, but it will take an already stressful situation and kick it into high gear. Self-compassion is the antidote for anxiety-induced self-criticism. In fact, people who are successful in reaching their goals are shown to have higher levels of self-compassion. This is because self-compassion fosters resilience and perseverance, rather than doubt and hopelessness. A simple way to practice self-compassion is to adapt a more flexible mindset. Remember that hardly anything in life is black and white, so you will need to get comfortable sitting in the gray area. When you make a mistake tell yourself “well that wasn’t my most shining moment but in the grand scheme of things it’s hardly reflective of my true character.”
Short-term coping skills:
- Incorporate mindfulness. When you find yourself racing from one thing to the next, or continually ruminating over “what if” scenarios, take a moment to pause and check in with yourself. Make an effort to really observe your physical state and ask yourself if you are experiencing the signs of being overstimulated and overwhelmed. Once an anxiety-provoking situation is over, take adequate time to rest and recharge. Remember, you will not be productive if you try to bravely “push through” exhaustion and sensory overload.
- Do some deep breathing. Anxiety can cause symptoms such as shortness of breath or rapid heartbeat, which in turn can make you feel even more anxious. Taking deep, controlled breaths can instantly alleviate these physical symptoms. Practice by inhaling though your nose until your stomach is expanded. Pause for a few seconds before exhaling your breath through your mouth while letting all your muscles relax, as if you are taking a big sigh
- Identify and express emotions in a healthy way. If you have trouble articulating your feelings, being by labeling each specific emotion you are feelings. For example, “scared,” “overwhelmed,” “helpless,” “guilty,” or “annoyed.”
Seeking Mental Health Support
Remember that relying on anxiety alone is not a long-term solution for developing goals and engaging in the necessary behaviors it will take to achieve them. If you are struggling with chronic anxiety or excessive worry, seeking mental health treatment can be immensely helpful in providing lasting relief.
Scheduling an appointment with Chicago Counseling Center may be the first step among many for the battle against anxiety.