How do I cope with high functioning anxiety?

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What is perfection? What does it mean to be a perfectionist? Can we ever really achieve perfection?

When I was struggling with juggling all sorts of tasks and projects, many of which depended on other people and teams, an old boss of mine gave me some advice: we deal in imperfections, so stop thinking you can make perfection happen.

“But how do I turn that part of my brain off?” I thought. I think I actually said it out loud, because my boss offered more advice. He said,

Lower your expectations. For yourself and for others.

Ok, that makes sense, it at least gives me a path forward, something I can do to lower the anxiety.

But damn if that drive to be a perfectionist didn’t continue to pop up at every corner.

So, do we just throw our hands up and say, “I guess this is who I am. I’m just an anxious person. I might as well use it to be productive. Maybe I can just deal with this high functioning anxiety.”

Sure, we could do that. But that doesn’t feel all that great. Instead, we could try and create some strategies to help focus our anxiety and attention, and ultimately help us reduce it.


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First: what is high functioning anxiety?

Let’s talk about what anxiety is first. 

Many of us have an image in our minds when we think about someone struggling with anxiety, or someone diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Some jumpy, sweaty, nail-biting insomniac who prefers cave-dwelling to anything closely resembling a social situation. And society? Forget about it.

But really, anxiety is as different as you and me. 

Thinking about that upcoming flight and wondering if you’ve packed everything? Anxiety.

Running through potential questions and answers ahead of a meeting? Anxiety.

Anxiety can be good for us. It keeps us safe and helps us predict potentially unsafe situations. Anxiety is why we’re still on this planet and not fossilized in the stomachs of some extinct predator.

Where we get into trouble is when we’re only receiving information from the anxious part of the brain. When we are only looking at things from an anxious filter, we get overloaded, we get rundown, we freeze up. Not good, obviously.

There are those among us who can function in this state of existence. Enter high-functioning anxiety.

What is it like to have high functioning anxiety?

High functioning anxiety is not an official diagnosis, but it describes those people who are highly anxious and derive energy from their anxiety. They are those people crossing all their Ts and dotting all their Is. They are the perfectionists among us.

  • Are you organized and punctual?

  • Are you energetic and passionate?

  • Are you a perfectionist?

  • Are you calm and collected on the outside?

  • Are you nervous and restless on the inside?

  • Do you procrastinate?

  • Do you have trouble saying no?

  • Do you have trouble sitting down?

  • Are you an over-thinker?

  • When you hit a roadblock, do you obsess over it?

  • Do you wake up at night thinking about an issue?

  • Are you unable to get back to sleep?

Does any of this sound familiar? You might be dealing with high functioning anxiety. But you probably already knew that.

Perfectionist or not, anxiety spells trouble.

High-functioning anxiety can lead to a lot of success in the business world and beyond. Perfectionists have a hard time turning “it” off. They are always thinking about the task at hand, running through possible obstacles and solutions, and reviewing work incessantly in search of the one remaining typo they know is somewhere in there, if they just read this doc 10 more times they’re sure they’ll find it.

Typo or not, that feeling will never go away. Anxiety is insatiable. Let’s say you do find the typo or the miscalculation, the threat of the next one is right there waiting for you. Anxiety never sleeps and it wants to make sure you are awake too.

Yes, many people have built successful careers on the back of high functioning anxiety. But how many of those people do you think would have preferred a different path, a slightly less stressful and anxiety-riddled path? 

But how? How do you put that perfectionist to sleep? Let’s take a look at what causes high functioning anxiety.

Flip the switch on anxiety?

The anxiety you feel, it's governed by a switch in our bodies within the nervous system. Learn to breathe better, and you can control it, you can turn it off any time you like.

The Shift is the key.

What causes high functioning anxiety?

Some people are genetically-predisposed to anxiety, and same with high functioning anxiety. People with a family history of anxiety disorders are more likely than others to develop anxiety.

The environment you grew up in and the personality traits you exhibited as a child can indicate an elevated risk of anxiety. If you were shy or nervous in new situations, you are more likely to suffer from anxiety.

If you were exposed to high amounts of stress or experienced any kind of traumatic event, you are more likely to experience anxiety.

Other health concerns, whether you are aware of them or not, can cause increased anxiety in your body and impact how you engage with your environment. Your body could be experiencing anxiety without you really being aware of it.

Drug or alcohol use can trigger anxiety, which can then lead to feelings of withdrawal, which can then lead to more anxiety. The trouble here is that many people turn to drugs and alcohol to try and silence anxiety, to try to escape from it. Unfortunately, the anxiety doesn’t go away, which compounds the issue.

Think about high functioning anxiety as the way some people respond to triggers and anxious moments. Some people are paralyzed by anxiety. Some people are motivated by one kind of anxiety, while they completely shut down when confronted with another kind of anxiety. There are trends in how we experience and respond to anxiety, but there isn’t one mold all anxious people are formed from.

Bottomline: regardless of the cause, we can utilize some basic breathing tools and techniques to literally flip the switch on anxiety, high functioning or not. Believe it or not, the nervous system is governed by something like a light switch. This light switch is the breath. Inhale energizes, exhale relaxes. Too much of the inhale, too many shallow inhales, BAM! Anxiety. Slow your exhale down, extend it for 8-10 seconds, and you’ve just turned your body’s anxiety response off.

What are the signs of high functioning anxiety?

Worried about a loved one or thinking you might be suffering from anxiety? Here are some signs to help you identify high functioning anxiety, but you certainly don’t need to check every box to feel the impact of anxiety or identify as a highly functioning anxious person.

What do we see on the outside?

  • High achiever

  • Highly organized: lists and calendars are best friends

  • Detail oriented

  • Outgoing personality: smiles, laughs, tells jokes, seems happy

  • Proactive: thinks through and plans out all possibilities

  • Punctual: often arrives early for appointments

  • Talkative, active, and helpful

  • Appears outwardly calm and collected

  • Passionate and motivated

  • Loyal in relationships

Signs of someone dealing with high functioning anxiety:

  • People pleaser who can’t say no: fear of letting others down or being a bad friend

  • Talks a lot and makes nervous chatter

  • Nervous habits: plays with hair, cracks knuckles, bites lip

  • Engages in repetitive processes: counts stairs, rocks back and forth

  • Avoids social gatherings and outings to focus on work

  • Overthinks situations, remains indecisive

  • Needs reassurance: asks for directions multiple times, asks how they look

  • Avoids eye contact

  • Focuses on the negative, expects things to go wrong, asks “what if?”

  • Insomnia

  • Others find you difficult to read, apathetic or indifferent

  • Trouble being present or relaxing, hard time enjoying the moment

  • Feels intimidated by the future, avoids goal-setting

  • Makes comparisons to others and how they fall short

  • Mental and physical fatigue

  • Uses drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism

A significant section of people identifying with the symptoms of high functioning anxiety above would probably say it’s a strength of theirs. And yes, they may get a lot done, and the expectations of our typical work environment would praise these people. But what it comes down to is how you’re feeling while running through life in this way. We can’t sustain this pace. If we’re running in the red constantly, burn out is inevitable.

How can we use some of this energy to motivate and get things done, while also protecting ourselves from burn out and being more mindful of how we feel? How can we define boundaries or set up stop signs to help us maintain balance?

What they feel on the inside:

  • Insomnia, trouble falling asleep and staying asleep

  • Mental and physical fatigue

  • Excessive anxiety or worry on most days for at least six months

  • Restlessness, inability to relax

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Easily irritated, always on edge

  • Racing thoughts, inability to slow down the mind at all times of the day

  • Obsesses over negative thoughts

  • Dwells on past mistakes

  • Uncomfortable expressing emotions: too little or too much

  • Always feeling an intense need for reassurance

  • Physical symptoms of stress: muscle tension, headaches, digestive issues 

    Is anxiety holding you back?

    Do you feel better today than you did a year ago? Do you think you'll feel better a year from now than you do today? Will you feel better a month from now? What can you do today that will help?

    Take control today. 

    When to ask for help?

    If you are trying to figure out if it’s time to ask for help, consider how you feel about the anxiety. Does it make you feel bad or ashamed or guilty? 

    Another way to consider it: how much have you changed in the last year? Do you generally feel better today than you did a year ago? Do you think you’ll feel better a year from now than you do today?

    Compared to yourself a year ago: do you feel more anxious now? Do you go out less? Do you spend more time working? Are you turning to drugs and alcohol more often? What other habits and hobbies have you developed over the last year?

    Is everything a bear? Meaning, when confronted with the smallest amount of stress, you react as if a giant snarling bear is in your room.

    Are you consumed by your thoughts? Having trouble getting out of your head?

    Feel disconnected. Indifferent. Like a passenger in your own life?

    After you consider all of these questions, trust your gut. What does your gut tell you?

    And in the end, error on the side of caution. Talking to someone can’t hurt. Not talking to someone, in the very least, means more of the same.


    Your guide to micro-adjustments.

    We may get a lot done thanks to high functioning anxiety, but to what end? Exhaustion, burn out, frustration. Rotezen can help change our breather and thinking patterns by making a routine of micro-adjustments.

    Learn more.

    Do I have high functioning anxiety? Questions to ask yourself.

    Still having a hard time figuring out if it’s time to ask for help?

    Ask yourself these questions to help raise your own self-awareness about a change in habits or personality or confidence.

    • Am I afraid of failing or making mistakes? 

    • Do I put off big projects until the last minute and then work nonstop to get them done?

    • Do I dwell on past mistakes?

    • Is it hard to say no to a supervisor, colleague, or friend?

    • Do I often compare myself to others and feel like I don’t meet expectations?

    • When it comes to my future, do I think about bad things that might happen?

    • Can I imagine what might go well in your future?

    • Do I overthink and overanalyze every interaction and decision?

    • Am I unable to relax and enjoy the present moment? 

    • Do I use alcohol or drugs to help me feel less anxious?

    What is the treatment for high functioning anxiety?

    These are treatment options only. The best way to address anxiety is to connect with a licensed professional. 

    Here’s some of what you can try and expect as you address anxiety:

    • Contact a licensed professional. Contact a therapist for more information about treatment such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and to learn more about how to manage your anxiety through a professional treatment plan.

    • Routine helps. Create a daily routine that prioritizes mental health and peace of mind. Go for a walk, take time to breathe, connect with loved ones for coffee each week.

    • Call it out. If you get stuck in a feedback loop of negative thinking, say to yourself: I’m catastrophizing. The simple act of calling it out can help bring greater awareness to your thought patterns and help you consider potential solutions.

    • Find positive substitutesYou get done with work, and the bad habits start calling your name as you try to quiet the noise of anxiety. Be proactive, use the positive of high functioning anxiety to find positive replacements like exercise, community, meditation, breathing, or journaling.

    • Give yourself a break. Acknowledge that there’s a lot going on in the world right now, and allow yourself to just be for a hot minute. If you want to sit on the couch and stare into space, do it. 

    • Keep moving. Even if all you do is get up and walk to the mailbox, do it. Keep moving. Try to look up and take a breath. Pay attention to your senses. Let this be a moving meditation. You don’t have to be still and you don’t have to clear your mind. Just keep moving.

    • Share your thoughts. Help normalize your experience by talking with others. Call up a friend or family member and just start talking. One helpful filter to offer ahead of the conversation? Tell your loved one if you simply need to vent, or if you are looking for advice.

    • Commit to micro-adjustments. Commit to making some small amount of change. Make a habit of it. Tell yourself you will breathe better by spending 5 minutes a day focused on your breathing patterns. Go for a walk once a day, skip the second cup of coffee, go an hour without a cigarette, any small amount of change. Whatever feels within reach. Committing to something as small as slowing down one exhale today can have a huge impact. Proof: Get out, look up, feel better. More proof: Combat anxiety, relax with better breathing.

    • Improve your sleep routine. Standardize your bedtime routine, get to bed at the same time, wake up at the same time. Make a routine of this whole process from brushing your teeth to turning off your phone to breathing. All of it can add up to better, more restful sleep and improved feels.

    How grounding techniques help high functioning anxiety.

    Here are two methods you can use to slow your brain down and help you lower anxiety.

    333 grounding technique for anxiety

    1. Look around you.

    2. Name 3 things you see.

    3. Name 3 things you hear.

    4. Name 3 body parts and touch them.

    5. Focus on whatever part of your body is touching the ground.

    6. Feel the weight of your body pushing into the ground.

    7. Feel the ground pushing back in equal measure.  

    5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique for anxiety

    1. Call out 5 things you see around you.

    2. Call out 4 things you can touch.

    3. Call out 3 things you can hear.

    4. Call out 2 things you can smell.

    5. Call out 1 thing you can taste.

      Ground yourself through breath.

      The Shift was designed by a licensed psychotherapist and co-founder of Komuso. It slows down your exhale, which turns off your body's anxiety response.

      Learn more.

      How breathing better can help with anxiety.

      We take 23,000 breaths every day  |  50,000 thoughts race through our minds every day

      The breath is the light switch. If we can balance our inhale and exhale and stay connected to a healthy breathing pattern, we are supporting our body and taking control of our anxiety. It’s not hocus pocus. It’s called the Vagus nerve and it directly impacts the way you feel day in, day out.

      When we breathe better, we think better, and ultimately feel better.

      Keep it simple: slow down your exhale. Make a routine of long, slow exhales, and you’ll begin to feel a difference.

      How can you help address the anxiety stigma?

      Anxiety is normal. Stress is normal.

      But the second we start talking about anxiety disorders, people turn. Not me, I don’t have a disorder, I don’t need help.

      Worry less about the word disorder, and more about talking it out. Normalize the feelings you’re experiencing and the situations that cause them, and you could help a loved one find a way to understand their own anxiety. 

      If you keep quiet, you’ll never know if how you’re feeling is normal, and they’ll never know. If you talk about it, at least you’ll be there for each other. In the very least, you’ll get to vent and connect with a loved one and feel better for a bit. All you need to do is take the first step, the momentum will carry you forward, and you will start feeling better as you put your high functioning anxiety to good use.