Maybe you don’t see yourself as an anxious person. However, high-functioning anxiety is a different beast than run-of-the-mill anxiety. Many signs of high-functioning anxiety can actually be seen as positive, so they can be difficult to notice–but their negative effects, unchecked, will eventually demand attention.
What are some less obvious signs of high functioning anxiety at work? How can you tell if you have it, and what does that mean for your wellbeing in the workplace?
High-functioning anxiety at work is not to be mistaken for the general anxiety we tend to think of.
General anxiety is an unspecific, yet pervasive experience of nervousness and doubt that attacks all realms of someone’s life. Where general anxiety often limits one’s performance, high functioning anxiety can actually enhance it.
High functioning anxiety encourages you to work harder to meet every expectation, to avoid reprimand, losing your job, or even just a personal feeling of failure.
While working hard is not necessarily a bad thing, there is a fine line between healthy and unhealthy productivity. Your boss and coworkers might praise your industrious work ethic, but when that work ethic causes you to turn down social events or neglect your hobbies, you might recognize that your “high functioning” is motivated by (and perhaps causing) anxiety.
Are you always the first one at meetings, and the last to leave the office at the end of the day? Are you always on your phone checking emails, and planning your agenda for tomorrow when laying down at night? Well, your coworkers and loved ones might be right to call you a workaholic.
That drive to stay busy may actually stem from root fears of inadequacy or lack. You may feel as though you need to work harder than others to keep your job because you are not as skilled. Or, you may feel like putting work down for a second will ruin everything you worked so hard for. These ideas may also come from our parents, who could not afford to take breaks from work in order to support us.
Yet, these are all thoughts whispered in our ears by high functioning anxiety. One way to challenge these ideas is to set boundaries. If a coworker or boss offers you extraneous work to do, politely decline; when you leave the office for the day, turn off your email notifications. By actively carving time to step away from work, you can begin to healthily separate yourself from your workload.
Biting nails and skin picking are common to many people who fit the bill for high-functioning anxiety.
We tend to feel the impulse to fidget when we are under stress. These subtle (and very common) signs of anxiety usually don’t get in the way of functioning at work. However, these behaviors aren’t random. They aren’t always related to work anxiety, but fidgeting habits clearly show that one’s nervous system is not in a calm, well-regulated state.
Let’s be honest, how many times have you skipped breakfast before work? And no, a coffee doesn’t count. While skipping meals may save you time, a lack of appetite can be a tell-tale sign that you are experiencing high functioning anxiety.
When your body is in a long-term state of fight-or-flight, it redistributes resources to keep you functioning. Your nervous system makes your heart pump faster and lungs breathe quicker, and it also sends extra blood to your brain–creating the experience of “high function.” But your appetite can be a casualty of this self preservation mechanism.
To remedy this, you’ll have to break the cycle of undernourishment, which can cause stress and perpetuate your lack of appetite. Actively take time in the morning or at night to calm down before having a solid, holistic meal. When you nourish your body, you will find you have a greater capacity to dedicate your energy to work!
On the other hand, some people find that continuous snacking helps them achieve their superhuman work performance. Aside from giving yourself fuel, intense cravings can be your body’s attempt to support unrealistic work habits, by releasing feel-good chemicals in the brain.
When you’re pushing yourself too hard, you might feel like you need a dopamine boost to keep going–this chemical is released in the brain when we snack, and it’s known to help improve feelings of motivation and reward.
When high functioning anxiety drives us to focus solely on our work, we may neglect aspects of ourselves that make us feel like, well, ourselves. We silence our voices, or keep key parts of our personalities hidden, to fit in more at work. While this might sound wise, maintaining a mask of yourself is critically draining in the long-term.
The more of our authentic selves we sacrifice, the more we feed into subconscious feelings of inadequacy or lack. But, we must remember those personal qualities, skills and quirks are exactly why your company decided to add you to their team!
A small, helpful practice to mitigate these fears are affirmations. Take a minute to remind yourself:
When we sacrifice our authenticity and abandon our needs due to anxiety, we also prevent ourselves from feeling genuine fulfillment. High functioning anxiety often insists that dedicating time to anything besides our work is a waste. Yet, work is only one realm of our lives; it cannot provide all of our personal satisfaction.
If we never offer time to do what we enjoy, just for the sake of it, then we may find ourselves feeling critically unfulfilled. The more unfulfilled we feel, the less energy we have to engage with work, and the closer we edge to experiencing a total burnout.
To challenge this thinking, reflect back on what hobbies and activities you liked to do before starting this job. When was the last time you took the time to do it? Carve time to indulge in your personal hobbies or passions, or spend time with friends and family, and you might find that work feels less exhaustive and more enjoyable!
Maybe feeling unable to sit still, because there is a discomfort in stopping work. Sometimes we feel like we have to be productive in order to be safe. This can be a foundation of high functioning anxiety and the drive to always be “on.” Maybe in childhood you were yelled at whenever you took a break–even a necessary break. Maybe you were called lazy or incapable, and those now feel like the worst possible insults, to be avoided at all costs.
Perfectionism, applied to yourself or others, can be a subconscious attempt to quell high-functioning anxiety. Many of us have anxiety about getting in trouble, about receiving critical feedback, or messing up in general. So, perfectionism is the (unsustainable) solution.
However, whether we hold ourselves to impossible standards or nitpick others, perfectionism often perpetuates anxiety in the long run.
High functioning anxiety at work may encourage us to invest more resources into our tasks than we have, leading to burnout. While our productivity rises, our mental and physical health degrades; lethargy, exhaustion and depletion become our day-to-day state. In the short-term, we become star workers. In the long-term, our performance suffers, as this basic, fundamental level of wellness erodes beneath our feet.
In order to avoid this outcome, prioritize self-care. In order to perform our best, we must feel our best. So, taking a day off to focus on your mental health, blocking off certain hours to go to the gym, or taking that time to cook a healthy meal, are not luxuries–they’re absolute necessities!
While high functioning anxiety may improve our productivity in the short-term, it is detrimental in the big picture. Yet, by setting boundaries between your work and personal life, affirming your confidence in your own abilities, and prioritizing self-care, you may discover you are an even better worker than before.