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What is high-functioning anxiety – and are you suffering from it?

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Megan Murray
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Millennials have been dubbed the generation of anxiety – which makes perfect sense, when you consider the fact that we’re constantly being encouraged to reach for the unreachable, discover every pocket of the globe, smash our careers, socialise like nobody’s business and look fabulous whilst doing it.

In short, we’re supposed to succeed in everything, and we need to succeed now.

However, we’re also the generation that’s battling with the worst economy, sky-rocketing house prices and plummeting financial security (don’t get us started on pensions) – so it’s unsurprising that a quarter of young women in the UK are suffering, or have suffered from, anxiety or depression.

In recent years our social media feeds have been throwing up a mix of memes and exposing posts trying to lift the lid on anxiety. In-fact, the A-word has become a bit of a buzzword, as 20-somethings recognise that they are struggling to excel in the expected sectors of their lives.



But although we’re talking about mental illness more than ever, many seemingly high-flying females are in reality grappling to keep up appearances: this is the rise of so-called high-functioning anxiety. 

There’s most likely one in your friendship group or sitting by you at work. She makes the most of her weekday evenings seeing friends, always has a date lined up for Friday night and her Instagram account suggests she’s going to the coolest exhibitions and is in the know about the edgiest rooftops/underground bars/hot new restaurant openings (delete as appropriate). But, in reality, this is far from an effortless lifestyle. 

Anxiety

Social media can be one of the biggest factors causing anxiety for millennials

Amy Bach, a clinical psychologist and a professor at Brown University describes the behaviour as being ‘worried well’ – an anxiety compounded by a desire to hide it.

Speaking to Refinery29 she says: “High-functioning people with significant levels of anxiety are sometimes called the 'worried well’.

“Despite problems with anxiety, they are high achievers or function quite well in various aspects of life.”

Bach continues: “Although they appear well, they may privately suffer intense panic attacks, follow hours of secret compulsive rituals, or feel paralysed at the thought of air travel, meeting new people, public speaking, or even making mistakes.”

Anxiety

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This idea is illustrated in Sarah Wilson’s book, First, We Make The Beast Beautiful, in which she describes as “a new story about anxiety”.

The Australian author, who struggles with anxiety herself, notes just a few of the ways that living with anxiety can present themselves as positives in daily life.

And, when asked if living with anxiety has any positives, she humorously suggests that it does: at the very least, you and your anxiety-ridden friends will always be prepared.

Social media users agree with Wilson wholeheartedly, with readers on Instagram picking out some of their favourite quotes from the book.

“Planning a picnic? Get an anxious mate on board – they’ll be able to provide you with a full itinerary of weather contingency plans,” they suggest. “And better salad delegation techniques.”

Another popular quote reads: “Planning a dinner party/holiday/walk in the park/ any kind of event in the next 365 days? Their phone will be charged, they’ll have remembered Oliver is gluten-free, they’ll have factored in dinner with your mum next month and your couples counselling appointment at 5pm.”

Books like this are far from trivialising the issue, but shining a light on something that is affecting a huge number of us in a relatable way – and clearly it resonates with people.



Anxiety symptoms differ from person to person – but, when it comes to “high-functioning anxiety”, this piece from The Mighty describes it as “the difference between anxiety that keeps you frozen, and anxiety that pushes you through life, forcing you to move.”

According to the mental health website’s community, symptoms of high-functioning anxiety can be “hyper-focusing”, “arriving to any appointment/college/social gathering at least an hour before it’s due to start” or “writing so many lists”.

A persisting theme is that those attempting to combat their anxiety try to be over-prepared for every eventuality, because they are experiencing intense nervousness in their daily lives.

Typical symptoms of anxiety can range from mental to physical manifestations and can include:

  • Restlessness
  • A sense of dread
  • Feeling constantly “on edge”
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Dizziness
  • Tiredness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Panic attacks
  • Heart palpitations

If you suffer from anxiety, experts advise that you visit you GP to explore the number of treatments available.

You can find out more information – including a series of approved self-care tips – on the Mind website.

Images: iStock

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Megan Murray

Megan Murray is a digital journalist for stylist.co.uk, who enjoys writing about London happenings, beautiful places, delicious morsels and generally spreading sparkle wherever she can.

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