Mind & Body

This Is What High-Functioning Anxiety Looks Like

Disclaimer: This post is for informational purposes only. If you’re struggling with anxiety, seek the help of a qualified medical professional. 


Depression and anxiety run in my family. My mom struggled with them for years before she was treated appropriately. That’s partly due to our recent understanding of depression and anxiety as treatable illnesses. But it’s also due to the fact that we live in a culture which prizes strength and regards mental illness as a sign of weakness. Those who need help the most don’t always seek it out.

While my kids were growing up, I kept an eye out for the signs of depression and anxiety. As they got older, I made sure they understood that these illnesses run in our family, just like diabetes and heart disease. Armed with that knowledge, they’ve been able to manage their own care in their adulthood.

I deal with what’s generally called high-functioning anxiety. People who fall into this category are on the borderline between needing medication to manage their symptoms and being able to use other strategies. Thus far, I’ve been able to manage my anxiety without medication. I know that might not always be the case, though; my mom’s anxiety kicked into overdrive later in life.

For now, I know what high-functioning anxiety looks like and how to work through it. Many people are surprised when they learn that this is something I struggle with, but the signs are pretty clear–if you know what to look for.

I’m always worried.

I worry a lot about losing my job. A bad day of class can send me into a pretty serious tailspin, in spite of the fact that I know everyone has bad days.

I worry about my kids, even though they’re both adults now and I’m not in charge of their safety anymore. I worry about commuting in city traffic, about my husband’s commute in city traffic, that weird little pain in my chest that lasted for a few seconds, finding enough time to do all the things I need to get done this week, etc., etc.

I’m always on time.

I used to attribute this to the fact that I was raised by a father who’d been an Army officer. Mostly, though, I think fear of messing up is what has me sitting in a meeting room (or in my car, outside the office where I have an appointment) 10 minutes early. I’ve tried making myself leave later for meetings and appointments, but that only results in anxiously watching the clock, then rushing to make sure I get where I’m going. If I leave early, at least I can relax once I’ve arrived.

You may be asking yourself What’s the worst thing that could happen if you’re late? That’s a perfectly rational question. Unfortunately, anxiety and rational thought are mortal enemies.

I compartmentalize and minimize my anxiety.

In one week, several years ago, I dealt with three major life events: I had an accident in which my car was a total loss, I flew home to be with my family while my father had quintuple bypass surgery, and the university where my husband teaches was largely destroyed by fire. (At the time, we feared that meant the loss of his job.)

When I showed up at work a few days later, people were surprised. I didn’t understand why. It was the end of the spring semester; I had papers to grade, a graduation ceremony to attend, year-end meetings to prepare for. A little personal drama didn’t change any of that.

One of the things high-functioning anxiety teaches you is how to compartmentalize your feelings and do what needs to be done. I often tell myself You can melt down later. I minimize anxious feelings in the hope that they’ll subside, and most of the time they do.

I struggle to balance my personal and professional life.

Because I’m an introvert, I worry about being a good friend–giving enough of myself to others. Still, I turn down social invitations more often than not. Being alone is how I recharge my battery and get ready for another day of challenges.

I also worry about missing out on professional opportunities–so I rarely turn them down. I want to be viewed as a team player. Knowing I’m seen this way helps me manage my (unfounded) concerns about losing my job.

But that means my professional life consumes much of my energy. Which makes social interaction even more difficult than it would be ordinarily. And ignoring that part of my life, of course, creates problems of its own.


Given the wide array of its manifestations, then, how do I manage anxiety without medication?

  • Meditation helps a lot. The Calm app and website have been a useful guide. I try to spend at least five minutes in mindful meditation every day, plus take breaks to re-center myself as necessary.
  • Exercise helps, too–research shows that, for some people, it’s as effective as medication. I know I can feel the difference in my anxiety level when I’m not exercising regularly.
  • Minimizing sugar and caffeine in my diet also makes a big difference. Apart from coffee in the morning, I try to stay away from caffeinated drinks altogether. (Giving up diet soda was a challenge, but I don’t even miss it anymore.)
  • Finally, a regular routine goes a long way toward making me feel organized and in control. Flexibility has never been my strong suit, but I find it easier as I get older.

If you’re struggling with anxiety, be sure to talk to a doctor. As long as I feel like I have the upper hand in my relationship with anxiety, I plan to use the strategies that have worked for me so far. But the moment I feel like that balance has shifted, I’ll be taking advantage of the medications that have saved the lives of many people I love.

There’s no shame in asking for help when you need it.




  • Reply Allison Arnone November 4, 2017 at 9:28 am

    Thanks for sharing this! It helps remove stigma and also show so many people they’re not alone!

    • Reply Pam November 4, 2017 at 10:53 am

      If nothing else, I hope this post helps people realize that anxiety is real. It’s not a weakness to overcome–it’s a health problem to be dealt with like any other.

  • Reply Lori October 30, 2017 at 9:25 am

    Brilliant. Insightful. Helpful.

    • Reply Pam October 30, 2017 at 10:00 am

      Thank you! I’m glad it helps.

    Go ahead, tell me what you think.