To your family, friends and coworkers, you might appear as if you have it all together. You perform well at your job, your kids look happy and healthy, and your household seems like it’s running smoothly. But underneath that seemingly successful exterior, you might have a lot of anxiety.
That’s called high-functioning anxiety, and while it isn’t a defined illness, it’s something many people can relate to. With high-functioning anxiety, while your life is moving along in what looks like a positive way, the level of anxiety you’re experiencing is causing you distress.
“A fair number of people, if they started to give some thought to this, could say, ‘Yes, I see this in my parenting. Or yes, I see this in my workplace. Or yes, I see this in my schoolwork’,” Lynn Bufka, Ph.D., senior director of practice transformation and quality for the American Psychological Association, told TODAY.
And that anxiety can become pervasive. “A lot of us stay in that stress mode so much, and for such a big proportion of our waking lives, that it feels normal,” Keith Kaufman, Ph.D., a clinical sports psychologist and member of the American Psychological Association, told TODAY.
You might think that your anxiety isn’t affecting you that much. But anxiety can take up a lot of your energy. “We do not have inexhaustible emotional resources,” Bufka said. For example, you may be ambitious, but you choose a less-demanding personal or professional life because you’re struggling with anxiety.
Here are some strategies you can try to dial down your anxiety.
1. Look for times when you don’t have to be perfect
People with high-functioning anxiety often strive for perfection in all areas of their lives, even when they don’t need to. “If you have to do everything perfectly, that’s surely taking a lot of time. What are you giving up because of that?” Bufka said. “I try to help people figure out what’s good enough and how you decide when something has to be just right. For example, surgery has to be just right. But my kitchen doesn’t have to be spotless.”
It’s hard to get outside your thoughts and figure out where good enough is acceptable. It can help to change your point of view. What would you say to a good friend in your situation? Or, how would you judge a good friend? If you’re anxious because your house or children aren’t perfect, ask yourself what you would think if you walked into a friend’s house — would you judge it as messy or think the children weren’t well behaved?
2. Find healthier ways to motivate yourself
People with high-functioning anxiety often believe that their anxiety fuels them. “A lot of people feel like they need the anxiety to help them achieve and to keep their edge,” Kaufman said. “That can work to a point, but it’s not sustainable.” That’s because when you’re anxious, you try to protect yourself from the threat of failure, and that takes away the energy you need to succeed.
He said intrinsic motivation is what really inspires us. “If you pursue something because you want to get better at it, that fear (of failure) isn’t there. You don’t need to waste all this energy on protecting yourself.”
It’s a tough shift to make. To start, ask yourself whether there’s a different, more efficient way to do things. If you’re not sure where to begin, look to the parts of your life when you’re not anxious.People often feel less anxious with a hobby, for example. That’s because, with a hobby, you focus more on the process than the outcome. By not focusing on the end result, you could be less anxious. Are there behaviors you use with your hobbies you can carry over to activities when the stakes are higher?
3. Get specific about what’s behind your anxiety
Bufka gives an example of a worry chain. A woman was anxious about hosting a dinner party with her husband and his boss. “When we started to unpack what the worry was, she was concerned the meal would not go well and it would reflect poorly on her husband and he would lose his job and wouldn’t find another job and they wouldn’t be able to keep their house and they would become homeless,” she said.
“We don’t often go from ‘I’m anxious about this event’ to the end consequence,” she said. “If we get concrete and look at what we fear, that brings the worry right to our face. And that’s very scary, so we tend to avoid it.”
But if you can get specific about what’s behind your anxiety, you can see how unrealistic it is — a failed dinner party probably isn’t going to leave you homeless. And you can also think about how you would cope if the worst were to happen.
4. Observe other people instead of yourself
If you’re highly anxious, you probably often focus on how you’re being perceived and evaluated. “If you can stop just a little bit and observe, you realize most people aren’t paying that much attention to you. Most people are thinking about their own things,” Bufka said. You can also observe how other people react when they make mistakes.
5. Structure your day in ways that reduce your anxiety
If the news makes you anxious, follow it in the morning when you have more emotional energy, and set a fixed amount of time to catch up on events. Or, if you have to tackle a challenging task, give yourself a couple of hours to work on it and then take a break and work on something that’s easier.
6. Focus on the present
A lot of anxiety centers around the future. “People want to know if they’re going to get the promotion or the scholarship. They want to know what’s happening next, and so there is this fear baked in,” Kaufman said. Meditation or structured relaxation can help to pause your thinking so you can focus on the moment you’re in.
7. Improve your sleep
Anxiety is the enemy of sleep. “Sleep is one of the things that gets impacted. Many people push aside anxiety and anxious thoughts during the day, and then when they try to settle down at night it all comes flooding in and impacts how well you’re sleeping,” Bufka said.
8. Seek professional help if you need it
If your anxiety impacts your life and the steps you’ve tried aren’t working, you might want to see a mental health professional. Watch for signs like sleeping poorly, feeling irritable or taking a lot longer to get your work done than you used to.
“With anxiety, we get so wrapped up in our own heads,” Bufka said. “We need to have somebody help us begin to untangle all of the threads that are whirling around, because all the worries interconnect, and it becomes difficult to slow down and pull them apart.”