Mental health covers such a broad scope, and it's really easy to get lost in it all and not really know what much of it means. This piece focuses specifically on High Functioning Anxiety — what it is, how you can help yourself or others that are dealing with it and so on — and hopefully it'll help in broadening of your knowledge of the condition. The important thing to keep in mind is that having any sort of mental health condition, including anxiety, doesn’t make you any weaker than anyone else. With the right help, and sometimes just by talking about it, people with HFA can have a really lovely and fulfilling life. It’s all about finding that balance really. Here's just a short, but by no means exhaustive, list of things that you might not know about HFA:
1. High Functioning Anxiety (HFA) refers to the type of anxiety that drives people to do things and keep busy rather than prevents them from doing particular things.
People with Generalised Anxiety Disorder are more prone to HFA, but that’s not to mean that those that aren’t diagnosed with an anxiety disorder can experience it. Eight million people are known to have anxiety in the UK, and it's likely that a proportion of these people experience HFA in some form. As one of those 8 million anxiety sufferers, I can attest to the massive crossover of symptoms between an anxiety disorder itself, and HFA. The key thing to remember with HFA, is that for many of those that experience it, they might brush it off because it doesn’t prevent them from carrying out their daily lives. However HFA is unique in that it can decrease quality of life and jeopardise the health of those suffering from it.
2. People suffering with HFA often look or seem like they ‘have their lives together’.
This is another one of HFA’s unique ways of expressing itself. People with HFA will often come across as successful, organised and even perfectionists. Just because someone seems like they are highly organised, reliable and passionate, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s nothing troubling bubbling under the surface. If you’re super organised because you get anxious if a deadline isn’t met on time or a project isn’t one hundred percent faultless, you might be experiencing HFA. If you feel stressed and worried if the kitchen is a mess or if plans aren’t arranged well in advanced, people might assume you’re just neat and tidy, or proactive and methodical, yet HFA might be rearing it’s ugly head. In the past I’ve had lots of people say to me in hushed tones ‘I just never knew you had anxiety, you’re so organised and you do so much’. Case in point, my anxiety is the driving force behind a lot of what I do. Rather than prevent me from leaving the house or avoiding situations, anxiety pushes me to fill my schedule and to ‘never not be doing something’. Anxiety is that voice at the back of my mind that’s asking, have you checked on that person today?, have you done enough work this week?, did you make sure that piece of work had no mistakes in it?. On the outside, I might look like I know what I’m doing, on the inside, it’s a HFA party.
3. HFA shows itself in lots of different kinds of symptoms.
As mentioned previously, HFA can emerge in very different ways. However, some of the common symptoms include nail biting, tapping or playing with hair. Basically, people with HFA fiddle a lot and often that’s due to the need to keep busy, organised, or on top of things. Arriving very early for appointments and ‘losing time’ as a result. This one speaks to me. I can’t count the number of times where I’ve turned up to a doctor’s appointment way too early, only to spend ages (sometimes hours) waiting around when I could be relaxing or doing something better, just because I was overly cautious. Often, people experiencing HFA will be incredibly loyal and caring in friendships and relationships even if they are being treated badly. In addition to these signs, overthinking, inability to turn down tasks despite an overloaded schedule, mental and physical exhaustion and insomnia are all common traits in HFA sufferers.
4. People with existing anxiety disorders are more prone to HFA.
This one might be obvious to those who already have anxiety. But HFA often uses existing anxieties as foundations on which actions are built. For example, someone who doesn’t suffer with anxiety might not be bothered by a spontaneous plan, but someone with anxiety might be triggered by unplanned events, and people with HFA might go to great lengths to meticulously plan for any situation they might encounter. Non-anxiety sufferers might not notice if a friend doesn’t text back, but people with anxiety might spend hours worrying if they’ve upset the other person or if that person is in danger. And again, a HFA sufferer will act on it, going out of their way to check on the person’s safety or to make the person feel loved and looked after. There are lots of overlaps when it comes to anxiety disorders and HFA, and if you already deal with any type of anxiety, it might be worth thinking about if HFA is something you experience.
5. HFA and anxiety can lead to physical as well as emotional symptoms.
HFA is of course just one form of anxiety expressing itself, so the regular symptoms of an anxiety disorder can often be paired with the experience of HFA. Physical symptoms of anxiety include, but are not limited to: heart palpitations or pounding heart, nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath, shaking and sweating. There are many more physical manifestations of anxiety, so don’t hesitate to see a doctor if you’re feeling ill and you think it might be down to anxiety.
6. HFA can be good and bad.
I tread carefully when I write this one, because of course no amount of anxiety is good if it’s negatively affecting your life. This being said, if it wasn’t for my HFA, I probably wouldn’t have done so well in exams, I might not be good at making time to do things I love, like writing articles and swimming, and my room might be a total mess all of the time. For lots of people, HFA helps them achieve work promotions, good grades, personal goals, or a buzzing social life. However, here’s the catch: if HFA or any sort of anxiety is affecting your physical or mental health, or if it’s getting in the way of a happy life, it needs to be addressed. This leads me on to the next point.
7. You can get professional help for HFA.
As we discussed, if HFA or anxiety in general is having a negative impact on your life — if it’s making you exhausted or exacerbating existing mental or physical conditions — it’s best to see a doctor. Talking to a GP is a good start, as they might be able to refer you to someone who can help you manage the anxiety you’re experiencing. Additionally, options such as private therapy or a counselling scheme at work/school might be good routes to take to help you get your HFA under control.
8. You can help a friend or loved one who is suffering with HFA.
It goes without saying that professional help is of great importance when attempting to manage any sort of mental health issue. However, the right social support, whether that’s at home or from friends, can make any mental health journey a whole lot smoother for someone suffering with their mental health. If you know somebody who has or might have HFA, then listening to them and allowing them to offload every now and then can be a huge help. Bottling emotions and thoughts up is a sure-fire route to destruction, so being a shoulder to cry on, or someone to vent to can help an HFA sufferer a great deal. Patience is also a virtue. Patience can come in the form of a bit of extra reassurance or support on bad days, or being understanding if they need to cancel or make plans in advance. Perhaps the best thing you can do for someone you love with HFA is understand that it’s not within their control, and that any sort of mental health condition doesn’t make someone crazy, weak or unstable. In fact, for HFA sufferers this quite the opposite! And on some days, a hug, a cup of tea or just telling the person that you love them can be that bit of reassurance that they need to get through the day.
Disclaimer – I am not a mental health expert. Any advice given here is purely based on extensive research. If you think that you are struggling with a mental health issue, a qualified professional is the best person to speak to. You can head to our Resources page for further support.