Let’s talk about High Functioning Anxiety

“Nobody would ever believe something was wrong, because you always portrayed yourself as being fine.” – the story of my fxcking life.

It’s mental health awareness week, and with quarantine seeing a lot of us spending more time by ourselves, it might be the most crucial mental health week yet.

Photo credit: Brianna Gilmartin/ Very Well

I’m going to talk about High Functioning Anxiety, let’s call it HFA for short, and shed some light on what it means because it’s not something that you hear about too often since it’s not a medically recognised diagnosis. Still, it’s one that’s become more of growing concern. Despite it not being medically recognised, I still think it’s an important element of mental health to explore, to help shed the stigma that surrounds mental health issues.

When I researched the subject, I came across an article by author Arlin Cuncic which rang true to me on so many levels. One of my oldest and dearest friends posted a tweet by influencer @GraceFVictory talking about HFA a few weeks ago. She has always told me that the way I deal with things isn’t usual. Throwing myself into work, keeping myself busy and putting other people above myself to hide what’s going on in my life, is something that I became so used to doing that I didn’t realise it was a problem. I never used to take her seriously because, well, I guess I didn’t want it to be true. There is a stigma to mental health issues as we all know. Beyond that, people are quick to assume that you’re jumping on the bandwagon if what you perceive as anxiety, doesn’t comply with the “norm” of what people have come to expect. That is very much not the case for a lot of people, but that in itself, stops people from wanting to admit that they suffer from it.

So, what is HFA?

High Functioning Anxiety takes on many forms, but in essence, it’s powering through your anxiousness for the sake of succeeding or appearing fine but at great cost to your emotional and mental wellbeing. When it comes to anxiety, many people are frozen by theirs, whereas people with HFA tend to propel themselves forward instead. I hate the feeling of being stuck or frozen, so when things aren’t going well for me, or I feel myself slipping into a state of unproductivity, I tend to overdo it, shut people out and focus on something that I can control.

HFA comes with a lot of contradicting characteristics that might make it hard to believe that this goes on in people’s minds. One of the more positive characteristics of HFA is having an outgoing personality, while one of the negatives is talking excessively out of nervousness. I’m known for my outgoing personality and tendency to be the life and soul of the party, and a lot of the time I think that’s the only reason I get invited to places. However, over the past few years, I haven’t felt very outgoing. When I am put in situations with new people, I get this nervous feeling that what I’m saying is just nonsense chatter that people could probably do without hearing.

Another one is appearing outwardly calm and collected. I like to think when I’m in public – and sober – that I conduct myself in that way. However, people with HFA can find the need to do repetitive things which kind of clashes with being calm and collected. When I was ten, I came up with a numerical system for walking upstairs. I remember thinking if I would be able to get up the stairs without hurting myself if I was blindfolded or lost my sight suddenly. I felt so consumed by this idea that I came up with this sequence of numbers that I would repeat when going up and downstairs. “1,3,5,7,9, full-stop, 1,3,5,7,9.” My house had 12 steps. Since then, I haven’t been able to walk up or down a staircase without reciting this in my head: it’s like breathing. I don’t say it out loud, I could even be having a conversation with someone while I’m doing it, but I’m still doing it almost 15 years on. As crazy as it is, it makes me feel better, and I don’t think I could stop now even if I wanted to.

People with HFA have this fear of failing or letting someone down. It can include comparing themselves to others and then falling short of expectation. I tend not to compare myself to others outwardly because I am aware of how counterproductive and self-destructive it can be. For all my flaws, I try to be self-aware, and I try to channel that as much as possible. They are often people-pleasers, even against their better judgement and overly punctual for important things, to the point where they lose time. I used to think that when I would show up an hour early to a job interview that it was because my mother used to browbeat punctuality into us. Still, on second glance, perhaps she was projecting some of her anxiety, unbeknown to her, onto her children.

One of my biggest gripes with HFA is the inability not to dwell on the past. I know that’s something a lot of people can relate to as well and is more about an inability to forgive ourselves for past mistakes. Unfortunately for me, I have very intrusive thoughts. When I think about something from my past, it’s not necessarily reliving my mistakes, but it’s more of an obsession of figuring out all the ways that those things from the past can come back and cause pain in the future. I can’t and don’t speak for everyone, but that is very much my experience and I think feeling intimidated by the future (something people with HFA tend to feel) makes it all the more difficult for me to manage.

Of course, you have to remember, all of these characteristics I’ve mentioned are present behind the scenes of HFA while they’re singing along with you in your car, sitting across from you at the dinner table or simply watching TV.

Photo credit: Wellcome Collection.

There are less more intrusive characteristics that I don’t find hard to handle. People with HFA can be very organised, and that is something I wouldn’t change about myself. I love organising folders, shelves, unpacking and rearranging rooms. It brings me to a place of calm and control. Although when I see people with messy, overwhelming desktops, it does make me want to rip my skin off because there is no need for it.

I’d be interested to know how people with HFA feel about how they’re perceived by other people. I’ve been told on numerous occasions that I am cold, stoic, even heartless, and that could not be further from the truth. Ex-partners, ex-friends, have all taken issue with how quickly and how easy I can cut a person out of my life. When in fact, I’ve never found it easy to tell somebody that we’re not good together or that they aren’t good for my emotional wellbeing. I tend to attract very needy, very draining people who don’t see how much I accommodate their idiosyncrasies, their anxieties, their hang-ups and how much it takes out of me. I’m a very emotional person, but I’ve had to learn to control that. If you let them, people will take so much from you and being selfish is something I believe needs to be destigmatised. If something doesn’t work for you, you have every right to re-evaluate it. The people I attract would be the first people to do so if I were the problem, but don’t know how to take it the other way round.

For people with HFA, life is a constant churn of anxiety, but for some reason, they feel compelled to keep going, and they’re probably the last people to admit or even realise that they have this issue. The majority of what I do is carefully thought out at hyper-speed, that can come across of calculative, but that is not the case, it’s just how I function and how I can maintain some control over what is going on.

Mental health awareness, not just for this week in May but year-round is so essential. As I’ve said, there is a stigma to mental health issues that is outdated and inadvertently stopping people from receiving the help that they need. I’m not talking about medication; I’m a big fan of CBT and talking therapies before turning to medicine (just my preference), but I know many people have trepidations about such things. No matter what, when it comes to your mental health, you have to do what is best practice for you, but for you to do that you must try to block out outside hindrance and think about how you want to feel when you wake up every day.

If anyone is reading this who thinks they suffer from HFA, I hope this has helped shed some light on the subject. This is my story, and I cannot speak for anyone but myself on this topic, but I would love to hear some of your stories. If you feel comfortable to share below, please do and don’t be afraid to speak your truth. As I’m writing this, I’m wondering what some of my friends will think as it’s not something I have discussed with many of them, but getting this out is more important than perhaps some people changing their perspective of me. I hope this will help people understand that what they see on the outside is only a fraction to the story.

Take care of yourselves.

For more of the characteristics of High Functioning Anxiety, please click on the article link above.


One response to “Let’s talk about High Functioning Anxiety”

  1. […] myself suffer from High Functioning Anxiety (HFA), and I often get anxious about the smallest things. When I get in a state, I know exactly […]


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