Focus on commuter holding hand strap on busy train
Focus on commuter holding hand strap on busy train
20th Jun 2023

In this article, Dr Naomi Humber, Head of Mental Wellbeing, for Bupa Health Clinics, looks at what high-functioning anxiety is, how to recognise its symptoms and how to cope with its impact on work and daily life.

High-functioning anxiety is a term used to describe individuals who can perform well in their professional lives, despite struggling with feelings of overwhelm and stress. While anxiety is a natural response to stress and can be a helpful tool for managing challenges in our daily lives, there is a point where you may need help, for example, if it begins to impact your life at home or at work.

Recent data from Bupa Global’s Executive Wellbeing Index1 shows that nine in ten global senior leaders have experienced symptoms of poor mental health, meaning it's more important than ever for executives to understand the symptoms and effects of high-functioning anxiety, as well as the range of coping strategies and support that is available.

Recognising the symptoms of high-functioning anxiety

High-functioning anxiety is common among professionals. Symptoms include but are not limited to; excessive worrying, feeling overwhelmed, having trouble sleeping, and restlessness. These symptoms can be particularly challenging for senior leaders, who are often under high stress and pressure to perform – and where inertia isn’t an option2.

In addition to this, high-functioning anxiety can affect motivation amongst these high-achieving individuals, leading to decreased work satisfaction and burnout. In fact, Bupa Global’s research found that 17 per cent of senior leaders had reported experiencing burnout in the last year alone – demonstrating the extent of the problem.

However, because it is often characterised by its ability to remain hidden, many people may live with high-functioning anxiety without realising it.

Dr Naomi Humber, Head of Mental Wellbeing for Bupa Health Clinics, comments: "High-functioning anxiety can be deceiving as those who suffer from it are often highly successful and able to perform well, even while experiencing intense inner turmoil. This means it’s important to understand the symptoms and effects proactively. Taking the time to reflect on one's thoughts and emotions, and seeking professional support, if necessary, can help individuals manage and overcome their high-functioning anxiety and maintain good mental health and wellbeing."

Identifying underlying causes

The causes of high-functioning anxiety can vary, but Dr Naomi explains how it often stems from a combination of environmental and psychological factors: “High-functioning anxiety among executives can be attributed to several factors, including the fast-paced and demanding nature of today's work environment, the increasing expectations of performance, and even the prevalence of technology that blurs the line between work and personal time.”

She continues: “Executives must often manage complex projects, work long hours, and make critical decisions, which can be sources of significant stress. Additionally, operating in a challenging, and unpredictable, economic environment - exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic - can leave them feeling overwhelmed and constantly connected to their work.”

Identifying coping strategies

For executives to protect their mental health, and maximise their potential for increased productivity and job satisfaction, they must be able to identify symptoms of high-functioning anxiety and know the proactive steps that can help.

Dr Naomi says: “There are many proactive strategies that can help to manage high-functioning anxiety - however, it's worth remembering that everyone is different, and what works for one person may not work for another. Therefore, it’s essential to seek professional help if needed and find what works best for you."

Practical tips from Dr Naomi include:

  1. Practising self-care: Incorporating healthy habits such as exercise, eating a well-balanced diet, getting enough sleep, and sticking to a productive daily routine can help improve physical and mental wellbeing.
  2. Developing relaxation techniques: Mindfulness, meditation, and yoga are effective ways to help calm the mind and reduce stress. Some people also find that complementary therapies such as acupuncture – when used alongside standard traditional care - can help to alleviate stress and boost feelings of wellbeing.
  3. Maintaining a healthy work-life balance: Finding a balance between work and personal life can help reduce stress and improve mental wellbeing. Remember to set boundaries and make time for hobbies and activities that bring joy and relaxation. Taking breaks, walking, and engaging in physical activity can also help improve mental wellbeing and tackle some of the symptoms of high-performing anxiety.
  4. Identifying triggers: Keeping a journal of when and why you feel anxious can help you recognise triggering situations and develop coping strategies to manage them.
  5. Practising positive self-talk: Pay attention to the negative thoughts contributing to anxiety and try reframing them in a more positive light.
  6. Setting realistic expectations: Avoid setting unrealistic expectations for yourself and practice self-compassion.

Breaking the stigma and spotting high-functioning anxiety in others

Many senior leaders experience poor mental health, and high-functioning anxiety, but may be reluctant to seek help due to the stigma associated with mental health in the corporate world. For example, Bupa Global’s Executive Wellbeing Index found that 15 per cent of senior leaders experienced poor mental health but didn't tell their colleagues for fear of losing respect.

“It's important to know that seeking help for mental health issues is a sign of strength, not weakness, and that support is available. And by taking an open approach to mental health and fostering a culture where others feel comfortable having open conversations, we can help break down the stigma and support each other in maintaining good mental health,” says Dr Naomi.

Dr Naomi continues: “It’s crucial for executives to be on the lookout for symptoms in their teams - and remember that just because someone appears to be functioning well on the outside, it doesn't mean they are not struggling with anxiety internally.”

1 Bupa Global Executive Wellbeing Index, 2022 (opens in a new window)

2 High-Functioning Anxiety: Symptoms, Causes And Treatment – Forbes Health (opens in a new window)