What is High Functioning Anxiety?
At its core, high functioning anxiety is persistent anxiety that doesn’t appear to disrupt day-to-day life. For example, a person with high functioning social anxiety may still attend functions despite their unwillingness to do so.
High functioning anxiety symptoms have little to do with the severity of the anxiety but instead focuses on how a person with anxiety tends to handle the feeling. People with high functioning anxiety may appear outwardly successful. They can maintain family, careers, and other aspects of modern life. However, because individuals with high functioning anxiety can conceal the signs of their disorder, they often go longer without treatment or support.
Statistics on Childhood Anxiety Disorders
Childhood anxiety is far more common than most people think, and to some degree, it’s natural. Healthy anxiety levels are the brain’s way to assess danger, risks, and stressors. However, when anxiety is persistent and/or severe, it’s considered an anxiety disorder. Here are the statistics for anxiety in children.1
- Around 4.4 million children suffer from clinical anxiety.
- 75% of children with depression have anxiety as well.
- Approximately 40% of children with behavior problems have anxiety.
- Anxiety symptoms are more intense in older children.
- Anxiety in children is becoming rapidly more prevalent. The number of children with anxiety nearly doubled between 2003-2012
- In the U.S., girls are more likely to develop anxiety than boys.
- Children who identify as possessing masculine traits (regardless of birth gender or sexual preferences) are less likely to experience depression.2
- Only 59% of children with anxiety receive treatment, meaning approximately 2.5 million children go without treatment every year.
- 22% of children below the poverty line develop anxiety.
Diagnosing High Functioning Anxiety
High functioning anxiety doesn’t exist as a diagnosis. It is more accurate to consider anxiety as the diagnosis. High functioning refers only to the patient’s lifestyle as perceived by family and friends. Anxiety diagnosis and their corresponding treatments may differ.3 For example, social anxiety and general anxiety require separate, although nuanced, treatment. As such, being diagnosed with anxiety is only the beginning. What follows is discovering the exact source of the anxiety and committing to treatment.
Causes of Childhood Anxiety
Children undergo several stressors throughout development. These are the most common causes of childhood anxiety:
- Divorce: Divorce may stunt a child’s emotional development and how they perceive relationships. The life changes brought on by divorce can manifest as anxiety and several other mood disorders.
- Bullying/trauma: Both verbal and physical abuse can cause persistent anxiety, PTSD, poor grades, and disciplinary action. Trauma includes physical and emotional events, including but not limited to sexual and emotional abuse.
- Poverty: Approximately 22% of children below the poverty line develop anxiety. Impoverished areas typically have reduced quality of life, higher crime rates, and less access to therapy and general medical treatment.
- Negative home life: Having a parent or parents with substance use issues, emotional disorders, and other mental health illnesses can disrupt a child’s ability to learn and cope. Facing their parents’ disorder causes children to “grow up” quicker than they should. Negative home life can also cause poor grades and general behavioral issues.
High Functioning Anxiety Symptoms
It takes a trained professional to confirm the existence of high functioning anxiety symptoms. These are the most common signs and symptoms of anxiety in students and children.4
- Fear/stress over everyday events: In a child, high functioning anxiety can include fear of going to school, visiting certain relatives, fear of the dark, and more.
- Panic attacks: Sudden shortness of breath or rapid breathing concerning an event, word, person, etc. can be a sign of previous trauma.
- Behavioral issues: A sudden change in behavior such as aggression, depression, isolation, etc. are signs of anxiety.
Symptoms of Anxiety in Students
The most common signs of high functioning anxiety in students include:
- Poor grades
- Experimenting with drugs and alcohol
- Lack of social circle
- Multiple disciplinary strikes
- Reduced mental performance
How Anxiety Interferes with Learning
Anxiety causes cortisol to release in the brain. The long-term effect of cortisol is impaired memory, reduced mental clarity, depression, and other mood disorders. Cortisol increases white matter in the brain, causing anxiety to interfere with learning and mood, thought, and essentially every mental function.5
High Functioning Anxiety and Addiction
Anxiety and addiction in students frequently occur together. Mental illnesses such as clinical anxiety increase the chance of substance use. Substance use intensifies the effects of mental illness. Substance use can also aggravate underlying mental illnesses such as depression.
It can be challenging to establish anxiety symptoms from addiction when they co-occur. This challenge can complicate treatment for one or both disorders. However, there are treatment options available to help curb anxiety in students and children.
Treating Anxiety Disorders in Children
What Parents Can Do to Help
The most important thing any parent can do to treat anxiety and addiction in their children is to be proactive. A parent that is aware of their child’s emotional needs and actively works to meet those needs can reduce anxiety symptoms. Take note of any behavioral or personality changes and seek medical treatment when necessary.6
Accommodations to Help Anxious Student
Accommodations to help an anxious student vary based on the specific type of anxiety. These are some of the general ways to assist:
- Mental health day: Letting the child take time off from school to do what makes them happy, even if that’s staying in bed, can improve mental health.
- Increased parent time: This aspect can include a parent staying home from work to spend extra time with their child or making more time in day-to-day life to connect and listen to their child.
- Avoiding social interactions: Many forms of anxiety are triggered by social outings and exposure. Allowing a child to have a break from social interaction may be the respite they need to recover.
Medications for High Functioning Anxiety
Xanax, Ativan, and Klonopin are medications that help with anxiety. All of the aforementioned drugs are benzodiazepines. Benzodiazepines are often prescribed for anxiety. Non-pharmaceutical forms of treatment may include trauma therapy, meditations, and a change of environment.7
To overcome mental illness such as anxiety or addiction in students requires consistent treatment and an emotional support group. If your child shows signs of high functioning anxiety, it is never too early or too late to find help. Treating mental illness in children takes patience, time, and understanding from their parent or guardian.