7 Signs Your Mom Has High-Functioning Anxiety & How You Can Help

by Eva Taylor Grant
Mariia Boiko/Shutterstock

High-functioning anxiety may be something that's getting discussed more than before, but it's not a new problem. So even if your mom doesn't talk about her mental health much, it's still quite possible that your mom lives with a high-functioning anxiety disorder. Because she's high-functioning, however, the signs can be a little bit harder to spot.

Especially if you deal with anxiety, you may be the perfect person to help your mom start to address hers. Learning how anxiety works, and understanding the varying kinds of treatment, can be important starting points before you start to talk to your mother about potential solutions.

"Many people suffer from anxiety," Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and host of The Kurre and Klapow Show, tells Bustle. "While not everyone is in need of medication or psychotherapy, the impact of anxiety on productivity, quality of life, and ease of life is significant. Many times individuals with high-functioning anxiety can use self management strategies like learning in to identify the anxiety provoking situations, having a plan for managing them, and learning how to control physiological responses to anxiety." So if you understand that your mother's anxiety is not something to fear, then you are more likely to have the tools necessary to begin to help her.

While your mother's potential anxiety is not your burden to bare, it can be nice to lend a hand if you feel able. High-functioning anxiety may look easy, but it can be incredibly difficult to deal with.

Here are seven signs your mom has high-functioning anxiety, as well as how you can help her, according to experts.


She Has Physical Symptoms

Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

People with anxiety, no matter how high-functioning they may be, may experience noticeable physical symptoms. "Anxiety is a highly physiological experience," Dr. Klapow says. Some of these symptoms include clammy hands, tight muscles, upset stomachs, and shortness of breath.

"Talking to them about very specific symptoms that you have observed [...] and asking them what they think of those symptoms is a great place to start," Dr. Klapow says. Coming from the perspective of an observer may come across as less confrontational than other tactics.


They Fret About Sleeping At Night

Image Point Fr/Shutterstock

Being fretful about falling asleep at night, whether expressed through verbalized worry or through elaborate nighttime rituals (like reading, drinking tea, watching television until a certain time, or needing a particular temperature), can be a sign of high-functioning anxiety.

"Often individuals with anxiety have sleep problems," Dr. Klapow says. "As they find it difficult to calm their thoughts, the thought of not falling asleep can creep in." You can mention to your mom that you've noticed these patterns, and perhaps suggest some ways to ease the stress of going to sleep at night.


They Have Very Rigid Routines


High-functioning anxiety often forms with very concrete coping mechanisms. One of these potential coping mechanisms is having extremely rigid routines.

"Very often people with anxiety will cope or mask the anxiety by creating as much certainty in their lives as possible," Dr. Klapow says. "[...] The more predictable the setting the better it can make people feel." So if you realize your mom has set rituals, it may be worth bringing up.


They May Be Defensive

Ekaterina Pokrovsky/Shutterstock

Observing your mother's high-functioning anxiety and actually discussing it with her can seem really far apart. Some of this may be due to the fact that her anxiety has caused her to become defensive over the years.

"So often people with anxiety who are able to function at some level are very defensive when their anxiety is pointed out," Dr. Klapow says. "They have learned to adapt to a less than optimal level of functioning and for them the anxious behaviors are 'normal.' So, when approaching a parent about concerns you have around anxiety, recognize that they may be defensive, they may deny a problem, and that may happen because they may not recognize they have a problem." Being empathetic about this coping mechanism may make things easier.


They Have Nervous Habits


Everyone gets nervous. But if your mom has certain repetitive habits that you observe when she gets worried, she may have high-functioning anxiety.

"People with anxiety often feel restless and have difficulty sitting still," licensed psychotherapist Lisa Hutchison, LMHC, tells Bustle. "[...] You can gently approach Mom's anxiety and tell her that there are various short-term psychological treatments that involve cognitive behavioral therapy without the use of medications." While therapy and medication are both completely valid treatments, starting with these solutions may be more palatable if your mom isn't familiar with talking about mental health.


They're A "People-Pleaser"

Margarita Borodina/Shutterstock

Those who have lived for years with high-functioning anxiety may have found rationales for their feelings and behaviors. One of these possible explanations could include your mom identifying as a "people-pleaser."

"Mom may over-schedule herself because she has a fear of letting others down or having others be angry with her," Hutchison says. "You can help Mom by reminding her it is OK to say no and set limits." Anxiety is engrained enough that it may feel like a personality trait, but you can remind your mom that she deserves some relief from what distresses her.


They Call Themselves "A Worrier"

Chicken Skin Images/Shutterstock

Another big sign that your mom struggles with high-functioning anxiety is that she tries to minimize it by saying "I'm just a worrier."

"Rumination — the inability to let go of worrisome thoughts — is a part of anxiety diagnoses," Hutchison says. "One way to help Mom is to validate what she feels. Tell her it is OK to have some anxiety or fear." Feeling validated may help her be more comfortable admitting she's struggling.

In all, supporting a mom who may not realize she has high-functioning anxiety is largely about showing her what you observe, and suggesting how she may feel better. A lifetime of worry may make this a more drawn-out process, but it's worth it to at least try to help your mom find some relief.