‘At 28 my life appears perfect but inside anxiety is taking over’

Social isolation over the course of the pandemic is a key factor

PROBLEM: I’m a 28-year-old male. On the surface I’ve been quite successful in life – achieving a good education and impressive career. However, over the course of the pandemic I became quite isolated and have developed a level of anxiety that has increasingly taken over my life.

I recently changed jobs and this anxiety has stopped my performance in my current role. I struggle with basic tasks now for fear of messing up and recently had to take some time off work. I’ve started seeing a counsellor to try to deal with the issue and thought I was getting on top of things, but after returning to work I’ve noticed the same symptoms have returned. I’m not sure if it’s just this new role is not suited to me or if there is something deeper at play, but I would really like to regain my previous confidence and be able to engage with life once more on a more functional level.

I would appreciate any advice you may have.

ADVICE: We now know that anxiety has rocketed since the pandemic, but it was already on the increase before this. My World Survey 2, published in 2019 is Ireland’s largest and most comprehensive study of young people’s mental health and it reports a notable increase in anxiety and depression since 2012. It also reports that levels of protective factors including self-esteem, optimism and resilience decreased between 2012 and 2019. If you add the impact of two years of isolation, you can easily see why you might be struggling with self-confidence and anxiety.

Knowing this may not ease your situation but it might allow you some compassion for yourself and perhaps stop you from blaming yourself entirely for how you are feeling. Continuing to see a counsellor should help you address anything in your background or past experience that might be contributing to your angst but there is also a lot you can do on your own to tackle this debilitating condition. Physical exercise and good sleep are strongly linked with better mental health, and this is something you can implement straight away. (see here for information on sleep hygiene).

This takes time as you attempt to train your mind to let go of the habitual fearful thinking

If you can get your exercise in a group (club or class) this will have the added advantage of helping with your mental health as focusing on others and not on your own mind is always a good thing to do. Physical tiredness always contributes to good sleep, and you will find that as you learn how to quieten your mind, sleep improves.

Anxiety is usually linked to fear and this is often in the form of thoughts of “what if” or “fear of what I think might/will happen”. We then suffer as if the bad outcome has happened which debilitates us, and we experience shame and self-blame. Being on your own allows these thoughts and fears to grow until they become habitual and automatic and are thus more difficult to disperse. If we add the fear of what we “think other people think about us”, and then act as if this were true, the result is that we shrink from company assuming that our own self-criticisms are shared by others.

But, of course, we cannot read other people’s minds and as our self-commentary is almost always negative it is unlikely we can exit this pattern of thinking without getting out of our own heads. The simple truth is that we are not our thoughts and if we can get some distance from them, we can gain access to our intelligence and good judgement.

You can remember feeling confident and if you investigate what that was like you may notice that you were not caught up in overthinking everything and probably had a life that was focused outwards – this is key to your recovery. Becoming aware of, and dropping, your self-commentary is essential and, like many things that are good for us, it is going to require effort and commitment. In the same way that you can train your body to run a marathon, you can train your mind to drop internal chatter and focus outwards. It will involve practice, and this can come in the form of mind quietening activities such as meditation, mindfulness, yoga or some martial arts. If you would like to start this process you could try the online Aware Life-Skills Programme which will give you a good base of knowledge and understanding which you can put into practice in the world. This takes time as you attempt to train your mind to let go of the habitual fearful thinking and a general rule of development is two steps forward, one step back – so be prepared for setbacks.

Developing good relationships is also core to our wellbeing so push yourself a little to say yes to social situations even if that is to a coffee break at work. If you engage with others enough times, you will find that friendship develops – not with everyone but often we surprise ourselves by connecting with someone unexpected. Finally, starting a new job, particularly where there is a promotion, is a challenging and nervous time.

You could take the view of trusting that they would not have employed you if you did not have the skills, and turn your attention to trust (in yourself) rather than focusing on the fear of letting everyone down. Give yourself time, up to a year, to recover from the isolation of Covid, to setting up new and healthy habits and to pressing pause on the self-judgement that is currently so damaging for you.