It was this February, during our third lockdown, that Nick Jemetta, 37, from Hitchin, realised something was wrong. “I was feeling heightened pressure,” he says.
“Juggling remote working alongside homeschooling was incredibly difficult – it felt like neither got the time and attention they deserved. There just weren’t enough hours in the day. I don’t know how much of it was me overthinking, but life felt less and less manageable.”
Nick, a mental health campaigner who has experienced anxiety since he was young, found working from home made things harder. “I had developed coping mechanisms for office life – grabbing someone for a quick chat, or developing colleague relationships – but online, you don’t pick up on the body language and you miss signals.
"At times I found it hard to speak up on calls and I’d beat myself up for not finding my voice. The self-criticism and replaying conversations and situations became exhausting.” Nick is far from alone. Anxiety levels around the UK have soared.
According to an ONS study conducted in November 2020, 17 per cent of adults experienced some form of anxiety, compared with 10 per cent pre-pandemic. NHS figures for 2020 saw a 15 per cent rise in urgent and emergency mental health referrals, while a recent Flinders University study exploring people’s response to the stresses of the pandemic linked Covid to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms.
According to Liz Ritchie, an integrative psychotherapeutic counsellor for charity St Andrew’s Healthcare, lockdown created the perfect conditions for anxiety to spiral. “We’ve been living in a very stressful reality for a long period of time and there is still uncertainty about what lies ahead. For many, this has felt like a constant fight-or flight-situation.
Anxiety levels have shot up, and I think the effects will play out for years to come.”
According to Michelle Mould, an integrative psychotherapist who works with Anxiety UK, the “fight or flight” response is central to understanding anxiety. “It’s part of our survival instincts. When we were hunter-gatherers, this would be triggered whenever we encountered a threat – our body would pump out adrenaline to give us energy, our breathing and heart rate would speed up because we needed to get oxygen into the blood and muscles, and cortisol would curb any non-essential functions.
"But now, though situations may be stressful, we usually aren’t running or fighting. So all of this is going on and there’s no release. It’s very distressing.” Stress is normally reactive, linked to one event and surmountable – like the nerves you get before an interview, when your throat feels tight or you can’t eat.
With anxiety, says Mould, the stress becomes personal, protracted and acute. “You have lots of different stressors that have piled up, unprocessed. These can suddenly become overwhelming – sometimes due to a trigger event like a work problem or personal conflict, but not always. This manifests in physical symptoms such as dizziness, palpitations, breathing problems or panic attacks.
"You may find it difficult to work and struggle with overthinking, paralysis, self-criticism, and avoidance behaviour. Sleep can be affected. It impacts on your quality of life.”
For Hayley Martin, 51, from Cheshire, her worries centred around the virus itself. “My parents are in their 80s, so I was very worried about them catching it. I would get my mask, gloves and antibac and do their shopping, then wash it down before I packed it away. I was constantly hand-washing. My overthinking began to spiral, my sleep was impacted; I felt very overwhelmed.”
One sign that people’s anxiety is very deeply rooted can be seen in the reactions to coming out of lockdown. “Rather than disappearing, anxieties are shifting,” says Ritchie. “A lot of people are panicking about having to socialise, or going back to the office. When we’ve been in a catastrophising mindset for so long, we have to work really hard at getting back to a positive one. And for some, lockdown has changed them; they may not want to return to how things were.”
What’s key, says Ritchie, is validating these feelings. “It’s about saying it’s OK to not be OK, then finding ways to manage this safely. So it might be taking things slowly, not rushing into meet-ups, looking at a new working week. If you’re very anxious, you may need time off. Treat it like a physical illness and give yourself time and space to get better.”
Hayley’s approach has been to find active ways to push through. “I run and cycle so that I can focus on my body and tire myself out. I volunteer with mental health charities and a wildlife rescue service, which helps me get out and do practical things. I’m feeling much more positive.”
For Nick, recognising how he was feeling and seeking help allowed him to recover. “My anxiety had started affecting me physically: chest pains, headaches, and I wasn’t eating or sleeping. So I went to see my GP and he signed me off work for a month. That gave me time to recalibrate.
“Now I’m in a much better place – I’m back at work and focusing on the future. I have healthy coping strategies, from exercising to getting outdoors with my wife and kids. I’ve also been fundraising for mental health charities by working in fancy dress. It’s important to realise you’re not alone. It’s OK to struggle, and to ask for help.”
You can seek help for anxiety from organisations such as Mind, Anxiety UK and Samaritans
Nick Jemetta is raising money for mental health charities by wearing fancy dress to work. You can sponsor him at justgiving.com/team/workinfancydress