Natalie's story: learning to live with the peaks and troughs of anxiety

May 2023

Natalie has had anxiety since she was a child, but things really peaked over the pandemic when she grew too comfortable with her routine at home and struggled to adapt to the 'new normal'. She's learned to talk things through with friends and ask for support in situations she knows she'll find stressful

I have had anxiety since I was a child, but I never knew that’s what it was. It's only as an adult that it was suggested to me that I had anxiety, and I was able to understand it. When I was growing up, I don’t ever remember hearing the word. I heard words banded around by adults like shy, quiet and nervous, but never heard the word anxiety. So, as a child and young adult, I learnt how to suppress how I was feeling and blend in quite well.

Being an adult meant I had more control of my life, and I was able to avoid situations that made me feel fearful and panicky. Of course, that wasn’t what I wanted to do, and it has meant that I have missed out on opportunities in life, but I didn’t know any other way of dealing with it and I didn’t want to feel like that.

I am always worrying about upsetting people, and I struggle with confidence, self-esteem, perfectionism, fear of rejection, people not liking me etc and this has such a big impact on my life and has fuelled my anxiety over the years.

Of course, everyone's anxiety experiences and symptoms are different, as we are all individuals. Having the same diagnosis as someone else doesn’t mean we react in the same way or should be treated in the same way. At times my anxiety can spiral out of control, if I am not able to manage it effectively before it peaks. I am trying to learn that talking about how I’m feeling is much better than pushing through on my own. For the most part, I try and deal with it by myself, because it affects so much of my daily life. But it is important that I learn to recognise when situations are getting too much and are spiralling.

Routine brought calm

Prior to the pandemic, I had a stable and regular routine which made life much easier to deal with. I would call on friends to help me with certain situations, such as going to hospital appointments that were not in my area or travelling somewhere new for the first time, but in general, having structure and routine felt less chaotic for me and, therefore, helped me to cope better.

During the pandemic and lockdowns, I guess that initially I felt quite accepting of the situation compared to most. Of course, I wanted to be safe from a physical point of view, but I felt very safe with regards to anxiety too. I made a new routine at home, started learning new things and everything felt manageable and calm – although, I also craved returning to my old routines.

What I didn’t realise was that, when the time came to navigate the ‘new normal’, I was not prepared at all and even though I have suffered with anxiety all my life, it had now reached an entirely different level. I became extremely unwell and for a couple of months I ended up disengaging from life completely. I think I knew I had been struggling for a few weeks, maybe even months, but the thoughts were so illogical – and real – at the same time, that I couldn't bring myself to say it out loud to anyone.

Now I wish that I had spoken about it and accepted support earlier. I was having rolling panic attacks day and night and awful tension headaches every day - which would not ease no matter what I tried; I was fatigued and felt powerless with little hope of a light at the end of the tunnel. My GP was great, and my family were incredible and looked after me until I was stable and ready to start taking steps to move forward. I had some lovely friends checking in on me too.

What I didn’t realise was that, when the time came to navigate the ‘new normal’, I was not prepared at all and even though I have suffered with anxiety all my life, it had now reached an entirely different level. I became extremely unwell and for a couple of months I ended up disengaging from life completely


Accepting help from others

However, because I felt so unwell and was worried about having panic attacks – or displaying anxiety symptoms – in front of others, the prospect of taking those first steps really was really difficult. I soon realised, after making some progress, that taking small steps, such as going for a short walk with a friend, was helping me feel better. Of course, I didn’t manage that alone; a couple of very special people who I trusted, asked if they could help and I think that was exactly what I needed.

I am a natural care giver, which makes it hard for me to ask for help, so having people reach out and ask, ‘how can I help?’ and offering their thoughts and solutions was the best thing that could have ever happened. I was exhausted from trying to sort it out alone, but so desperate to get better. I was gently encouraged with lots of planning, reassurance and confidence-building to try new things to help me back into my previous routines. This made me feel safe and after a few weeks, my panic attacks and headaches started to settle and become less frequent, and I started to feel like myself again.

Having more control and knowledge

I am doing much better now. I still have a few tension headaches and get panicky, but now I know this is a sign that I am worrying or feeling stressed about something, which means it’s time to speak to someone and get support. It has certainly taken some time to get to this stage and it's an ongoing process, but I am taking it day by day and slowly introducing new things back into my life.

Although my anxiety is on an elevated level compared to pre-pandemic, I feel much more knowledgeable about it. A difficult part of anxiety is 'the unknown', but I now understand that it is important for me to gather as much information as I can. Having some visual insight into a new place if I'm going somewhere for the first time, talking about things with the people who make me feel safe (no matter how irrational or catastrophic my thoughts may be), making plans, building confidence and asking for reassurance are all integral to managing my anxiety.

Life has always felt quite scary to me, but I am trying to learn that I don’t have to avoid things that I want to do or be part of. I’ve realised that if I’m going to be able to do this, I need to put my trust in people who make me feel safe and who want to help me excel in life – and I am really working on that.