The silent struggle: navigating anxiety in your twenties

With levels of anxiety in young adults on the rise, learn what it is like to live with, and what help and support is available to subdue the stresses of early adulthood. 

“It was overnight in February 2021. I just woke up, panicking, and just didn’t stop for an entire year.”

Josh, a 20-year-old university student, has spent much of his life dealing with anxiety. It reached the point where he became completely agoraphobic, unable to leave his house for nine months. However, his anxiety began long before this, stemming from emetophobia – an intense fear of throwing up. 

“I remember at preschool I had really bad separation anxiety. They would have to pry me from my parents,” says Josh. “I guess I have always been a bit cautious. I’m just that type of person. Usually, it was always about, ‘What if I throw up?’”

For years on end, his anxiety was a disrupting factor in life, he missed large chunks of secondary school which meant he had to drop out in year 11. Then in February 2021, after a series of devastating events, including the loss of two friends, one of whom died by suicide in December 2020 Josh began a downward spiral 

“I remember dealing with it all pretty well after Christmas, and then I think the reason I woke up really anxious that night in February was because I had a nightmare about it all and just woke up panicking,” Josh shares. “I wasn’t sleeping because I didn’t want to have dreams about it.”

This trauma, combined with his existing anxiety manifested into agoraphobia, confining Josh to the ‘safety’ of his home. 

“It’s so weird because my life was literally just sitting in the same place on the sofa every day for an entire year and just doing nothing,” he recalls. “I can’t really remember that year because it was so stressful I’ve just blocked it out.”

Whilst Josh’s experience may not be a common one, he is just one of the countless young adults who have had to and continue to grapple with anxiety. Research conducted by the Mental Health Foundation in 2023 found that 89% of UK adults aged 18 to 24 said anxiety interfered with their day-to-day life to some extent, a very real issue that needs addressing, particularly in light of the many pressures young adults face in their twenties. 

Clare Brooks is a counsellor from Kent who specialises in working with adults and young people. 

“Anxiety is a word we hear a lot, and this is because it’s a feeling that everyone has at some point in their life,” she says. “It is a feeling of unease, often from fear and worry, and this ranges from mild to severe.”

“When these feelings move into the severe stage, this becomes an issue,” says Clare. “If the overwhelming feeling is limiting a person’s ability to live or limits their life, then it is often helpful to talk to a professional about this.”

She went on to say, “The mistake that both young people and adults make is that when they have these overwhelming feelings, they don’t do the thing that is making them feel anxious; they instead flee and then immediately feel better.”

“In the long term, this will then cause the anxiety to grow, and the persons’ world may then get smaller and smaller.” Clare continued. “It is a fantasy never to have anxiety. The more a person can accept that they are sometimes anxious and that it’s just a part of them, the more anxiety will actually dissipate.”

Avoiding social interaction is one of the key hallmarks of anxiety. Choosing not to see friends or go places can, as in Josh’s case, quickly turn from a choice into an inability. Clare’s advice to avoid this is: “If they retrain their cognitive functions to find evidence that goes against their worry coming true, such as when they have met with friends in the past and had a good time, the more evidence against the anxious thoughts they have, the more they can bank this up.”

The amount of change living in your 20s brings could be compared to a petri dish with the perfect conditions for growing the disease that is anxiety. 

It is easy for anxiety to manifest in this age group. Clare highlights various signs to look out for, not only in yourself but also in friends, such as “isolating from others, avoiding social situations and splitting, which refers to making it appear that you are seeing friends a lot, so your family doesn’t notice, or seeing family a lot, so friends don’t notice.”

The Mental Health Foundation also found that 45% of UK adults aged 18 to 24 said they felt ashamed to talk about their anxiety to anyone. This is concerning as Clare says that general talk can be key to supporting individuals who may silently struggle.

“Talking to others is essential as a coping mechanism for anxiety,” she says. “The more you talk and are honest, the more others open up as well, and if the anxiety doesn’t feel at the ‘normal level’, then you can decide whether to seek professional help.” 

Clare also advises the use of other support features for any young adult who is seeking help for their anxiety. This includes speaking to your GP, or you can self-refer to your local NHS talking therapy. Ultimately, the resources available to provide support with this issue are abundant. Websites with further information and help include Young Minds, TheMix, and Kooth.

Clare says: “We are seeing more anxiety being presented in young adults due to change. This may involve moving from living at home, where family and friends may be there for support, to an uncomfortable place where everything is new and challenging, which can be difficult.”

She says: “It would be natural to feel anxious at this stage. Instead of rejecting this, embrace and reframe it. If you are out of your comfort zone, then this is a positive sign. Your world is growing.” 

Josh is now enjoying and embracing life at university, living independently from his family home. His story is a testament to this philosophy underlined by Clare.

“When I was agoraphobic, the way I got out of it was with the therapist I was talking to on Zoom. We came up with a list which would say one week – open the door, the next week – stand on the doorstep for 5 seconds, the next week – step out onto the driveway,” he explained. “We worked up and up and up every single week, you know, until a month later, I was walking towards the end of the driveway. Then, I realised that I could apply that to every other aspect of my life, so that’s how I became consistent with the gym. I started doing five press-ups, then worked my way up until I was doing full workouts,” 

“So, I think it is just about trusting the process and taking tiny steps more and more each day. I think that is the best advice I could give,” says Josh. “Just keep chipping away at it, and eventually, you will look back and see how far you have come.”

The smallest steps can lead to significant strides when dealing with anxiety.