A new strain of anxiety

An image of a virus is in the background with two other virus’ behind it. A semi-transparent speech bubble holds text that says ‘A new strain of anxiety’ and a yellow lozenge is in the left bottom corner with the word joy.

I was on holiday last week so this week it feels necessary to write about something more personal.

I always hesitate a bit when I do this, like the time I wrote about graduating from therapy, but then I remember my God and hero Brene Brown and her work on vulnerability. It was her book Dare to Lead that helped me realise I could be a design leader and I’ve always believed that to be a good leader you need to be vulnerable. To the point that I now hold vulnerability as one of my values.

So here I am, leaning into a vulnerable personal topic in the hope it will connect on a professional level and not alienate people from wanting to work with me.

I’ve always been an anxious person. I have never been officially diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and wouldn’t consider it a medical condition, more a way of life and a part of who I am. Perhaps this is naive I don’t know. For me it’s never felt bad enough to be a medical condition.

I’ve learned over the years, largely through therapy, what my triggers are and the origins of the familiar patterns of thought my brain engages with. I’ve got better at managing it, developed techniques and built in self-care strategies like working through thoughts on a walk or through journaling. Having baths in the winter and when it’s not forty degrees outside. I’ve also tried looking for the evidence, deep breathing and ‘worry time’. I know a lot of my anxiety is often connected to my relationships with other people and how they feel about me — something I can’t control, which can be difficult.

But last week I was introduced a new strain of anxiety — for me. One I hadn’t experienced before. One that wasn’t directly connected to my relationships.

I spent my week off split between Worthing and Amsterdam. Worthing was lovely. We were house sitting for a friend who lives 15 minutes walk from the beach. We relaxed, swam in the sea and soaked up the cloudless skies we woke to every day.

Amsterdam was a girls trip with some friends I used to work with. I was nervous about the trip, mainly because I haven’t travelled in a group for a while but I knew everyone would look after each other so I squashed my fears and relaxed into the trip.

On Friday night we went out. This was going to be the big night. There was karaoke and dancing planned in the gay district. We had a lovely dinner and drinks and it quite quickly got to midnight. I’d passed the first test of actually staying awake beyond 11pm which was an achievement in itself for me.

But as soon as we left the beautiful riverside location of the restaurant I began to feel nervous and uncomfortable.

In the second bar I went to buy a round of drinks. I looked at the wall behind the bar and I felt dizzy watching the patterns from the lights spinning past the wall. It seemed like all my senses were suddenly heightened. The music seemed louder, the bar felt smaller and I became acutely aware of anyone brushing past me. I wondered how I would ever get to the bar if I didn’t get a bit more assertive with my approach but my feet felt locked to the floor. A man next to me said, “Hi, how you doing,” and offered me a fist pump. I limply offered my hand in return by no words left my mouth. I felt like I couldn’t breathe and ran out of the bar.

I’ve spent many nights out in bars and clubs, albeit not recently, but this has never happened before.

Sat on the kerb with a friend I tried to make sense of what had happened and I couldn’t remember the last time I was in a crowded space filled with people I didn’t know. Covid has affected us all in different ways. For me, ‘getting back to normal’ hasn’t really been a thing because my life changed a lot during Covid — kind of without me realising. A lot of my close friends had children during the pandemic, my Mum was diagnosed with cancer, I moved house (buying for the first time) and I transitioned to self employment.

Writing this is the first time I’ve really realised how different my life is now compared to March 2020 and perhaps with these changes I have changed too. Perhaps the things I enjoy have changed? I know I’ve become more introverted. My stress has reduced but with that I’m exploring how I adapt to a life with fewer highs and lows and embrace being comfortable without seeing that as a negative.

I think what happened was important. I’m not sure exactly how yet or what I’ll learn in the coming weeks from the experience but it was the thing that stood out from last week so I wanted to share it.

Big love to: Eve, Lucy, Charley Marie and Maya for being there. #friendsnotcolleagues

I’ve also introduced a new feature this week. Medium are trialing tipping by integrating with Ko-fi. So if you’re enjoying my friends I’d love for you to buy me a coffee to say thanks. This money will fund me developing myself as a writer (courses, couching etc) so hopefully I can start getting paid to write as well as design — as I love it.

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Emma Parnell

Freelance specialist in user research, service design and brand development. designforjoy.co.uk Previously @wearesnook, @nhsdigital, @wearewithyou.