Let’s be real for a second. Not many people like dating.
Being vulnerable is hard. Often, the thought of putting yourself out there for the first time is anxiety-provoking — to say the least.
But for people who have anxiety disorders, which is different from the body’s natural response to simply being nervous, dating can be even more difficult and complicated — so much so that people with anxiety may opt out altogether.
“Intimate relationships magnify our personality, so if you’re already struggling with anxiety, it’s going to show up even more when you’re ready to get close with someone,” says Karen McDowell, PhD, and clinical director of AR Psychological Services.
According to McDowell, anxiety is deeply rooted in our thinking patterns. When our mind processes things in terms of fear, we start automatically seeking out things that confirm these fears.
“So,” she says, “if you fear that you’re unlovable, that your date will not like you, or that you will do or say something awkward, your brain will go into overdrive trying to confirm its suspicions.”
Fortunately, you can change those thinking patterns.
If you have anxiety and want to start dating, here are a few ways to start challenging the negative thought cycles that have held you back in the past.
The first step to challenging any type of negative thoughts is to address them, identify them, and replace them.
“For people with anxiety, their automatic thoughts, or the thoughts that pop into their minds as they think about dating, tend to be negative and center on not being good enough or that others will reject them once they get to know them,” says Lesia M. Ruglass, PhD, a clinical psychologist.
Challenge the negative thoughts as they arise.
For example, ask yourself, “Do I know for certain that I’ll be rejected?” Or, “Even if the date doesn’t work out, does that mean that I’m a bad person?” The answer to both is of course not.
One of the most important things to do is to try and silence your inner critic while you’re on a date. Remember that people actually prefer imperfection. If you make a mistake, it may even increase your likability.
It may sound trite, but communication really is the key that unlocks most doors. Saying your feelings is the best way to take away their negative power.
That said, communication around anxiety is often both harder to do, but also more necessary. When you first start dating someone, you have to decide how much to disclose about your anxiety.
Since many people have experienced an anxiety episode, telling your date could be a bonding moment, according to McDowell.
Or you might decide to not share with your date, which is also totally OK. In that case, “It might be helpful to enlist a friend to help you verbalize and process that anxiety so it’s not just bouncing around in your head,” McDowell suggests.
Sometimes, it’s easy to convince ourselves that a date is going badly because that’s what we want to believe.
It’s called projection, and it’s just a mirror of what we think about ourselves, not necessarily what other people think about us.
“When you find yourself worrying that things are going badly or that your date isn’t interested, stop yourself,” says Kathy Nickerson, PhD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in couples counseling.
“Slow down and start looking for positive things. Look for evidence that things are going well and that your date does like you.”
For example, pay attention to whether they smiled when they sat down at the table, asked about your favorite movie, or shared something personal about their family.
It might be helpful to find a mantra that speaks to you. Say it to yourself a few times when self-doubt starts to creep in.
As with anything that makes us uncomfortable, a little preparation can go a long way. Dating is no different.
Preparing some talking points or questions to have at the ready can help you feel a little more control in a situation that might be otherwise overwhelming.
Everybody loves to talk about themselves, so if there’s a lull during the conversation, reach for one of your go-to questions. Some great ones can be:
- What have you binge-watched on Netflix lately?
- What are your five must-have albums?
- If you could pack a suitcase and go anywhere tomorrow, where would you go?
If you’re struggling in the moment, try to remember to bring yourself back to the moment. Staying in your head might mean you’re missing the majority of the date.
Instead, tap into your physical senses.
What can you see? What you can hear? Smell? Taste? Focusing on the details around you will bring you back to the present moment.
Above all, remember that the key to calm is balance.
Some people with severe anxiety hold the belief that it’s the other person’s responsibility to manage their feelings.
When they feel anxious, lonely, worried, or rejected, they ask that their partner provide constant reassurance, or possibly even change their behaviors, such as return texts immediately or commit more quickly in new relationships.
“Asking for reassurance is an excellent tool, but if you’re constantly expecting your potential partner to be catering to your anxiety, you will not find yourself in a happy relationship,” says McDowell.
You’re the only person who can manage your anxiety, so build your toolbox.
McDowell recommends strategies like boundary setting, boundary honoring, emotional regulation, communication, and self-soothing as well as self-talk.
If you’re unsure where to begin, a therapist can help you start making a plan.
Anxiety doesn’t need to stop you from entering the dating scene. As you tap into different tools and support systems, remember that dating gets easier with practice.
Meagan Drillinger is a travel and wellness writer. Her focus is on making the most out of experiential travel while maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Her writing has appeared in Thrillist, Men’s Health, Travel Weekly, and Time Out New York, among others. Visit her blog or Instagram.