How to Deal When You’re Anxious in Love, According to the Experts
Imagine that you’ve been scouring all the best dating apps and finally found someone great to go out with. You’re all dressed up to meet them for your first date, you’ve grabbed your keys, and you check in with yourself as you walk to the door. It’s at this point you begin to realize that your palms are sweaty, your knees are weak, and your arms are heavy. (But hopefully there’s no vomit on your sweater already, à la Eminem.)
"Sure," you think, "A first date can cause anyone to feel a little bit anxious, right?"
It’s true that some feelings of nervousness can be beneficial, as certain situations do call for risks to be weighed and anticipation to be built. But what if that nagging feeling becomes so overwhelming and so persistent that it goes far beyond a healthy bit of nervousness? What if it actually prevents you from going on that date, or it completely tanks a relationship you’ve already started? Or worst of all, what if it makes you believe that you shouldn’t even put yourself out into the dating world in the first place?
If you’ve been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, then you probably recognize that all of these racing questions are just your anxiety talking. Of course, you also know that naming the condition doesn’t make it any easier to just tell those feelings — and the sometimes crippling physical reactions — to buzz off and just let you live your life. That’s why we’ve reached out to a few mental health experts for their advice on what could help you successfully take hold of your dating life, anxiety be damned. And, if you’re already in a relationship, they’ve shared some tips to help your partner navigate how to date someone with anxiety, too.
What Are the Different Types of Anxiety?
It’s true that we all experience a bit of stress and anxiety from time to time. It’s our natural response to uncertain situations, and the body’s way of keeping us alert and aware of our safety. The problem arises, however, when that worry becomes excessive, intrusive, and persistent, and can result in physical reactions like headaches, sweating, high blood pressure, heart palpitations, and the inability to achieve restful sleep.
If you or your partner are living with anxiety, it’s important to recognize that you’re not alone. In fact, anxiety disorders are the most common mental disorders in the United States, with more than 40 million adults experiencing an anxiety disorder each year, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
There are several different types of anxiety disorders, with causes ranging from your genetic makeup and brain chemistry to events you’ve experienced in your life. No matter which specific anxiety disorder you live with, the fact remains that each one can pose significant problems to your dating life. These are just a few of the most common anxiety disorders:
Generalized anxiety disorder is marked by persistent and excessive worrying that can feel difficult to control and may not have any apparent reason. It affects nearly seven million adults in the U.S. — more than three percent of the population — and can make it difficult to .
Panic disorder is marked by the recurrence of panic attacks, or feelings of intense fear and frightening physical reactions, including a racing heart, dizziness, and shortness of breath. These attacks can occur unexpectedly, and also bring about a fear of not knowing when another attack may occur. They affect up to three percent of the U.S. population, and are about twice as common in women than men.
Affecting roughly 15 million adults in the U.S, social anxiety disorder is often defined by an intense fear of judgement or rejection in a social situation that causes a person to ultimately avoid these situations whenever possible. For obvious reasons, this can be one of the most detrimental forms of anxiety disorder when it comes to one’s dating life.
It should also be noted that other anxiety disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), separation anxiety, and agoraphobia and other specific phobias, also fall under this heading as they present with a great deal of anxiety, stress, and worry that can hold a person back from living fully as well.
Regardless of the particular anxiety disorder you may be living with, it’s important to note that it is likely to cause difficulties — especially in your dating life — if it is not properly diagnosed and given the opportunity to be treated in the way that fits you best. The good news is that anxiety disorders are absolutely treatable so long as you push past the boundary of possibly being too anxious to seek treatment in the first place. Options can include medication and/or psychotherapy techniques, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, that can help you manage your anxiety in a healthy and productive way.
How to Date If You Have Anxiety
Depending on the type (or types) of anxiety that you are living with, they may play out in different ways when it comes to your relationships. To help you conquer your love life, licensed psychologist Dr. Kelly Rabenstein Donohoe suggests knowing yourself and your anxieties as best as possible before even setting out on the dating scene.
“You know where your challenges lie — is it going out in potentially busy places? Or the fear you will be left?,” she asks folks living with anxiety to ponder. “You already know where things get hard for you, so be prepared ahead of time with your coping skills and support from friends.”
Victoria Goldenberg, licensed clinical social worker and part of the newly formed Media Advisory Group at Hope for Depression Research Foundation, also suggests knowing what you’re looking for when you jump into the dating scene. Check in with yourself and determine whether you’re hoping for a relationship that leads to marriage, simply seeking a hook-up, or searching for something in between. Being aware of the end goal can help you decrease anxiety by being more communicative. It can also help you ease up on self-imposed pressures in short-term relationships by not getting too ahead of yourself.
When it comes to sharing your anxiety with a potential partner, Dr. Rabenstein Donohoe suggests taking communicative steps at the early stages of a burgeoning relationship. You don’t necessarily have to shout “I have anxiety!” from the rooftops, but it’s important to recognize that being open can prevent future anxiety without revealing your diagnosis, if you’re not yet comfortable doing so.
“Many, many people experience anxiety to varying degrees, and it’s important to talk about those feelings right away,” she says. “You can simply say that you get anxious and [tell them] what would help. For instance, ‘I like to know if someone is interested in me,’ or ‘Playing hard to get leaves me feeling unsettled, not excited.’”
Goldenberg agrees, and suggests taking a lighthearted approach and recognizing that the other person is probably feeling some nerves, too. She recommends sharing these anxious feelings as a sort of icebreaker that can help establish trust and a deeper connection between you and your date.
Though being honest and communicative with your partner is the best way to decrease anxiety around dating, you may still find that your anxiety is getting the best of you before a date, or that it’s tanking a relationship you’ve worked hard to build. When that happens, Dr. Rabenstein Donohoe suggests utilizing calming breathing techniques and repeating mantras — such as “This too shall pass” or “You are lovable” — to redirect and focus your mind. She adds that friends can help ease anxiety, too, by talking through scenarios and helping you mentally prepare for a date or other anxiety-inducing situation.
Goldenberg echoes this sentiment, noting that you can practice roleplaying with a therapist as well. This is especially helpful if you’re living with social anxiety as you can learn ways to open up and share more about yourself. Expressing your passions and interests in an engaging way will encourage an easier flow of conversation.
Goldenberg also notes that it’s not so much about sharing your anxiety with your partner as it is about managing your anxiety in whatever ways you can reasonably handle. You want to ensure that you’re not using the diagnosis as a crutch because that could cause your partner to become resentful.
“Your anxiety isn’t their burden to bear,” she cautions “You come with a history and journey of your own, and so do they, but it’s not their ‘chore’ or ‘project’ to ‘fix.’”
However, if you are actively taking steps to manage your anxiety, your partner will see that and recognize your anxiety as nothing more than a piece of the package that comes along with dating you. And, while the ultimate goal is to find a partner who is supportive, understanding, and encouraging when it comes to your mental health, it’s important to realize that you shouldn’t be dependent on them for those things, nor should they be the reason why you seek to better yourself.
How to Support a Partner Who Has Anxiety
If your partner is the one living with an anxiety disorder, the most important thing you can do is be open, loving, and extra communicative, according to Dr. Rabenstein Donohoe. She notes that it’s crucial to remember that all of us have things we are working through, and it just so happens that anxiety is one particular aspect of your partner’s life. Goldenberg also suggests working on communication with your partner while showing patience and understanding for how they are feeling.
"It is not your job to fix their anxiety, but you should be mindful of it," she says.
As you and your partner establish comfort in both communication and your relationship, that’s when mental health expert, educator, and author Dr. Margaret Cochran suggests having a frank discussion about their particular form of anxiety, as well as their treatment regimen and how you can support them in following it. This is also the perfect time for you both to establish safe and non-shameful ways of talking about your partner’s symptoms, and ways to share how those symptoms affect you without placing any sort of blame.
Dr. Cochran also suggests preparing yourself to possibly attend some functions alone, or leave certain social events early if your partner becomes overwhelmed. In these situations, your partner may experience debilitating symptoms that can make socializing particularly difficult, and they will need your support and understanding. However, she cautions against trying to act as your partner’s therapist. That’s a duty best left for the professionals, especially since you may unknowingly say the wrong thing.
"Whatever you do, don’t ever tell an anxious person to ‘just calm down,’" Dr. Cochran says. "They [can], in response, become even more agitated and their symptoms will worsen."
She goes on to explain that if an anxious person could "just calm down," then they certainly would. As an alternative, you could devise a strategy — with your partner’s permission — to cue them to use their therapist-recommended de-stressing techniques when these situations arise.
Most importantly, Dr. Cochran reminds us that we’re all works in progress. And, while you show your partner patience and support as they manage their anxiety, also make sure that you are supported as well. The last thing either partner should want is for you to place too much responsibility upon your own shoulders, so be sure to prioritize your own mental health with a support system of friends, family, and counselors, if needed.
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