You often hear people joke about having anxiety in stressful situations, and you may even hear people who've actually been diagnosed with anxiety joking about it as well to deflect the stress with humor.
But what a majority of people may not realize is, a person actually living with social anxiety may experience irrational fear, self-consciousness and embarrassment in everyday social situations.
So obviously, living with full-fledged anxiety makes an already stressful, scary situation even worse.
Enter: dates — a socially anxious person's actual worst nightmare.
Not only are you plagued with the fear of making a fool of yourself in front of anyone (like you are on the regular), but you're also risking making a fool of yourself in front of someone you want to like you.
In honor of National Mental Health Awareness Month, Elite Daily spoke to a few mental health experts to really break down how to go on a date if you have social anxiety.
How to calm yourself down before the date
If you're feeling overcome with anxiety at the mere thought of an approaching date, Sarah Lopano, M.Ed., BCBA, COO and Clinical Director at Cognition Builders, tells Elite Daily some pre-date calming techniques.
Before the date, you might want to try role-playing a bit with strangers, just to get yourself used to the idea of filling any uncomfortable silences with small talk. "A great way is to go to your local coffee shop and challenge yourself to make small talk with the person in front of you in line," Lopano says.
You could also plan a few questions you want to ask your date about themselves beforehand that'll inevitably lead to a bunch of other conversations. As Lopano explains, "most people love talking about themselves, so it can help put you and your date at ease to get them to talk about themselves."
How to calm yourself down during the date
Now, once you get to the actual date, you might find yourself spiraling down an insufferable black hole of anxiety about all the things that could go wrong, all the embarrassing things you could do and all the awful things your date could end up thinking about you.
If you find your anxiety is getting to be too much for you to handle, April Masini, a New York-based relationship expert and author, suggests that you "give yourself a time out":
Excuse yourself to use the restroom, and go outside to get a breath of fresh air, a glass of water and a few minutes away from the problem. Simply taking yourself out of the situation and then putting yourself back in is almost like rebooting your computer, except you're rebooting yourself, not your laptop.
Mental health therapist Mallory Grimste, LCSW, says to use the TIPP method — which stands for temperature, intense exercise, paced breathing and progressive muscle relaxation — for "almost-immediate relief."
She says altering your body temperature in some way is a quick fix to calm your anxiety: things like "[running] cool or warm water over the inside of your forearm" or "drinking a cool glass of ice water or warm tea."
In terms of intense exercise, you don't have to start sprinting in the middle of your date. Instead, she suggests taking a few minutes to yourself, as "walking or pacing can be helpful in calming anxiety."
Paced breathing is an easy, pretty discreet way to help calm yourself down during the date. Grimste says to "either slow down your breathing using your favorite deep breathing strategy or speed it up using 'Breath of Fire' (short quick bursts of air through your nostrils only for about 10 to 30 seconds)."
Finally, progressive muscle relaxation calls for contracting and releasing certain muscles, which "helps relax your body if anxiety is causing it to tense up." You can do muscle relaxation techniques even as you're sitting right across from your date.
This can be done less obviously by squeezing one hand as though you are squeezing a lemon and then the next. Do this slowly for about six to eight passes and you'll feel calmer. You can also do this in your shoes [by] doing 'toe crunches.'
How to approach the topic of social anxiety with your date
Obviously, the first (or second, third or fourth) date may not feel like the best time to start discussing your social anxiety with someone new. In fact, that probably seems scarier than the date itself.
But if your anxiety is flaring up mid-date, and you feel the need to explain yourself — though you're totally not obligated to — there are ways you can hint what's going on to your date while keeping the mood light.
Kaity Rodriguez, MSW, LCSW, a psychotherapist and founder of Serenity Wellness and Therapy Services, suggests the following:
Casually or jokingly mention to the other person that you become nervous on dates or when meeting new people, so expect some awkward silences or babbling. Laugh at yourself. None of us are perfect.
Date ideas that could help you feel less anxious (or, at the very least, won't make you feel MORE anxious)
Naturally, it's not just the person (or people) you're with who'll make you feel anxious — the setting you're in plays an important role as well.
That said, it's totally acceptable for you to suggest a date spot based on what will make you feel more comfortable, based on what scenarios usually make you feel more socially anxious.
Masini explains that you should "let your anxiety guide you":
If you get anxious at one on one dates, start dating someone in group situations. If you get anxious in groups, invite your date to dinner. If public places make you anxious, starting dating by cooking dinner at home. Don't fight your anxiety. Use it to understand where your 'safe' places are.
Lopano offers some ideas that'll leave you and your date with a lot to talk about (so you can nip those anxiety-inducing awkward silences in the bud).
According to her, dates at a museum are often a solid choice because "the art you view will provide infinite conversation starters." You could also go for the tried-and-true dinner and a movie date. Lopano suggests leaving dinner for after the movie, though, "so that you can discuss what you liked and disliked about the movie over your meal."
All in all, while social anxiety may make managing stressful situations a little more difficult, it's absolutely not impossible.
As Masini says, don't have it out with your anxiety. Listen to what your body needs at the moment, and act accordingly. Plus, if your date understands what you're going through, that's a signal they're worth your time.