If you've ever had a panic attack, you know that they are 1.) The worst, and 2.) Capable of striking at any given moment. One second you're sitting in a bar, bopping along to '90s R&B with a beer in hand. The next, "Mr. Brightside" by The Killers starts playing and you find yourself sweaty, dizzy, and curling up into the fetal position on the floor. If only jukeboxes came with trigger warnings, you know? No matter your surroundings or situation, panic attacks are never fun — but, panic attacks on dates? The worst.
As someone who's prone to panic attacks myself (plot twist: That "Mr. Brightside" anecdote's about me!), the thought of my anxiety getting the best of me on a date is both terrifying and ever-present. And if you're single, mingling, and in the same anxious boat, I'd imagine that thought is a source of stress for you as well.
Fortunately, there are a handful of tools, techniques, and coping exercises you can practice to help eliminate the possibility of a mid-date panic attack (or ease one if it seems inevitable). I chatted with Dr. Chloe Carmichael, PhD — a clinical psychologist in New York and author of The 10 Commandments of Dating: How to Stop Getting Hurt, Put Yourself Out There and Find a Relationship That Lasts — to unearth some of the greatest ways to do just that. Here are four of her top tips for managing anxiety both before and during dates, whether it's your first, second, and 17th time meeting someone.
Learn To Differentiate Between Excited Nerves And Anxiety
TBH, this is something I wish everyone was a little bit better at doing. Because no, "pre-date" jitters are definitely not the same as "I feel a panic attack brewing" jitters. That said, if you're generally not a panicky or anxious person and start to feel truly stressed before a date (not in a fun ~butterflies in your stomach~ way), know that it might be a red flag about the person you're seeing.
"Definitely try to understand the difference between nervous excitement and anxiety over something that's truly a red flag," Dr. Chloe explains. "If a person is feeling anxious for a rational reason —i.e. the person [they are dating] has treated them poorly before and that's why they have anxiety — the anxiety is a healthy signal telling you that something's not right."
Conversely, if you are prone to anxiety, have had a stressful day, and are wary of letting that panic affect your date night, Dr. Chloe suggests trying your best to put a pin in outside stresses for the duration of your evening.
"If [anxiety's] something that happens to you a lot, you need to learn how to control where you're putting your attention and where you're putting your focus," she explains. "If you're having a stressful day about something that has nothing to do with the date, put it on the shelf while you go and enjoy your date."
Know Your Triggers
While I certainly can't speak for everyone, I know that my greatest moments of anxiety are often triggered by something — the music stylings of The Killers (it's a whole thing from my childhood, please stop thinking it's cute to scream the lyrics in my face), incredibly crowded subway cars, etc. And, as Dr. Chloe explains, having a sense of what these triggers can help you manage your anxiety if and when they pop up.
"If at all possible, if you know that you're a person who gets a little nervous around something like crowds, don't have your first or second date in a crowded place," she says. "Do yourself a favor and organize a date so you can feel as comfortable and secure as possible."
Plus, knowing what those triggers also means you're more equipped to handle them in any given situation.
"Instead of thinking about [these triggers] as a really bad thing, you can actually look at the beauty of having a repetitive pattern of anxiety about the same thing," Dr. Chloe explains. "It gives you the luxury of learning the skills and creating self statements for that exact situation."
Further, if you're a few dates in, feel free to mention a few of these triggers to your potential partner (in a nonchalant and self-compassionate manner).
"It's OK to say, 'Sorry, I get a little nervous sometimes on the subway." or 'Crowds aren't my thing,'" she says. "It's OK to acknowledge that this is a little bit of a challenge for you, but you also have to be able to ... navigate that."
Practice Breathing Exercises And Anchoring Statements In Advance
Now, let's say you're out on a date, you're having a great time, and — seemingly out-of-the-blue — you start to feel panicky.
"You have two choices," says Dr. Chloe. "You can expect everyone else around you to take care of you, or you can learn the tools so that you can practice self care in those moments."
This is where those self statements, or anchoring statements, come into play.
"Anchoring statements [allow you to] take control of your internal monologue," she says. "Instead of saying, 'Oh my gosh, I'm freaking out! Oh my gosh, I wonder if he can tell I'm freaking out!' and whipping yourself into a frenzy, have some pre-crafted statements that you can focus on instead. It's almost impossible for your mind to be having two separate thoughts simultaneously. So, if you have a certain rehearsed set of these statements ... your mind will become too preoccupied on those things and it won't be able to go into an anxiety-inducing monologue."
For example, if you also get antsy on crowded subway cars, try reciting phrases like, "People ride the subway every day, this will be over in 20 minutes, and I'll be fine," in Dr. Chloe's words, to distract yourself.
Oh, and learning some deep or calming breathing techniques doesn't hurt, either.
Feel Free To Excuse Yourself
Last but not least, remember that it is always totally fine to excuse yourself and practice your own calming techniques away from your date.
"A lot of times, having an audience makes that type of thing worse," says Dr. Chloe. "So you could absolutely just say to the person, 'Excuse me, I'm going to run to the rest room,' and head to the rest room, take a few breaths, call a friend. It'll help hijack your internal monologue in a good way, it stops you from going down a panicked thought spiral."
The moral of the story? We got this (even if we've also, er, got anxiety).