Dating is stressful, no matter who you are. Worries like running out of things to talk about, getting spinach caught in your teeth, or having absolutely no chemistry are common. But if you live with anxiety, the stress of dating can feel debilitating. Fortunately, experts agree there are plenty of ways to cope.
These days, the word “anxiety” is so colloquial, it may be hard to understand what having anxiety — a medical condition diagnosed by your doctor — actually entails. According to the Mayo Clinic, “people with anxiety disorders frequently have intense, excessive and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations. Often, anxiety disorders involve repeated episodes of sudden feelings of intense anxiety and fear or terror that reach a peak within minutes (panic attacks).”
This can make it feel impossible to evaluate how you feel about your dates. “With anxiety, I have so many racing thoughts, which can be extreme,” says Davis*, a Bumble user in Brooklyn. “When it comes to dating, it can be hard for me to pinpoint what are my true, legit feelings about someone or when it’s just the anxiety speaking.”
According to Haley Neidich, LCSW and therapist at yourtherapist.com, this is common. “Anxious people are over-thinkers who tend to generally be more sensitive than folks who do not struggle with anxiety,” she says. “Many of my clients with anxiety worry about absolutely everything [while dating and] in their relationships. It's the lack of ability to discriminate about what is worth worrying about or focus on that often signifies an anxiety disorder.”
Neidich suggests reminding yourself that if there are no obvious red flags — such as your date dismissing your ideas and beliefs, being rude to your waiter, or lying to you — there's no time limit when it comes to deciding if you like someone. To process your reactions to your date, she recommends a journaling exercise. “If you're someone who second-guesses yourself, spending more time alone in your head trying to figure yourself out isn't ideal. Get the thoughts and feelings down on paper without the goal of solving the problem. Instead, allow the feelings to move through you and focus on getting it all out,” says Neidich. “Often, we struggle to discern fear from intuition when we are emotionally clogged up, which is why journaling can help you get your emotions out so that you can gain more clarity on your true desires.” A mental health professional can help you learn how to discern your intuition from your anxiety, as well. (For more on that, see below.)
In any case, Neidich suggests being upfront about your anxiety, whether you share that information the first time you meet or after a few dates. “Being honest about it is essential to being in a supportive partnership where you're not shamed or made to feel wrong for having a mental health condition like anxiety,” she says. “If someone responds poorly to that disclosure from the start, you can be certain that this is not the right partner for you, and feel good about moving on without second-guessing.”
However, being honest about your anxiety doesn’t mean you have to reveal every detail all at once, especially not if that prospect seems daunting. “There's no need to disclose everything about your anxiety up front, but introducing the topic right away is important in order to make sure there is the potential for compatibility,” Neidich points out.
There's a benefit to sharing your experience with anxiety: It can help your date understand you better, and in turn, become a better potential partner for you in the future. “Non-anxious partners often struggle to understand the root of the anxiety or even feel attacked or shamed by the presence of it in their partner, particularly if they have not done work on themselves or taken the time to understand anxiety,” says Neidich. The most important thing for non-anxious partners to understand is that their partner’s anxiety is not about them.
To communicate this clearly, try using “I” statements, suggests Paige Rechtman, LMHC, MEd, EdS, licensed psychotherapist. “Instead of saying something like, ‘You make me anxious when you forget to text,’ start the conversation with 'I,' followed by how you feel. That statement might be, 'I feel worried and scared when I don't hear from you,'" she says. Formulating your statements in this way may help your date or partner become more receptive to what you're saying.
Nedich suggests using a tool from the researcher, author, and speaker Brené Brown to explain your anxiety to a partner. “Brown describes owning your own fears within a partnership by using the following simple phrase: 'The story I'm telling myself is X.' For example, 'The story I'm telling myself is that you being quiet tonight means you're mad at me,'" Neidich explains. She says this formula “is a powerful way to out your anxiety without accusation and creates a beautiful starting point for conversation. This is something that I recommend to all of my couples' counseling clients and is an immensely effective tool.”
Dating with anxiety is possible; the more you explore the roots of your anxiety, the better you can understand your triggers and communicate your needs to your dates and prospective partners. “Anxiety is often a cover-up for other, deeper emotions that are more difficult for us to acknowledge, like sadness, embarrassment, or insecurity,” says Rechtman. “If you have anxiety, it is so helpful to talk to someone about it, so you can gain more insight into what your worries are truly about, instead of projecting them onto your partner,” she adds. If you don't already work with a therapist to address your anxiety, you may want to consider doing so.
If you don’t have insurance or don’t have insurance that covers mental health services, Breathe2Relax is a free app that can help you work through your thoughts and feelings of anxiety. There are also therapy apps like Talkspace and BetterHelp, which connect you to therapists on an as-needed basis. If you’re looking for a therapist you can build a relationship with, try contacting local colleges in your area and seeing if they have a program where you can speak with a therapist in training at a reduced rate.
Whether or not you seek professional help, know this: If your date makes you feel ashamed of your anxiety, you can feel confident in knowing that person just isn't for you. Learning to trust your own intuition is a powerful tool that will help you throughout your dating journey.
*Name has been changed.
Haley Neidich, LCSW and therapist at yourtherapist.com
Paige Rechtman, LMHC, MEd, EdS, licensed psychotherapist
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.