Anxiety: It comes in many forms, and it definitely doesn’t discriminate. Those of us who deal with it have our own ways of navigating the waters, and we’ve all got our own set of triggers. That said, it’s hardly a surprise that dating can be a catalyst for many, and given anxiety is something that affects younger generations more (science says so), this pairing comes up quite a lot. That’s why it’s generally best to err on the side of caution and be generally mindful in how we interact with others, especially in date-like situations. Here’s how to treat someone’s mental health and emotional wellbeing with care (whether you’re familiar with their inner struggles or not).
Take things slow.
“In the age of Tinder and other dating in fast-forward, there’s so much pressure to expect romance that all of the anxiety comes at once for me,” says Timothée, a 25-year-old law student in Connecticut. “Instead of letting excitement about someone build up naturally and experiencing the expected amount of anxiety, it makes it almost impossible for me to enjoy modern dating, so I end up canceling most dates or just [never turning my matches into real-life dates.]”
We can generally avoid overwhelming both ourselves and our prospective dates by just taking things slow and managing expectations on both sides. It’s okay to chat for a while before asking someone to meet. And phrasing is key here; try asking your future date if they are interested in going out sometime versus when. Taking the pressure off goes a long way.
Put your date at ease.
“If I sense that my date is trying to interrogate me with hard-hitting questions, then I might run for the door,” says Christina, a 36-year-old Brooklyn-based lifestyle blogger. “Dating should feel less like you’re on a job interview and more like you are hanging out with a new friend.”
Natalie, a 28-year-old journalist in Los Angeles, agrees. “Questions that people should ask are nice softball ones like favorite things (such as movies, travel cities, or restaurants). I also think it’s a funny icebreaker to talk about dating horror stories, but that could just be me.”
As for the setting, Natalie feels that the conversation’s background can play an integral role. “I appreciate when we go to low-lit, low-key places (like a wine bar) that feel more calm and laid-back than some bright, loud spot.”
Maybe you deal with your own anxiety, in which case your date will hopefully offer the same mindful and courteous approaches outlined here, but in the event that both of you are in the same boat, being able to relate on that level can prove beneficial (given both parties are comfortable enough to do so).
“As a person who combats anxiety on a regular basis, dating isn’t always fun for me,” Christina says. Realizing her date may battle the same demons can help, though, as it did on a recent rendezvous. “I was relieved not to be the one divulging every tidbit of my life. As I sat there thinking, This guy must be really anxious, I realized that I’m not the only one. I guess I take comfort in that, and it helps me feel more relaxed.”
Don’t overstep or be dismissive.
When it comes to someone else’s anxiety, an insensitive response can be an instant deal breaker. “The worst thing a date could say is, ‘Well, could you just do more yoga? Eat more chocolate? Or just get over it?’ as if anxiety is a choice rather than a mental illness,” says Alexandra H., a 29-year-old writer based in Montana. On the plus side, though, she looks at this as “an easy way to weed out compassionless people.”
Moral of the story: if you feel like saying something remotely judgmental, bite your tongue.
Become a support system.
This is particularly applicable to relationships that have begun to mature past the initial dating phase. “Sometimes I’ll joke about having anxiety (and depression) not only to bring it up, but also to normalize it, because it’s not like it’s rare,” says Alexandra H. Sure, everyone differs on how to start this conversations, but being able to pick up on and understand nuances is key to being able to serve as a support system.
So far as how a partner can best handle learning about her anxiety and depression, Alexandra H. points to the power of empathy. “What [they] can ask is how my anxiety manifests (i.e. which behaviors can they look out for) and what’s the best way for them to help when I’m overcome. Anxiety makes me terrified of embarrassing myself, and knowing that I’m dealing with someone inclined toward empathy is a great first step towards anxiety being less of a problem in the relationship.”
Alexandra M., a 28-year-old New York City-based producer, isn’t one to bring up her personal struggles with anxiety, but “could be open to dating someone who draws the conversation out of me, listens, offers advice, and ultimately just makes me laugh and takes my mind off of it,” she shares. “I’m easily distracted by humor, so if a guy can make me laugh, that’s really all I need.”
“My anxiety is usually kicked into overdrive in a relationship when there is a lack of communication,” says Lily, a 32-year-old hospitality professional in New York City. “For example, if we’re going on a trip somewhere together and I do the work to make a list of possible places to stay and ask what they prefer, [I’ll get] the inevitable response of, ‘I don’t know, any of them are fine.’ That, to me, is unacceptable; I’m not the only person staying in the hotel, eating the dinner, going to the museum, and doing any other activity. When they don’t respond with their opinion, it spins me into overdrive, because now I’m worrying that if I pick the wrong thing, their enjoyment will be ruined,” she says.
In short, just be decisive and definitive for everyone’s sake. This is a common courtesy that could really apply to many life situations, but that’s a whole other conversation.
Attune yourself to their needs.
If your date opens up to you about their struggles with anxiety, take their words seriously and treat them with care. And try not to take things personally, emphasizes Lily. “Sometimes my anxiety has absolutely nothing to do with the person I’m with. I can’t control it; if I’ve had a bad night’s sleep, sometimes it’s worse. If I’m on my period and my hormones are rocking, it can be triggered more easily. Something as simple as the bar or subway car we’re in being too crowded can set things off. It’s not some textbook thing. Some days I’ll want to sit and talk about it, and some days I won’t. I’ll just explain that I’m not doing well and need some space.” And that’s where being a good listener (and a good person in general) comes in.