Let’s get one thing straight: Dating can be extremely nerve-wracking, even for the calmest among us. But for someone who struggles with an anxiety disorder — which is about 18% of the adult population in the United States, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America — putting yourself out there and getting to know someone new can be flat-out terrifying.
According to Mayo Clinic, anxiety disorders are typically characterized by intense, excessive worry about everyday situations, to the point where it can interfere with daily life. There is generalized anxiety, social anxiety, and phobias. Symptoms can get physical, too — think shortness of breath, elevated heart rate, dizziness, nausea, and more.
Sonia*, a 27-year-old woman living in New York, has struggled with dating quite a bit thanks to her social anxiety disorder. “I’ll have friends say they want to set me up with a friend or coworker or whatever, and while I appreciate their good intentions, the thought of actually going out with any of these people terrifies me,” she says. “It’s enough to make me want to stay in bed hiding under the covers all day.”
While there’s no question that dating is harder when your struggle with an anxiety disorder, it doesn’t have to stop you from dating altogether. Here are some action steps you can take.
Test out coping strategies.
According to Amanda Carver, LMFT, a little planning can go a long way for someone struggling with intense feelings of anxiety. “Plan exactly how you want to start putting yourself out there,” she suggests. “This could range from utilizing a dating app to cut down on face-to-face contact until you’re more sure you want to take the plunge of an in-person date, to practicing coping strategies for managing anxiety. The goal of these strategies isn’t to eliminate anxiety, but rather to help you tolerate it.”
Some of her suggestions for coping strategies include breath work, practicing conversational skills, positive mantras, and making sure any in-person dates you do have are in a familiar place that’s comfortable for you. “And you can always excuse yourself to the bathroom to do a quick relaxing meditation,” she says.
Carver adds that one of the biggest “rules” about anxiety is that the more you avoid the thing that’s making you anxious, the more difficult it becomes to actually do it, which is why coming up with a plan around dating sooner rather than later is a good idea. “You don’t want to be kicking yourself for how much harder it becomes as the months and years roll by,” she says.
Lean on self-care — and lean on it hard.
When you struggle with an anxiety disorder, getting through those initial stages of dating is no small feat. Unfortunately, getting into a more serious relationship can trigger anxiety as well, which is why leaning on self-care is particularly important.
“A new relationship is anxiety-inducing for almost everyone, and it’s even harder if you struggle with an anxiety disorder,” says Carver. “If this is you, this is a time to really lean on your self-care and relaxation strategies. If you don’t have any, I’d encourage some work with a therapist to learn some.”
She adds that even though it might feel terrifying, it’s important — and empowering — to be honest with your new partner about your anxiety. “You don’t have to share all the details at first, but you can start with saying, ‘I’m really enjoying getting to know you, and I want to let you know that I struggle with some social anxiety. As we get to know each other better, you’ll probably see a more relaxed side of me.’”
If your date is anything but understanding, guess what? They probably aren’t the right person for you.
Stay aware of anxiety triggers.
When dating with an anxiety disorder, some of the common practices associated with the early stages of dating — say, “grabbing a drink” — may be best avoided.
“Some people attempt to self-medicate anxiety with alcohol and other substances, but this is a really bad idea,” Carver says, noting that alcohol can make anxiety worse.
Other common anxiety triggers can include large crowds and group gatherings, so do your best to avoid these in the initial stages of dating. “Hopefully as you get to know this person better and are more comfortable, you can branch out together into bigger and bigger adventures,” Carver says.
While dating with an anxiety disorder is challenging, it’s not impossible. These tips can certainly help, but it’s always a good idea to seek professional help when you’re struggling with a mental health issue, so if you haven’t already, make sure to let your doctor know what’s going on.
If you are experiencing mental illness and are in need of support, please call the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-800-273-8255.