When you suffer from an anxiety disorder, getting through a date can seem near impossible.
It may help to know you’re not alone. An estimated 18 percent of all American adults suffer from an anxiety disorder of some kind, ranging from social anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, panic disorder and general anxiety. There’s a good chance you’ve gone on a date with someone who’s had a panic attack over the thought of dinner and a movie.
There are ways to cope with anxiety, though, and meet someone worthwhile. Below, experts on anxiety share their best advice for managing your worries and stress so you can successfully get through a date.
One technique that is well-known in anxiety treatment is the idea of exposure: The more you deal with things that stress you out, the better equipped you are to handle them. If dating feels particularly nerve-racking, start slow by putting yourself in situations where you can practice small talk, said Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University.
“Go to any social event ― a dance, a church picnic or a hangout after work ― and set a goal of talking to a stranger who seems interesting for at least 10 minutes, without the pressure to ask anyone out,” he told The Huffington Post. “Taking the scary thing ― a real date ― off the table will give you security to practice your dating and conversational skills until you get more comfortable.”
Pay attention to the stories you’re telling yourself in anticipation of the date, said Jennifer Rollin, a psychotherapist in North Potomac, Maryland. Just because you think you’ll spend the whole night stuttering out of nervousness and mispronouncing menu items doesn’t mean that’s necessarily going to happen.
“When you view your thoughts as ‘just stories,’ you can distance yourself from the ones that are unhelpful,” she said. “Let’s say that you are thinking ‘I’m going to come across as insecure’ or ‘If people knew about my anxiety, no one would want to date me.’ Rather then judging yourself for having these thoughts, simply notice them and then determine whether that train of thought is helpful or unhelpful.”
When a thought is unproductive, filter it out and try to replace it with something more optimistic, Rollin recommended.
“For example, you might tell yourself, ‘No matter how this date goes, I am proud of myself for facing my anxiety and putting myself out there.’”
Try to see a healthy dose of stress as your friend when you’re dating, said Kimber Shelton, a psychologist based in Duncanville, Texas. A bit of nervous energy can give you the focus and motivation to get through the date. The key is to keep the date short so you don’t feel trapped.
“When stress is first activated we think, ‘I feel nervous, but I can do this!’ ― but that thought can be be temporary and short-lived,” she explained.
To that end, Shelton recommends scheduling dates of a reasonable length and meeting up in a familiar place ― your favorite coffee shop, for instance, or a nearby restaurant where you’re well versed in the menu.
“You want to just slightly push yourself out of your comfort zone,” she said.
Everyone dreads awkward silence on dates but when you have anxiety, you may feel a heightened need to “be on” around new people. You often feel tongue-tied, making even even basic conversation difficult.
To combat this kind of performance anxiety, Manhattan psychologist Chloe Carmichael recommends storing up a few conversation starters beforehand.
“Read some news stories before your date and choose a handful of topics that might come in handy ― something about the arts, the weather, sports, local news and world events,” she said. “Besides filling up the awkward silences, this will connect you to your date because current events are relevant to pretty much everyone.”
In anticipation of a date, it’s easy to get caught up in how the other person might perceive you. But instead of worrying about where you stand, psychologist Stacey Rosenfeld suggests flipping the script: How will they stack up in your estimation?
“Shift your focus to whether or not this is a suitable person for you to date, said Rosenfeld, who’s based in Coral Gables, Florida. “Focus on what you have in common, their chemistry with you and whether or not you’d like to see this person again.”
She added: “This can take a lot of the pressure off the meeting because you realize you have an active role in this process, rather than passively waiting to be accepted or not. This strategy works great for job interviews, too!”
When the date is over, put it to bed. You may feel tempted to mentally replay the awkward moments or lulls in conversations but resist that urge, said Shannon Kolakowski, a psychologist and author of Single, Shy, and Looking for Love: A Dating Guide for the Shy and Socially Anxious.
“Rather than beat yourself up or focus on awkward moments, go through the date recalling fun moments and good conversation,” she said. “Did you both find yourself laughing or did your date compliment you, or vice versa?
If the date truly lacked any moments of connection, remind yourself it wasn’t your fault, Kolakowski said: “Sometimes people just don’t click, and that’s OK.”