It doesn’t necessarily get easier when you’ve gotten past the dating phase and are ready to get serious: You want to commit, but worry that your anxiety might sabotage an otherwise great relationship.
It doesn’t have to, though. Below, therapists share six ways to keep your anxiety in check during the beginning of a relationship and as it progresses.
1. Practice vulnerability in stages.
True intimacy is letting someone in and giving them access to parts of yourself that you hide away from the rest of the world. When you have anxiety, though, you might worry that exposing the messy, real, complicated side of yourself might make your S.O. like you less.
Don’t fall prey to that kind of thinking: If this person loves you, they’ll love all sides of you.
“Plus, you don’t have to share your deepest, darkest feelings all at once,” said psychologist Stacey Rosenfeld. “Experiment with small ‘exposures,’ exercises where you try out being vulnerable with your partner and, as your confidence builds, work toward increased vulnerability over time. Fears associated with vulnerability should lessen with increased exposure.”
2. Clearly communicate your expectations.
Anyone who has anxiety has gotten stuck in thought loops: Those unwanted, repetitive thoughts you can’t seem to escape even if you know they’re silly. That kind of thinking is particularly damaging in relationships. For example, maybe your girlfriend doesn’t call you after work a few nights in a row like she usually does. Stuck in a thought loop, you figure she’s bored with you when the truth is that she’s on a project deadline.
You don’t want to constantly ask your partner for reassurance, but when something is continually bothering you, talk about it. Say, “I know you’re busy, but I really look forward to your calls in the evening. When I don’t hear from you, my mind gets stuck in a story that you’re sick of me.”
“The person with the anxious mind ruminates,” said Jenny Yip, a psychologist based in Los Angeles. “Most people with anxiety will ruminate and imagine the worst possible thing happening. Rather than dooming your relationship, clarify and communicate what your expectations are from the start so that your mind doesn’t have to ruminate to the worst possible places.”
3. Separate your “anxious self” from your “true self.”
A wise man on Twitter once said, “Anxiety is literally just conspiracy theories about yourself.” Don’t let that negative self-talk sabotage your relationships. Instead of listening to your anxious inner voice, listen to your true voice, said Jennifer Rollin, a psychotherapist in North Potomac, Maryland.
“Your ‘anxious self’ may tell you things like, ‘If you open up to him about your anxiety and going to therapy, he will leave or think you are unstable,‘” she said. “That’s because you have anxiety, your mind often comes up with a variety of scenarios that often are not true. It can be helpful to practice speaking back from your ‘true self.’”
If your true self is speaking, it will probably say something far more comforting, like: “Going to therapy doesn’t mean you’re crazy, it means you’re taking proactive steps to becoming the best version of yourself.”
“And worst-case scenario, if he does think it makes you crazy, it says a lot about him and nothing about you,” Rollin said. “You deserve to be with someone who doesn’t judge you.”
4. Accept that you can’t control everything your partner does.
Part of managing your anxiety involves letting go of the need to control things that are utterly out of your hands ― including some of your partner’s more annoying habits. It may annoy you that you lose half of your Sundays with him to the boys every football season, but take it in stride: You can’t allow your anxiety to threaten your S.O’s autonomy in the relationship.
“For those who are anxious, it’s often common to want to control the situation, but you can’t always have it that way,” Yip said. “You can communicate your wishes, but it doesn’t mean that you have a bad partner if your wishes aren’t met exactly how you imagined. You have to celebrate your partner’s individuality – you aren’t joined at the hip, after all.”
5. Talk about your anxiety and how you tend to express it.
Your anxiety isn’t something you have to combat on your own. Open up to your partner about how your anxiety tends to play out ― maybe you get flushed skin and sweat because of your social anxiety, for instance.
While it’s up to you to learn the best ways to self-soothe, take comfort in knowing that your partner can be an ally who can help you maintain some calm in stressful moments.
“Sometimes, anxiety festers when we’re trying to cover it up, afraid of how others will respond,” Rosenfeld said. “Explain your anxiety to your partner; it will alleviate the additional stress of trying to hide your symptoms. Being honest and upfront about any anxiety or insecurities can sometimes help defuse these situations.”
6. Create some rules of engagement for arguments.
All couples argue, but disagreements and their aftermath can be particularly stressful for people with anxiety, Yip said.
“Let’s say you get into a fight and your partner walks away. That’s annoying for most people, but a person with an anxious mind has a very hard time with the uncertainty of walking away,” she said.
To that end, create some guidelines for arguing that help offset your anxiety. Maybe you have a rule that either of you can table a heated discussion, but only if you return to the conversation within 24 hours.
“As a couple, decide together what your rules are in advance, so that there’s structure and a plan,” Yip said. “This will help those with anxiety know that there’s a next step.”
For more advice on how to manage your anxiety, head here.