Anxiety is a normal part of life, as well as a highly normal part of dating.
Why is dating and relationship anxiety so normal?
The answer lies in understanding our need for attachment bonds, those connections we make with the most important people in our lives — those we depend on for physical safety, emotional comfort, companionship and understanding.
Anxiety is a normal, healthy emotion because its presence at a low level is meant to trigger an awareness that our attachment figure is drifting far enough away, physically or emotionally, that it’s time to check-in.
Understanding the purpose — and benefits — of anxiety
When you are dating with serious intentions, the inherent hopes are quite high, as are the stakes involved in forming a bond.
Close romantic relationships are our biggest investment and greatest resource in life. When hopes are high, any amount of disappointment can feel huge.
So a great deal of the normal anxiety people experience when they’re dating is simply the healthy awareness of potential disappointment that helps us measure our potential investment in someone new.
If you experience a level of anxiety that inhibits your dating life, I recommend beginning with the understanding that your anxiety is there for a biologically driven reason — to help you survive.
This shift in understanding gets you out of the position in which you are battling against your anxiety, which is always a losing battle that spirals into self-blame, confusion and self-doubt.
When the attachment system goes into overdrive
If you have a clinical level of anxiety and/or a level of anxiety that makes dating more difficult, you need to dive in and understand what the anxiety is about. This will help ensure that you don’t act out your anxiety in self-destructive ways.
Anxiety can become “abnormal” or a “clinical symptom” when we do not know how to understand or manage these normal feelings.
Anxiety at this level either paralyzes us from investing at all or pushes us into clingy or intrusive behavior. People who have dating anxiety they don’t understand often react in ways that push others away, such as by withdrawing, stonewalling (giving the silent treatment), becoming passive-aggressive, over-texting, and/or becoming irrationally jealous.
If anxiety is like the ambulance siren that should go off when there is an actual emergency (someone you love has died or is otherwise unavailable for too long), overdrive is when your ambulance siren goes off at every little fluctuation in the relationship.
People who suffered childhood neglect, trauma, abuse, intrusion, or abandonment will likely have an overactive siren.
These brains have learned that danger is more likely than not, and they are determined to catch it before they are ever caught off guard again. They are therefore hyper-vigilant to shifts in the emotional current between people. This causes undue and challenging levels of anxiety when you are attempting to date.
Here are seven tips on how to calm down and begin your search for love
1. Learn to tolerate a normal degree of uncertainty
One of the defining characteristics of courtship is, necessarily, uncertainty! Believe me, you do not want to skip over or undo this!
Uncertainty at healthy levels is part of the excitement of dating that lends itself to falling in love.
People who have a history of trauma, betrayal, abuse, or neglect have a hard time measuring an appropriate level of uncertainty and tend to want to reduce it to a bare minimum or none. This is because the unknown has been a historic warning sign of danger.
In order to date successfully, you must train yourself to not only accept but also encourage a moderate level of uncertainty in life and love.
2. Date people who demonstrate consistency and congruence
Consistency and congruence are the elements that help us define those moderate levels of uncertainty.
People who are consistent do what they say and say what they do. They do not stand you up for a date. They do not call you two days later than they said they would. They do not “forget” to check in later if they said they will.
Our healthy, attachment-oriented brain is wired to find a sense of predictability with the people we let close. Predictability should not reach the level of being boring, but it should innately feel congruent and safe.
3. Self-soothe your anxiety by first understanding what it is trying to tell you, then learning to put it in perspective
When you feel anxious in a dating situation, do not act first and think later. If you feel anxious, take some time to reflect on what actually happened.
Did your date say one thing and then do another? If they did, and you’re feeling unsettled, it is a healthy reminder that this person is not signaling safety.
On the other hand, if you’re feeling anxious because you had a great connection on that first date and an hour later you’re not sure exactly when you’ll see this person again, that is likely a healthy level of anticipation and wonder.
Is it hard to trust that this person holds you in mind when you’re apart or that they will return in a reasonable amount of time? If so, ask yourself if there are absences in your past that are increasing your expectation of danger.
Anxiety measures past experiences to make predictions about the level of danger associated with the present moment. Make sure you know how to differentiate past danger from present danger before you act.
4. Ensure your self-talk is supportive rather than demeaning, minimizing or blaming
This skill is about self-love and self-care. This is a true crossroads in managing anxiety.
If you’re anxious, make sure that you’re not criticizing or blaming yourself. Any attempt to suppress what you’re feeling will simply increase it.
Take a moment to talk out or write down what you’re feeling as if you were listening to a good friend who deserves the attention required to be fully understood. From this balanced vantage point, you will be able to sort out the level of risk or danger that is actually present, as well as where it might be coming from.
Now you are equipped to support yourself through healthy action.
5. Ensure you are behaving consistently and congruently
Don’t allow your anxiety to turn you into a game player! Be the date you’d feel secure with yourself.
Respond in a timely manner, don’t stonewall, don’t block people on your phone, and don’t ghost anyone. Also, don’t inundate your date or pester them in an attempt to reduce your anxiety.
If you’re feeling anxious, it is your responsibility to understand what you need. Feel free to ask for clarity — once. If you don’t get the answer you want, that is an answer in itself.
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6. As the relationship develops, be explicit about your needs and what signals safety for you
As you get to know someone on an emotionally intimate level, it is imperative that this person understand what signals safety to you, and vice versa.
Your date is not responsible for your feelings, but if you let them know what actions signal safety, they have a choice about whether they can or will show up in that way.
Do you feel safe when you check in at a certain time or at a certain frequency? Does a phone call signal connection in a way that texts don’t?
Is there a frequency of in-person connection that feels right to you? Can you communicate your expectations around exclusivity and sexual boundaries?
In order to feel safe in a relationship, it is your responsibility to know the behaviors and actions that pave the road to security from your point of view.
7. Set and maintain strong emotional boundaries
Put simply, emotional boundaries are the understanding that you are responsible for what happens inside you — your feelings, your actions, your words — and the other person is responsible for what happens inside them.
Dating anxiety reduces dramatically when you can see clearly what you do not have any control over and learn to let go of any notion that you can or should control it.
This means you can’t control whether or not your date likes your outfit, calls tomorrow, or anything else.
Be the person you want to be.
Show up the way you feel proud of. And let go of the rest.
Dr. Perrin Elisha is a psychologist, psychoanalyst, author, and teacher who helps clients get to the root of and heal their relational difficulties. She is the author of the free eBook How to Be an Extraordinary Partner.