Dating in the modern world can be a minefield. But if you live with social anxiety, says Claire Eastham, it can be a nightmare.
“I don’t hug strangers.”
Those were the first four words I practically shouted at Dan – now my husband – when we first met. It was our first date, and it was a VERY hot summer's day. I was conscious that I might be sweating, and the thought of him knowing that sent me into overdrive. In fact, I'd been obsessing about it for the whole journey there. So, when he went in for a friendly embrace, I firmly stuck out my hand for him to shake. Hence the aggressive proclamation.
Living with social anxiety can make dating - which is already tricky - nightmarish. As someone who hates job interviews, my "performance" on a date was never going to be relaxed. After all, first dates are essentially just highly personal work interviews – with cocktails, if you're lucky.
Whether romantically or not, I tend to be aloof and avoid eye contact if I really like someone. Unsurprisingly, some of my closest friends thought I was an ice queen when we first met. I come across as bored and uninterested, but I'm actually just having an anxious episode. The fear of saying the "wrong thing" or coming across as a loser can feel all-consuming.
I arrived fifteen minutes early on my first date with Dan. I was sweating buckets (as we've established earlier), and I felt dizzy. I was seriously wondering whether or not I should just disappear before I made a fool of myself.
However, he took our odd initial encounter in his stride. Soon enough, I was sitting in a bar with him, contending with my next dilemma. I had, and still do have, a tremor in my hands that is exacerbated when I'm nervous. I was too afraid to reach for my glass of ice-cool white wine in case he noticed the shaking.
“He’ll think you’re a raging alcoholic!” my mind screamed. “You’ll have to wait until he’s distracted before you can take a sip.”
Finally, I saw my chance when he bent down to tie one of his shoelaces. I grabbed the glass with both hands and began gulping furiously. This took the edge off my nerves. Not the best solution, but what can you do? It was a desperate time.
By the time he came back up, I'd downed most of the glass! "Is everything alright?" he asked, a little surprised. I laughed nervously and reassured him: "Oh yeah, this wine is just delicious!" I subsequently spent the remainder of the date caught in a hurricane of intrusive thoughts.
Fortunately, however, Dan liked me for who I am. Months later, I eventually told him about my social anxiety (albeit while locked inside a hotel bathroom on holiday… it's a long story). But you know, don't worry – he married me in the end!
So, if you also have concerns about dating with social anxiety, please know you are not alone. Here are the most common fears that I experienced before and after a date:
“What if I act weird?”
“What if I do something embarrassing?”
"What if I bore them, and they think I'm a loser?"
“What if I can’t stay present when we’re talking?”
“What if I have a panic attack?”
These intrusive thoughts often indicate a fear of losing control or being judged negatively by the person you're meeting. The key to helping overcome this is to make yourself feel as comfortable as possible and have steps to help you manage anxiety symptoms.
Just to be clear, I'm not suggesting that you have to announce your social anxiety to the entire room or blurt it out as soon as you meet your date. Instead, try to be honest about the venue you'd be most comfortable in and the activity you'd be most comfortable doing. For example, if your date suggests bowling and you're nervous about it, then say so! Instead, offer an alternative you're more comfortable with.
Having social anxiety is hard enough without feeling uncomfortable in your surroundings. You don't have to go into too much detail. Just say something like: "Actually, I'm not a fan of that." or "I'd rather do [insert activity here] if that's okay."
One of the great things about dating apps is that they give you the option to meet lots of new people. So, if you find the dating scene nerve-wracking, then why not build up your confidence by going on a few practice dates? The way to tackle anxiety isn't to avoid fear-triggering situations forever. Instead, we need to take it slowly and surely and make opportunities that allow us to hone healthy coping skills.
Exposure to situations that cause anxiety provides us with opportunities to practice how we deal with it.
You could even start the process by going on practice dates with friends. The aim is to trigger anxiety and accept it rather than let it take over. Breathing exercises are a great way to do this, as demonstrated here.
I usually say something like, “I’m freaking out … please tell me how amazing I am!” A positive affirmation from someone close to you can be a real boost.
Being at the venue before your date arrives can give you time to acclimatize and get comfy. In my experience, an anxious brain needs time to adjust to a foreign environment and accept there's no danger. Get yourself a drink, take your coat off, and maybe do some breathing techniques.
(Disclaimer: don’t arrive more than ten minutes early, as having too much time to think can sometimes be counterproductive!)
Try doing a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) exercise in advance to challenge any negative thoughts. CBT is widely recognized as one of the key therapies to manage anxiety. The main principle is to rationalize intrusive thoughts. Speak to your local healthcare provider for more information on finding a professional therapist.
A first date is definitely not the time to try new hairstyles or makeup. If something ends up being too fiddly or looking messy, your stress levels will skyrocket. Just keep it simple. Choose something that makes you feel comfortable but confident.
And, most importantly, just be you!
The information presented is solely for educational purposes, not as specific advice for the evaluation, management, or treatment of any condition.
The individual(s) who have written and created the content in and whose images appear in this article have been paid by Teva Pharmaceuticals for their contributions. This content represents the opinions of the contributor and does not necessarily reflect those of Teva Pharmaceuticals. Similarly, Teva Pharmaceuticals does not review, control, influence or endorse any content related to the contributor's websites or social media networks. This content is intended for informational and educational purposes and should not be considered medical advice or recommendations. Consult a qualified medical professional for diagnosis and before beginning or changing any treatment regimen.
NPS-ALL-NP-00573 MAY 2022