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It’s half an hour before the date. Nothing you wear looks right and your hair is a total mess. But it’s too late to cancel now, isn’t it? With trembling hands you reapply your makeup for the third time, hoping this time it will be right. As you start to walk, you feel sick, your heart is thumping, and your palms feel sweaty—you recognise this feeling well. It’s your anxiety.
For anyone, dating can be a long and difficult process. But for those with anxiety, dating can be very stressful and distressing. This includes those of us who struggle with social anxiety, (which is when social situations trigger fear or anxiety) (mind.org.uk). Simply an everyday occurrence like waiting at a bus stop with strangers can cause us to feel panicky and nauseous. So in a situation that can cause anyone to feel anxious, like dating, it can be very hard for us to not avoid the situation entirely. Those of us with social anxiety fear negative responses and can feel overwhelmed with even the idea of dating. Not only are we worried about meeting someone for the first time, but we worry about the way we may be perceived. What if we run out of conversation? What if they change their mind and decide they don’t like the way we look? This could arguably be the kind of thoughts that anyone has before a first date, but anxiety can can make these thoughts even more prominent and negative. This can make us overthink everything until we feel so anxious that we cannot think about anything else but the anxiety.
So, what is it about dating in particular that’s so terrifying? In the context of online dating, there is a lot of pressure on the first date. Not only are we expected to have good social, communication skills but we can feel like we have to feel an immediate connection with the person. As well as this, we can have an over idealistic idea of how the date will go. We can create an image of how we think the date will go in our heads but the date itself might not be perfect. If, for instance, you’re late, you may feel even more stressed on the way there and therefore not be in a good headspace for your date. Or if the person is different to what they’re like in our heads then we can feel disappointed. We may not necessarily know the certain mannerisms or characteristics that the person may which can influence the way we see them.
There is an element of vulnerability in dating. You are opening yourself up to the possibility of not being accepted by another person, which can be quite daunting. Furthermore, we can find ourselves predicting the thoughts of others based on what we think of ourselves. For example, if we think that we have poor communication skills then those of us with anxiety may assume that others think that of us as well. If we try to "mind read" we can feel more anxious because it can make us believe that others are judging us. If we feel more anxious then we may feel uncomfortable and therefore act in a particular way. In the context of dating, this can mean speaking too much, hardly speaking at all, cancelling the date, or maybe drinking a lot of alcohol during the date. Those of us with anxiety can develop self coping mechanisms such as drinking, trying to plan everything, and completely avoiding the situations that make us feel anxious.
However, there are perhaps things that we can do that can make the dating process less stressful. Trying to change our thought processes so we don’t put as much pressure on ourselves is difficult but important. Often we dwell on negative experiences rather than looking at them with a positive perspective. We do not expect other people to be perfect so we should not have that unrealistic expectation of ourselves. Although we will want the date to go well, it is better if we do not have fixed presumptions of how the date will go. If you have a preconceived idea of how the date will go, then it may make you feel stressed if it doesn’t go the way you expect.
Furthermore, finding out more information about your date beforehand may be a good idea. Talking to your date will mean that you can find out things you have in common which you can talk about during the date. So therefore, this may ease the anxiety of being stuck for conversation or having long pauses. However, if we plan everything we are going to say then this will stop the natural flow of conversation and we might stop our date from being involved in choosing the topic of discussion.
In addition, you might want to consider telling your date about your anxiety before the date. Although we can be worried about how other people react to us telling them about our mental illness, it can actually be more beneficial to do so. This then can help the other person understand us, which in turn can make us feel more comfortable. Not only that, but if we are worried about telling them because of the stigma surrounding mental health, then we shouldn’t be! Most people either experience mental health problems themselves or know someone who does, so chances are they have some understanding of it already. If they aren’t understanding, then they may not be the right person for you to date anyway!
Those are some of the ways to make dating a little easier. Although dating can seem a long, stressful process, it can be worthwhile in the end. Aren’t some bad experiences worth it to find the right person? If you really struggle with your anxiety and it’s preventing you from doing the things you want to do, then it may be best to seek some additional help. To do this you can either make an appointment with a GP, or contact your local counselling services directly. If nothing else, it can really help for us to talk to someone. Whether this be a friend, family member, doctor, therapist, or teacher, we should never be ashamed to talk to someone about how we feel.