As someone living with generalized anxiety disorder, the idea of putting myself into an anxiety-inducing situation—from public speaking to a first date—can make me want to hide under the covers and stay there permanently. The unpredictable nature of these situations and the pressure to be on seem to threaten the sense of safety I’ve built for myself, so trying to date online is complicated, to say the least. My anxiety stems from fear of a lack of control, and of being judged or unloved—add in the immense pressure and innate weirdness of online dating, and it’s no wonder swiping makes me want to run away to a foreign country.
According to Lisa Shull Gettings, a psychologist at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, for some people, anxiety can make their dating lives almost non-existent. Anxiety can cause us to worry about how we might be perceived or if we’re attractive or interesting enough, so sometimes it’s easier to just avoid dating completely. However, while this may reduce our anxiety in the short-term, it can inevitably leave us feeling isolated and unsatisfied. Says Shull Gettings, “This avoidance also deprives us of the opportunity to have positive dating experiences that might disconfirm our worst beliefs about ourselves as unlovable, undesirable, or damaged.”
Psychotherapist Vanessa Kensing says that anxiety can pop up if we perceive a particular part of the dating process to be stressful. For example, some might find that creating an online profile is stressful while others might find transitioning from app-based communication to text/phone calls and eventually IRL dates to be stress-inducing because of the increased vulnerability. Because dating generally involves lots of uncertainty, feeling anxious about it is normal, but that anxiety can impact some of us in more intense ways.
As Shull Gettings says, “The online dating scene tends to hit every trigger for anxiety, including fears of judgment or rejection, uncertainty about the future, and perceived lack of control.” When interacting with potential partners online, that sense of anxiety can impact our ability to communicate effectively. For example, Shull Gettings believes that “ghosting” is often driven by anxiety. “If you’re feeling anxious about having a difficult conversation or just don’t want to deal with the potential awkwardness of telling someone you’re not interested (or you’re worried you might be the one who will be rejected first!), it’s much easier to drop off the radar and avoid the conversation,” she says.
On the flip side, anxiety could cause someone to over-communicate and message their partner more frequently as a means to seek reassurance and relieve their anxious thoughts, causing them to be perceived as “clingy” or “needy.” While this may reduce our anxiety in the moment, it can ultimately push partners away. More than this, Shull Getting says that anxiety can also lead people to share personal details very quickly in an effort to fill space or keep the conversation flowing. “But it might be in a way that feels like too much too soon,” she explains.
I have definitely been at fault for sharing vulnerable details with people in the early stages of a relationship as a means to fill the gaps of a conversation. On top of that, sometimes when I’m waiting for a text back from someone I met online, the anxiety I feel can give me physical symptoms—such as a racing heart or stomachache. It’s easy for me to project my past relationship mishaps onto new partners and catastrophize a situation by making extreme assumptions that are definitely not based in reality.
“Our mind comes up with every possible negative scenario to explain why our dating partner hasn’t responded yet,” says Shull Gettings. For me, my brain can fill with intrusive thoughts, such as “maybe he’s not interested in me anymore” or “they must think I’m so stupid because of that one thing I said on our last date” as a means to explain why the person may not be responding. Accordingly, those of us with severe anxiety tend to internalize the blame over other people’s behavior or reactions, causing us to feel low self-worth, shame, and hopelessness. And this can make it that much harder to feel confident in any dating situation, says Shull Gettings.
When it comes to actually meeting someone for a date offline, this pre-date anxiety can turn into social anxiety. Kensing says we might worry about how we’re going to perform on the date, or if we’re going to say something that could cause embarrassment or rejection. Due to this, Shull Gettings says we might try to alleviate the pre-date jitters with a glass of wine or a mood-altering drug, which she says may relieve anxiety in the short-term but can interfere with our ability to be fully present on the actual date. “It’s important to find effective ways of managing anxiety that help you feel relaxed while also not compromising your judgement or decision-making,” she advises.
If we bring that anxiety with us on our first dates, it can prevent us from being aware of the other person’s behavioral cues and signals, which allow us to respond appropriately on a date and keep things flowing. “It’s likely that your partner will also feel less connected if they sense your mind is consumed with other thoughts, which can disrupt what might otherwise be a promising dating relationship,” says Shull Gettings. We also could feel pressure to present ourselves positively, causing us to come off as inauthentic, forced, or over-the-top.
If you experience anxiety while engaging in online dating (and taking those conversations offline) Kensing says it’s important to check in with yourself and see if the apps are causing you stress. If this is the case, she recommends setting limits on how long you spend on them and how many people you communicate with at once, since boundaries can help soothe anxious feelings
Shull Gettings recommends taking deep breaths and trying to see your thoughts objectively and asking yourself: “Is this thought helping me engage with this person authentically, or is my anxiety causing me to put too much pressure on the outcome?” She says it’s important to show ourselves self-compassion, and remember that our emotions don’t always reflect the reality of the situation, especially when we’re dealing with anxiety.
For anyone reading this who is dating online with chronic anxiety, recognize what an accomplish it is to put yourself out there. It’s far from easy, but at least we’re in it together.