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“I don’t hug strangers.”
Those were the first four words that 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 extremely personal work interviews – with cocktails, if you’re lucky.
If I really like a person – whether that’s in a romantic way or not - I tend to be aloof and avoid eye contact. Unsurprisingly, some of my closest friends thought that I was an ice queen when we first met. I come across as being bored and uninterested, but I’m actually just having an anxious episode. The fear of saying the ‘wrong thing’ or coming across like a loser can feel all-consuming.
On my first date with my Dan, I arrived at the agreed meeting place fifteen minutes early. I was sweating buckets (as we’ve established earlier), I felt dizzy and I debated whether or not I should just disappear before I made a fool of myself.
He took our odd initial encounter in his stride however, and soon enough I was sat 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 shoe laces. 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 desperate times.
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 with “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 was. 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 concerns 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 are meeting. The key to help overcome this is to make yourself feel as comfortable as possible and have steps in place to help you manage the symptoms of anxiety.
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 that you’d be most comfortable doing. For example, if they suggest bowling and you’re nervous about it, then say so and suggest an alternative that 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-racking, then why not build up your confidence by going on a few practice dates? 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 practise 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 I demonstrate on my Youtube channel.
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 acclimatise and get comfy. In my experience, an anxious brain often needs time to adjust in a foreign environment and to accept that there is 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 recognised as being one of the key therapies to manage anxiety and the main principle is to rationalise 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 out a new hairstyle or makeup look. The mere possibility that it will all go wrong will do enough to your stress levels. Just keep it simple. Choose something that makes you feel comfortable but confident. And more importantly, be you.