Dating can be an anxiety-inducing thing in its own right. You’re meeting someone new. You’re putting yourself out there. You’re worried about whether the other person will like you or not. It’s a lot to deal with! But if you throw a case of social anxiety into the mix, the already stressful, scary act of going out with a stranger becomes much more difficult.
Still, you absolutely can date successfully even if you struggle with social anxiety. From curated dates ideas designed to keep nerves low and tips to prepare for the event to strategies for self-soothing if a panic attack does arise mid-date, clinical psychologist and How to Be Yourself author Ellen Hendriksen, PhD, has a lot of helpful advice to offer.
6 expert-approved tips to date like a pro, in spite of social anxiety.
1. Date often
While completely avoiding the battlefield of love might feel like the easiest route to take for squelching your social anxiety, Dr. Hendriksen actually recommends challenging yourself to date more.
“Social anxiety tells us that we can’t handle things,” she says. “So dating often will give us evidence that that’s not the case.” Just like doing anything else that scares you, the more you subject yourself, the easier and easier it becomes.
“Social anxiety tells us that we can’t handle things. So dating often will give us evidence that that’s not the case.” —Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
2. Turn your attention outward
Your attention, Dr. Hendriksen says, naturally goes inward when you’re experiencing anxiety. You start focusing on the fact that you’re heart is racing and your palms are sweaty or you’re worried about what your date thinks about you. That absorbs so much of your mental energy. Instead, she suggests shifting your attention outward. Listen intently. Look at your date. Engage in the moment. Basically, pay attention to anything except yourself. “That will shrink the amount of bandwidth available for worries,” she says.
3. Show up as yourself
Of course you want to make a good first impression on your date, but be mindful about not putting so much pressure on yourself, Dr. Hendriksen says. “It shouldn’t feel like a performance,” she adds. “It’s perfectly okay to show up as you.” Remember that you are enough just as you are, and presenting yourself authentically is genuine, interesting, and sexy.
4. Prepare some talking points ahead of time
If you’re anxious about how to fill those awkward moments of silence during a date, Dr. Hendriksen suggests prepping some stories to share or topics to talk about ahead of time. Just don’t focus on trying to check everything off the list. Let the conversation go where it wants, she says, and if you need to reach for those talking points, they’re there.
5. Turn anxiety into excitement
Pre-date jitters are normal for everyone, whether or not you struggle with social anxiety. The goal, then, is to reimagine the nerves into positive butterflies. “We can take the same symptoms—feeling shaky or having a racing heart—and if we try to put a positive spin on it, that actually feels good,” Dr. Hendriksen says.
6. Plan dates with structured activities
Dr. Hendirksen notes that dates are a natural driver of anxiety because there’s so much left up to chance when you’re getting to know someone. But there are things you can control—like the environment—to appeal to your comforts. “If you’re in a situation or a setting that is familiar to you, you’ll probably feel more comfortable.” She also recommends planning dates that involve structured activities. “Folks with social anxiety do better when they have a distinct role to play or task to fulfill,” she explains. Think ice-skating, bowling, going to a game, or seeing a show. Anything with clear steps to take and built-in topics to discuss is much easier to manage than something completely open-ended, like a party.
Still, it’s important to remain open to trying new things, she says. But if you ever feel overcome with panic, there are strategies for dealing in stride.
How do you deal with anxiety or a panic attack during a date?
1. Make your exhales longer than your inhales
No matter how much you mentally prepare yourself, sometimes anxiety or a panic attack does arise during a date. So what do you do if that happens? Dr. Hendriksen urges you to breathe slowly and focus on making your exhales longer than your inhales. “It slows your heart rate, which in turn calms your body,” she says.
2. Ground yourself by engaging your senses
Another anxiety-busting tool Dr. Hendriksen recommends you keep in your back pocket is a grounding exercise that involves engaging your five senses. Here’s how you do it: First, look around and name five things that you can see, then look for four things you can hear, three things you can feel, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. “It grounds you in where you are, and because you have to count, it turns your mind away from your worries and onto something else,” she says.
3. Practice positive self-talk
Doing this during moments of panic can also be really helpful, Dr. Hendriksen says. Say things to yourself like, “You’ve done hard things before, and you can do this, too.” The important thing is to treat yourself with some self-compassion. “Acknowledge and validate that this is hard and you’re doing it and you’re out there—and that is to be congratulated,” she says.
Here’s what to do instead of taking deep breaths during a panic attack. And check out this super-helpful list of ways to help if someone else is having one.
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