By Emily Laurence
The word “anxiety” gets thrown around a lot, particularly when it comes to dating. But there’s a difference between feeling jittery before a first date or meeting a new flame’s friends and having a diagnosable anxiety disorder.
Having a generalized anxiety disorder is not the same thing as feeling worried about something specific from time to time; it’s associated with feeling worried almost all the time. But the thing about anxiety is that it’s extremely common (based on one study, roughly 19 percent of Americans have it), treatable, and absolutely shouldn’t be a dating dealbreaker.
Anyone you meet on Bumble is going to have their own quirks to get used to, and the same goes for dating someone with anxiety. Here, relationship experts explain what type of behaviors you might expect from someone who has anxiety and how to make them feel more at ease.
How to respond when someone tells you they have anxiety
When it comes to knowing if anxiety is something your date regularly deals with, psychologist and Loving Bravely author Dr. Alexandra Solomon says you likely won’t be able to tell right away. “It’s hard to discern on a first date if what you’re observing is anxiety as an ongoing mental health challenge or just first date nerves,” she says. Still, there are some signs that you may pick up on. Therapist Anitra Durand-Allen says fidgeting, poor eye contact, nail biting, and being hyper aware of one’s surroundings are all behaviors someone with anxiety may show on a date. Or, they may come right out and tell you about their anxiety.
Either way, responding with understanding and compassion will make them feel more at ease. If your date tells you that they experience anxiety and it’s something you can relate to, psychotherapist Rachel Wright says to let them know. Opening up about your own experience can help your date feel less self-conscious about theirs. But Wright says it’s also important not to pretend to have experienced the same level of anxiety as your date if you haven’t. Instead, she recommends saying something like, “You know, I’ve never felt anxiety the way you’re describing it but I’ve felt nervous and I know how overwhelming it can be. That sounds really tough.”
Maybe your date doesn’t come out and say that they deal with anxiety, but you can tell that they’re anxious by the way that they’re acting. Again, Dr. Solomon says it’s going to be pretty hard to tell if they’re just nervous about the date or if anxiety is something they deal with regularly, but her best advice is to be compassionate. In other words, give them a break. In doing so, you’re giving them the space to open up about their anxiety when they feel comfortable.
What to keep in mind when planning dates
When it comes to planning dates, it’s best to keep the surprises to a minimum. “Predictability is key for a person with anxiety,” says Durand-Allen. “Stick to the plan or give plenty of notice and time to adjust when the plan will change.” She adds that some people with anxiety don’t feel comfortable in crowded public events, like a concert, so that’s something else to keep in mind too. When in doubt about what they’d be okay with, ask!
Once you’re on the date, Wright says it can be helpful to check in with the person, just to make sure they’re feeling comfortable. “Remind them that if they ever need to leave, cancel, or change plans that you’re there for them,” she says. If you want your date to meet your friends, Dr. Solomon says it can be helpful to introduce them one at a time, instead of bringing your date to a party to meet them all at once—particularly if the person you’re dating has social anxiety.
Dating behaviors to expect from someone with anxiety
It bears repeating that everyone has their own quirks (including you), but when it comes to dating someone with anxiety, Dr. Solomon says one behavior you might notice is that the person ruminates about something that happened in a social situation or at work, replaying it over in their mind on loop. If this happens, she says the best way to respond is to be supportive and hear them out but to also put a time limit on it. That way, you both can move on to something else.
Dr. Solomon says that someone with anxiety may also be more indecisive than someone who doesn’t have anxiety. That means you might have to take the reins a bit more when it comes to figuring out where to eat or what movie to watch.
If the person you’re dating has social anxiety, Dr. Solomon says they might try to mask it with alcohol, perhaps indulging in a couple cocktails too many. They may also cancel plans at the last minute, confirm plans repeatedly, become agitated when plans change, or exhibit a much different personality around people they don’t know.
If a partner exhibits behaviors like these, Dr. Solomon says to avoid criticizing or threatening to stop making plans to go out in the future. “In the moment, it’s best to offer empathy,” she says. Then, wait until you’re not in the heat of the moment to respectfully voice your concerns and to work with your date to come up with ways to handle these types of behaviors when they arise.
The best way to communicate
Communication is important in any relationship, but experts say that it’s especially important when you’re dating someone with anxiety. “Predictability and security are vital, so provide as much detail as possible,” Durand-Allen says. If they ask you 10 different questions about an upcoming date or repeatedly confirm that it’s still happening, she says not to take it personally. “They’re not doubting you,” she says, “They’re attempting to reassure themselves.”
If you really like the person, Wright says it can be helpful to tell them that. (Truly, who doesn’t want to hear that anyway, right?) She suggests reminding them that you care about them, and that their anxiety isn’t too much. Simply asking the person what they need to feel supported goes a long way, too.
Can someone with anxiety have a healthy relationship?
What all three experts most want people to know is that if someone you’re on a date with says they have anxiety, it shouldn’t be seen as a red flag. “Whether someone occasionally feels anxious, has an anxiety disorder, panic disorder, or agoraphobia, they can still have a healthy romantic relationship,” Wright says. “It’s all about communication and personal responsibility.”
What’s most important is that if someone is experiencing anxiety that they are managing it and that they’re open with their partner (or potential partner) about what makes them feel supported. That makes it a whole lot easier to move forward and build the type of relationship that you both want.