Anxiety disorders are the most common psychological disorder in the US, affecting 18 percent of the adult population. Social anxiety disorder (SAD) is the third-most-common psychological disorder, affecting 15 million men and women in the US. The DSM-5 defines social anxiety as the “persistent fear of one or more situations in which the person is exposed to possible scrutiny by others and fears that he or she may do something or act in a way that will be humiliating or embarrassing.” Those who are shy, if not socially anxious, tend to experience social situations in a more reserved, tense and uncomfortable manner, especially when meeting new people. It may take longer to open up and share, which can affect one’s ability to form close relationships.
Dating is typically a situation where people feel scrutinized, have to meet new people, and may fear they’ll do something embarrassing. In this way, dating only adds fuel to the anxiety fire. Rife with opportunities for awkward conversations and infinite unknown factors — Will she show up? Will he like me? What do I say? What if I say too much? What if I spill my drink? Get rejected? – dating often is seen as overwhelmingly scary and decidedly unappealing. This type of anxiety and shyness leads to avoidance of meeting new people, as well as a sense of isolation and hopelessness about the prospect of finding a suitable partner.
Despite the high incidence of anxiety disorders, adults often don’t seek treatment until years of suffering with the disorder have passed, if they seek treatment at all. Because anxiety disorders typically start in early adolescents or pre-teen years, it can be hard to recognize anxiety disorders. And anxiety left untreated often leads to developing comorbid disorders, such as depression. People may assume it’s normal to feel the type of anxiety they experience, or believe the anxiety is something that can’t be treated.
Because social anxiety is such a widespread problem, psychologists have worked hard to develop treatments that work. Four separate meta-analyses have shown Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to be effective in treating SAD. In 2007, researchers Kristy Dalrymple from Brown Medical School and James Herbert at Drexel University conducted a small pilot study on an updated approach to social anxiety. Noting that CBT was effective for social anxiety in some clients but not others, or didn’t fully alleviate symptoms, they sought to explore further treatment options in the form of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). The foundation of ACT is learning to accept that anxiety and internal struggle is a part of living fully, and that leading a life guided by personal values and willingness to experience life–as opposed to anxiety-based avoidance and decision making–is ultimately what frees one from the constraints of anxiety. The researchers found that upon follow up of a 12-week ACT and exposure program, the participants reported increased quality of life, decreased avoidance and reduced anxiety. Another study in 2009, focusing on acceptance and mindfulness-based group therapy, also showed similar gains for people with social anxiety.
In my work, and in my life in general, I so frequently saw amazing people who were deserving of love and companionship, but who were paralyzed by fear, struggling with loneliness and hopelessness rooted in anxiety. Knowing there were treatments that could (and did) help them gain confidence and a new perspective, I felt compelled to write a book about the skills that help people get past social anxiety. Single, Shy and Looking for Love: A Dating Guide For The Shy and Socially Anxious describes these evidence-based techniques. Combining ACT with traditional exposure and cognitive techniques rooted in CBT, here are some of the most effective ways to approach dating anxiety:
Shy and anxious people are less likely to share about themselves and self-disclose. Dating advice books may prescribe pick-up lines or manipulative, gamey strategies to win over a date. But real relationships are based upon sharing who you are with your date. Self-disclosure is the gateway to intimacy–it lets you get closer to someone as you both reveal more and more. Yet the last thing a shy or anxious person may feel comfortable doing is letting their guard down, which is why practicing sharing is a vital element. Practicing self-disclosure might include letting your date know about a story or person that is special to you, sharing how you felt about a recent event, or letting your date know that you think they look great. Self-disclosure is simply telling people what you think, how you feel, and letting them see what matters to you.
Reducing the threat of judgment from others–and yourself
One of the reasons people may not disclose more about themselves is for fear of being judged. The threat of negative evaluation from others–such as being negatively perceived by your date–is the root of social anxiety, and is exacerbated in a dating setting. Most of the time, anxious daters highly overestimate how harshly their partner is judging them. If a social situation goes awry, they automatically blame themselves. If they make a comment that comes out wrong, they beat themselves up for hours or days afterwards. They assume the other person thinks the worst of them and is focusing on their flaws and mistakes. This is usually because people who are socially anxious tend to have lower self-esteem and make automatic negative assumptions about themselves. Because they judge themselves harshly, they assume others do, too. And it makes them not want to share, be open or be vulnerable.
There is an alternative to being guarded. By focusing on one’s sense of self-acceptance and self-worth, it feels less intimidating to share with others. When a person feels good about who they are, their values and what they have to offer, and sees their own experience in a compassionate way, it bolsters them against judgment. By calming their harshest critic, their own inner judge, it opens the door to experiencing closer connections with others.
Reframing catastrophic cognitions
The second way to approach the threat of judgment from others and from oneself is reframing catastrophic thinking. Because anxiety can cause catastrophic thoughts to take over, an effective strategy is to notice, point out and contradict catastrophic thoughts. Thoughts like, it’s the end of the world if I’m rejected, I’ll never find someone, or that was a complete disaster, are common in anxiety. Gently remind yourself that the anxiety is exaggerating these beliefs, and then list reasons that the thoughts are not fully accurate. This will help quell the predictions of disaster that can be so devastating to the process of finding love.
Mindfulness and emotional intelligence
Anxiety thrives by focusing on the future and the past, engendering worry about what will go wrong, how the future will play out or how past events have gone wrong. The alternative is mindfulness. Mindfulness is a conscious effort to focus on the present moment, the here-and-now. Connecting to the present moment with acceptance rather than judgment leads to greater emotional awareness within oneself. And emotional awareness is one important component of emotional intelligence (EI), or being able to discern one’s own and other people’s emotions and tailor behavior accordingly.
A recent research meta-analysis showed a strong association between EI and relationship satisfaction. This means that for both men and women, couples with high EI tended to be happier in their love life together. In order to glean the benefits of EI in dating and new relationships, the focus should be on learning to:
1) Monitor and understand one’s own emotions, rather than push emotions away or ignore them
2) Self-soothe and cope with emotions when they arise
3) Harness emotions to problem-solve or help a situation
4) Listen, tune into, and accurately perceive the feelings of your date
5) Show empathy and create a connection through shared experiences.
The message is one of hope. Social anxiety can be debilitating, isolating and lonely. But it doesn’t have to be that way. With treatment, practice and a willingness to try new behaviors, dating anxiety can be overcome.