I was 21 years old when my psychologist diagnosed me with high-functioning anxiety. Although it's not an official diagnosis, it's the category you fall under when you suffer from anxiety internally, but externally it doesn't impair your day-to-day life.
You see, from the outside, my anxiety can often make me seem highly productive, but if you were living in my head rent-free, well, you'd see just how tangled up I get in my thoughts. I overthink everything. Every little thing that's out of my control, every conversation, every message, every email... I overthink until I almost make myself sick.
Case in point: my dating life. The only time my head noise is silent is when I'm secure with being single, or I'm in a relationship. Everything in between is complete chaos. And the only thing I can imagine being harder than managing my dating life, would be actually dating me.
Dating someone with anxiety can be tricky tbh, especially if you don't quite understand what it's like yourself. I know this because I've openly talked to exes about what it was like to date me and here's what I've learnt.
1. Understanding Anxiety
First and foremost, it's important to understand your partner's anxiety, have a conversation with them about what form their anxiety takes and how you can both understand and manage it. People with anxiety experience different responses to different situations. For example, a big trigger point for my anxiety is when things change, so whenever I start dating someone, I have an honest conversation about cancelling plans.
I explain that I'm totally cool with them cancelling plans because I understand life happens and things come up, but when and if they do cancel, to be honest about their reasoning and offer up options to reschedule. This small way of approaching a situation can stop me from falling into a major anxiety spiral and avoid unnecessary tension in our relationship.
2. Small Reassurances Make A Huge Difference
Someone who struggles with anxiety constantly has questions swirling in their head: What if they don't text me back? What if they ghost me? Do they like me as much as I like them? Am I being too much? — And while I'm guessing this is normal for most people who are newly dating or even in a relationship, for someone who is already anxious, it can be overwhelming, and could even put you off dating altogether.
If you're dating, try to be reassuring when possible. You can do this in small ways like sending a message the morning of a date saying you can't wait to see them later. Not only does this set a really good tone of excitement for the date, it sets up their headspace for the whole day and will result in a better date night for both of you.
If you're in a relationship and you sense your partner may be feeling a bit off, check in, ask if they'd like to talk about it and if there is anything you can do to help. This small reassurance of just knowing you're there to support them can make a world of difference.
3. Manage Your Reactions To Their Anxiety
This one is hard. Knowing how to approach someone's anxiety when it feels like it's overflowing can often feel hopeless, especially if you've never experienced it. Telling them not to worry, or trying and take their mind off it, isn't going to help. While we understand your logic, it's just not that simple to compartmentalise your thoughts when they're swirling around your head. If they shut you out and you feel the urge to become defensive, take a breath and remember that this most likely isn't about you, nor is it your fault. Thoughts and emotions are just boiling over for them and they might not even know how to help themselves until the opportunity presents itself.
Try offering small helpful gestures like asking if they'd like to go for a walk outside, offering them a glass of water, or checking if there is anything you can take off their plate to help them manage this moment.
4. If Your Partner Opens Up About Therapy, Encourage It
This one is huge for me and tells me a lot about the person I'm dating. If the person you're dating openly tells you that they see a therapist, councillor, psychologist or any kind of professional for their mental health, encourage it. Supporting someone by normalising seeking help is so important.
Try not to feel offended or question why they can't open up to you about X, Y, Z — understand and respect that they've cultivated this safe space for themselves and it's an outlet they need. It also takes the pressure off your relationship by giving them an ear that's not your own.
5. Set Boundaries & Look After Yourself
Just because the person you're dating has anxiety, it doesn't mean that you have to carry that with you, or let your own self-care slip because of it. Once you recognise how their anxiety influences their behaviour, you can cut them slack for behaviours you might not normally have much patience for. However, if they're acting in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, or that crosses one of your own personal boundaries, have an open and honest conversation about it. Just because they're hurt or angry, doesn't give them the right to be cruel or hurtful. Figure out ways you can work through things together and if they need additional help, seek it.