Dating Anxiety in the Modern World

Does the prospect of dating send shivers down your spine?

In my job as a clinical psychologist and anxiety specialist I work with many people who would like to date, but feel held back by anxiety. They are waiting to pursue a relationship until the day (or year or decade) when their anxiety stops screaming at them.  They intend to date once they feel comfortable at the thought of venturing forth into more romantic pastures.

While it is natural to want to feel comfortable before pursuing dating, it is also natural to feel fearful at first. The reality is that feeling comfortable dating only comes after dating behaviors are repeated without catastrophic outcome (scalding hot coffee thrown in your face as you rush things with an awkward kiss attempt shortly upon meeting).

Why can dating feel so scary?

Ultimately, the intense fear of dating comes down to glitches in the human brain that are not your fault.

There is a primitive part of your brain that insists that you go out and procreate. You are not given the choice whether to have this biological imperative—its just there.

Another part of your brain implores you to go out and connect socially and romantically with fellow members of your species. We don’t get a say in whether we want to find a mate—that is just the primitive impulse that shows up. If you resist the call to couple up, your brain may ratchet up your motivation by zapping you with the discomfort of loneliness.

While these powerful instincts are important for the survival of the human species in general, it does not take into consideration something that a different part of your brain is very aware of—that there already are so many humans out there. We are not at risk of running out of new little humans anytime soon.

You are aware on some level that if you were to choose not to mate or reproduce, our species will be just fine. But the glitchy thing is that the other parts of your brain fiercely protest that reality. These parts say to you that you must couple up (and not get rejected)—or else!

So it is normal for humans to fear the possibility of rejection. Our bodies can have an intense fight-or-flight reaction at the prospect of entering the dating world—where intermittent rejection can be part of the cost of admission.

Prehistoric fears of rejection persist in the modern brain!

It is believed that early humans lived in small groups of around fifty to two-hundred individuals. Think about your entire dating pool being the audience at the movie you recently saw. Some of those individuals were already coupled up. Some were not within your age bracket. Others were not a good fit for a variety of other reasons. Think about how your dating pool has seriously dwindled to maybe a small handful.

If that was your tribe during prehistoric times and you were rejected by one of those potential mates, your odds of ever coupling up is statistically limited. Remember, there are others in the theater who are also going after that same small handful of potential contenders.

You might think, “I’ll just go and check out the people in the other theaters.” Well, fifty-thousand years ago that strategy likely wouldn’t have worked out so well for you given that encountering members of other tribes were often kill or be killed situations over the general scarcity of resources that existed in those times.

Yes, I know that we no longer live in prehistoric times and that we have a nearly endless supply of potential dating partners over-populating our planet. And with modern technology it has never been easier to find a partner than it is today. The logic side of you knows that.

However, anxiety doesn’t live in the logic part of your brain. It lives in an entirely different part of the brain known as the amygdala. It is here that your anxiety stands guard on your behalf—ever on the lookout for things it thinks might be a threat to you, (and it came to be part of humanity long before Tinder ever did). Some of the fears you experience, like that of rejection, are infused with ghosts of your prehistoric past.

So, what does a modern person such as yourself do when you want to date, but anxiety has identified it as a threat and is doing everything it can to protect you from this threat?

Treat yourself and the situation with compassion

It is easy to beat yourself up when you feel anxious.

What a loser I am

I’m hopeless

I’m not attractive enough

However, fostering a self-compassionate inner voice can help you feel less anxious and unhappy about feeling fearful. When you beat yourself up for feeling nervous guess what happens—the anxiety only gets ratcheted up. If you adopt the role of the good coach (or mentor or teacher or parent) towards yourself and your anxiety, it can help ground you rather than pile on additional anxiety and suffering.

It’s normal to feel anxious about dating—it’s not my fault

There goes anxiety, trying to protect me

No matter how anxious I feel, I can still pursue dating

…and good for me for taking steps forwards!

Teach your anxiety that the “danger” is not real

Anxiety is like a hyper-active, over-zealous, four-year old, whose job is to be your body guard. Anxiety is never trying to hurt you, but to protect you at all costs. I call it a “four-year old” because its logic skills are not so well-developed, even though it means well. You can unsuccessfully debate a four-year old all day about whether there is a monster in its closet. The four year-old, however, learns best when you bring it to the closet and allow it to learn through experience that there is no monster (now if you believe there is a monster in the closet we need to have a different discussion entirely!).

Rather than fighting your anxiety, compassionately take your anxiety with you as you explore places to possibly meet a new dating partner. Bring your anxiety to the computer with you to checkout various local meetups. Allow your anxiety to see that exploring these options are okay.

This is a good first step.

Then bring your anxiety with you as you venture into the world of people. Focusing on the people and activities that are meaningful to you (I met my spouse while studying abroad. I felt passionate about travel and meeting people from other cultures).

Show anxiety that you can introduce yourself to others, be friendly, open, and inclusive. Show it that you can take a genuine interest in getting to know others. Teach it that “small-talk” is really the important stuff as it allows you to communicate that you are a nice person and not a threat (If you are not a nice person and are a threat—again we need to have a different conversation).

If at some point there is a rejection (You go to introduce yourself to someone and they ignore you and walk the other way) you now have a wonderful opportunity to show anxiety that the worst possible thing that it had tried to protect you from, was not catastrophic. You were able to tolerate the sting and move on.

(Side note—as I write this, my teaching reviews were emailed to me—all of my students gave me good-enough reviews, except one that rejected me and my class in the harshest of terms—Ouch, but I can tolerate the sting and will live to teach another day!)

At each step, whether meeting someone in person or via technology, you have the opportunity to teach your anxiety that dating is not a threat. Once it learns this, it will howl much less often and nap more frequently in those situations (after nearly thirty years of marriage my spouse only occasionally scares me).

And while you are teaching anxiety to be a more informed body-guard, you are moving forward towards your goal of dating.

Use mindfulness and acceptance practices

I know, I know—yet another person touting the benefit of mindfulness and acceptance. It certainly seems to be the hip psychology buzz words these days.

As a former skeptic of anything that sounded hippy-ish, I can tell you the three things that turned me from skeptic to advocate when it came to these practices.

  1. The overwhelming amount of research has been pouring in demonstrating mindfulness and acceptance strategies effectiveness for coping with so many of life’s challenges.
  2. Watching my clients benefit deeply from integrating these practices into their treatment as they move forward with facing their deepest fears
  3. Using it in my own life. Contrary to popular belief, we therapists are as human as anyone and are subject to the same ups and downs that life likes to toss our way.

I recommend downloading a mindfulness app (I like Headspace and Insight Timer, but there are so many great ones). The goal is to practice being present with your current experience, (whether it be breathing, thinking, walking, or driving). When you notice yourself worrying about the past or future, or focusing on something that takes you out of the now, note there’s thinking and gently bring yourself back to the present moment—without judgement.

Then you practice this in the real world. When you are driving to meet your date and your inner four year-old is screaming at you to drive the other way—you soften any tension that you can and note, there’s anxiety. You can even inwardly smile to your four-year old and thank it for trying to be helpful and then bring your focus back to the now.

Trouble-shoot obstacles rather than giving up

Obstacles happen.

It might be that money is so tight that affording dating seems impossible.

Maybe, you’ve spent three months using technology (apps, dating sites, etc.) and have not gotten a single nibble (i.e. response, match, or even a virtual smiley face—not a physical nibble like a certain part of your brain was hoping for).

It could be that you are dealing with other challenges that might be interfering with your ability to date such as a clinical depression, alcoholism, autism spectrum, perfectionism, active bipolar disorder, or a bad case of the I-want to-but I don’t-want-tos.  Rather than giving up, I recommend a good old-fashioned brainstorming session.

What is the problem?

What are possible solutions? (list as many as you can without censoring even the silly ones)

Cross off the blatantly silly ones. (I’ll date a Martian when the mother ship finally arrives)

What are the pros and cons of each possible solution?

Which solution or combination of solutions will I implement?

After a reasonable amount of time—

Was it a success? Yes—stop here and congratulate yourself! No—Cycle back to step one.

Solutions can include anything. Maybe it is trying to tweak your profile, or getting counseling, or practicing new social skills learned on YouTube. Or maybe it is trying a different online dating site.

The idea is to keep being the good and compassionate coach to yourself and keep moving forward, bringing your anxiety along for the teaching opportunity, and letting go of the struggle to force your anxiety to go away.

May your anxiety learn what you intend to teach it.

Eric Goodman, Ph.D.


Social Courage: Coping and Thriving with the Reality of Social Anxiety

Hardcover E-book