Sign up for Scientific American’s free newsletters. «> 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: Practicing self-disclosures
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. Acceptance
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. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


author-avatar Shannon Kolakowski, PsyD is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice. She blogs for Huffington Post, and is the author of forthcoming «Single, Shy, and Looking For Love: A Dating Guide for the Shy and Socially Anxious» and «When Depression Hurts Your Relationship.» Dr. Kolakowski’s work has been featured in magazines such as Redbook, ParentMap and Men’s Health Magazine, as well as online at, and eHarmony. She’s made television appearances on New Day Northwest and ABC news. Visit her online at Welcome back to The Attraction Doctor It is normal to get anxious about interacting with potential dating partners. Everyone gets concerned about making a good first impression. It is common to get some form of «approach anxiety» and struggle to break the ice. It is also natural to wonder whether someone you are attracted to (or dating) likes you in return. At times, however, this social anxiety, fear of rejection, or shyness ends up holding some people back. It prevents them from having the love life they want. But, these feelings don’t have to hold you back. They can be reduced and controlled. The popular women, social guys, natural seducers and pick-up artists all have tips, tricks, and methods to lower their anxiety, stay calm, and act confidently. You can too. Below, I’m going to share with you one method to beat dating anxiety…

«Curious» Research on Social Anxiety

Kashdan and Roberts (2006) conducted research on the tendency to feel both anxiety and curiosity in social interactions. As the authors explain, «Unfamiliar [social] experiences evoke feelings of both anxiety (due to conflicts with existing knowledge and feelings of low personal control) and curiosity (due to a natural propensity for pursuing potential rewards and personal growth opportunities).» In other words, social situations have both scary and wonderful components. On one hand, feeling unprepared for the «unknown» can be a bit intimidating. On the other hand, meeting someone new can prompt feelings of curiosity and hope about positive possibilities. Kashdan and Roberts then go on to show that focus (on anxiety or curiosity) determines how social situations are experienced. Through two experiments, they found that social anxiety did indeed contribute to negative feelings about social interactions. However, curiosity contributed to positive feelings about social interactions. Regardless of their level of anxiety, individuals who were curious enjoyed social interactions more than non-curious individuals. Presumably, they spent a greater amount of time noticing the positives, the opportunities, and the fun.

What This Means for Your Love Life

If you are feeling anxious in a social situation, you might want to try being a bit more curious. This will «get you out of your own head» and help you see the positive aspects of the interaction. You may enjoy your social life more, have better conversations, and really get to know your potential dates. Here are 5 Tips for Curious Dating: 1) Be open-minded and optimistic — Focus on the positive possibilities within any social situation. Suspend judgment and concern and don’t «read into things» negatively. Don’t lay your own assumptions, beliefs, or thoughts over the interaction either. Rather, just enjoy the moment and pay attention to the good parts. Be optimistic, open, and positive. Notice the laughs, good jokes, and interesting opinions. 2) Focus on them (not on yourself) — Really listen to what your potential partners or dates are saying. Listen to their words, notice their body language, smiles, and eye contact. Stay «outside» of yourself, ignore your internal reactions, and focus on them. Don’t get stuck on your own thoughts, concerns, or opinions. Try to remember what they just said they liked, thought, felt, etc.

  • What Is Anxiety?
  • Find a therapist to overcome anxiety

3) Learn something new from them — Everyone has unique perspectives to share. Romantic partners and random strangers all have something interesting to teach. Try to learn it. Be curious about their lives. Try to find their unique perspective and what they have to share in the world. Really understand who they are and where they are coming from. 4) Find the fun together — Keep the discussion on happy topics (especially with new people). Avoid asking about dramatic, traumatic, and negative events. This isn’t the time for that. The goal is to be growth-oriented, to play, and to have both people enjoy the interaction. 5) Share your good stuff too — Ask questions of others and share your positive opinions. Offer something about yourself that you particularly like as well. Teach them something fun back. Start a light and flirty discussion. Allow them to be curious about you too!

Anxiety Essential Reads


Practice curiosity every day! Practice curiosity when you are anxious about «breaking the ice» and meeting someone new. Focus on the interesting things you can learn from them. Curious statements such as, «I was just wondering about that book you are reading…» or, «he’s so cute, what kind of dog is that…» can be great icebreakers. Practice curiosity with your dating partners too. Look for new ways to help you both connect. Have fun and grow. Find new pieces, perspectives, opinions, and experiences within each other. After all, that is half the fun of «getting to know» someone anyway. You will find that these steps will go a long way towards focusing you on positive, enjoyable, and beneficial interactions. They will also help to diminish your worry and anxiety over time. Give curiosity a try. © 2011 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved. References Kashdan, T.B., & Roberts, J.E. (2006). Affective outcomes in superficial and intimate interactions: Roles of social anxiety and curiosity. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 140-167. Opening up to strangers can feel intimidating, and the thought of putting yourself out there for the first time can feel overwhelming. For people who have anxiety disorders or other mental health conditions, dating can be even more complicated—so much so that anxious people may opt-out of the dating scene altogether. Whether you’re trying online dating for the first time or dating with a mental illness, here are some tips to overcome dating anxiety and put yourself out there. Ways to Overcome Dating Anxiety

1. Recognize the symptoms of anxiety.

Whether you experience feelings of anxiety each time you open a dating app or right before you meet your date, it’s essential to recognize the symptoms. Even if you’re not living with a diagnosable mental disorder, understanding the symptoms of anxiety is the first step toward identifying your triggers and managing your anxiety. Anxiety is different for everyone, and people with different anxiety disorders will experience a different set of anxiety symptoms. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), most people experience a combination of psychological and physical symptoms, including:

  • Feelings of nervousness, restlessness, or feelings of tension
  • Intense fear, panic, or dread
  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid heartbeat or chest pain
  • Increased sweating
  • Fatigue, weakness, or lethargy
  • Difficulty focusing or thinking clearly
  • Sleeping problems, such as insomnia
  • Digestive issues, such as nausea
  • Excessive fear of social situations (social anxiety)
  • Trouble functioning in everyday life or carrying out daily activities
  • Panic attacks

Anxiety disorders often co-occur with other mental health conditions, such as major depression and substance abuse. If mental health symptoms interfere with your daily life, consider seeking professional mental health support. Anxiety disorders are highly treatable with psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of both, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

2. Take a step back from social media.

If online dating leaves you feeling anxious, it might be time to rethink your relationship with dating apps. Between rejection, constant worry that you’re missing out on the perfect match, and feelings of loneliness, dating apps can take a significant toll on your mental health. To cultivate a healthier relationship with dating apps and social media, try limiting your dating app usage. Instead of mindlessly scrolling for hours on end, set aside 15 minutes each day to use dating apps with intention. If you’re experiencing excessive worry or apprehension each time you use dating apps, psychotherapy (talk therapy) can help you start building a healthier relationship with online dating. Ready for an appointment?

3. Practice positive self-talk.

Sometimes, it’s easy to convince ourselves that social interactions will go badly because that’s what we want to believe. This is called projection, and it’s a mirror of what we think about ourselves—not necessarily what other people think about us. When you find yourself thinking negative thoughts or convincing yourself that a new relationship won’t go well, practice positive self-talk—whether that involves reviewing your goals, complementing yourself, or practicing positive affirmations. Talking to yourself like you would talk to a friend can help reduce stress, boost self-esteem, and decrease negative thoughts.

4. Take care of your mind and body.

If you’re experiencing feelings of anxiety before a date, it’s easy to let your health fall by the wayside. However, it’s easier to handle stressful situations and pressure when your mind and body feel good. Incorporating healthy lifestyle choices into your daily life can help manage your anxiety symptoms. Lifestyle changes, such as eating a balanced diet, getting enough sleep, reducing caffeine consumption, and regular physical activity, can help relieve stress, improve your quality of life, and help you feel more energized. When you take care of your physical and mental health, you’ll build resilience, helping you cope better with the stresses and strains of whatever life throws at you.

5. Reach out for professional help.

Anxiety shouldn’t stop you from enjoying new relationships and exploring the dating scene. If you’re experiencing social anxiety, have trouble meeting new people, or forming a healthier relationship with dating apps, talk therapy can help. Working with a licensed psychologist can help you form healthy boundaries, manage your anxiety symptoms, and learn strategies to cope with stressful situations. To find the right fit, reach out to a mental health provider through the Therapy Group of DC. Whether you’re feeling anxious about intimacy or navigating the uncertainties of the pandemic, we’re here to help you every step of the way. One of our compassionate, experienced mental health professionals will help you explore your treatment options and overcome your dating anxiety.

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