First dates are supposed to be no-pressure encounters. But let’s face it: a lot of the time, there are still plenty of reasons to be nervous.
What are we supposed to talk about?
What if this person finds me unattractive?
What if I don’t feel that chemistry and just end up leading them on?
What if we end up engaged, and I realize on my wedding day that they’re the wrong partner for me?
There are a ton of unknowns and possibilities that come with the territory of meeting someone new, especially if it’s in a potentially romantic context. As a result, there isn’t one universal cause for dating-related anxiety. We spoke with Dr. Patrick McGrath, Chief Clinical Officer at NOCD, to untangle some of the reasons that you might be feeling first-date anxiety—as well as the kinds of steps you can take to overcome it.
What causes first-date anxiety?
First off, first dates are an “evaluative experience,” explains Dr. McGrath. “Anybody who is afraid of evaluation is going to fear first dates because they’ll be evaluated physically, mentally, and socially.” When you’re meeting with someone and deciphering whether they’re a potential romantic match for you, even in these early stages, it’s natural to become anxious, to some degree, about how they might judge you.
Outside of the nerve-wracking evaluation by your date, there are also plenty of internal struggles that you might be facing that can cause you to get that fight-or-flight reaction before a date. For example, you may also be evaluating yourself in a manner that is unhelpful or anxiety-inducing.
“If you’ve got anxiety or depression, you might tell yourself, ‘Wow, I really suck at this. This is awful. They hate me,’” says Dr. McGrath. “You’re going to look for clues that confirm that, and selectively attend to things that could be perceived as negative, and blow them way out of proportion.”
Similar issues can occur if you have pre-existing mental health issues. Dr. McGrath explains, “If you have a panic disorder, you may be constantly assessing yourself for symptoms of panic. If you have erectile dysfunction, you might be constantly checking to see if you have a feeling in your groin, and what it means if you do or don’t, and using that as a way to assess whether you’re attracted to someone.”
People with depression or people who struggle with their self-esteem can also develop anxiety over a first date for related reasons. “You’ll think this person is doing it out of pity, or doesn’t really care about you. You’ll come up with all the negative reasons that it’s not going to work out.”
There’s also the potential that your first-date anxiety is linked to your upbringing or your past experiences with other relationships. For example, someone who comes from a family that didn’t have great relationships could grow anxious looking for signs that a new relationship could end up the same way.
But conversely, you might also have anxiety if you come from a background with great relationships. “If their parents had a great relationship, they might think, ‘My relationship with this person isn’t going to be like my mom and dad, so why even continue to go out with them?’” says Dr. McGrath.
In short, first dates can be nerve-wracking, no matter who you are. Even though they’re supposed to be a generally low-pressure situation, it’s fairly normal to feel anxious in this vulnerable situation where a potential romantic partner is evaluating you. And if you are dealing with other issues like depression, panic disorders, or struggle with your self-esteem, this can make the process even scarier.
How to calm first date anxiety
It’s important to remember that first dates can be scary for just about anyone, especially since there are so many unknowns and possibilities involved.
As a result, one of the best ways to deal with that uncertainty is to practice! It can be helpful to sit down before your date and run through different scenarios and topics of interesting conversation. This can help by giving you a playbook of sorts to turn to, rather than winging it completely. You can do this with a trusted friend or even your therapist.
“We’re not naturals at dating,” Dr. McGrath reminds us. “Dating sucks. It could take practice.”
Another important step you might take is defining what dating actually means to you in the first place. Dr. McGrath poses some questions you can ask yourself to figure this out: “Is dating going out and meeting someone, dressing up, and paying for the experience? Or is dating coming over, ordering a pizza, and sitting on the couch and watching television? Or can dating be social media dating, where we don’t actually physically get together but be online with each other playing a game together and hanging out that way?” Setting up these parameters can help you better understand what you can expect out of the experience, establish boundaries, and alleviate some of your anxiety.
What if dating anxiety causes you to engage in compulsive behaviors?
So, to summarize: first-date anxiety is fairly normal, and it can stem from a wide variety of places. However, it’s also worth noting that some people’s first-date anxiety can actually become an obsession, with repetitive intrusive thoughts, worries, images, sensations or feelings causing major fear and anxiety that they can’t easily move on from.
In turn, these can cause compulsive behaviors to deal with that fear and alleviate the anxiety, like seeking reassurance from others, constantly comparing their first date to other first dates they’ve experienced or seen, persistently reviewing details of their date in their head, or even avoiding first dates at all costs.
In cases like these, where someone is obsessing and then engaging in compulsive behaviors, this small percentage of first-date anxieties may actually be people dealing with obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD.
OCD is a mental health condition that is defined by two different components:
- Obsessions, which are repetitive and intrusive thoughts, fears, feelings, sensations or urges that cause significant anxiety and distress
- Compulsions, which are repetitive, often ritualistic behaviors (physical and/or mental) that are done to soothe the anxiety brought on by obsessions or to prevent an feared event from happening
The difference between dating anxiety and OCD-related dating issues
The best way to determine whether you’re dealing with dating anxiety or OCD-related issues is to look for patterns of obsessions and compulsions.
Dating anxiety of any kind can be scary and even debilitating. But while people without OCD don’t feel the urge to engage in compulsive actions or mental behaviors to alleviate that fear, the same isn’t true of someone who is dealing with OCD. People with untreated OCD are often trapped in a repetitive cycle of obsessions and compulsions that latch onto the things that are important to them (in this case, relationships).
Someone who is experiencing fears specifically related to dating may be dealing with Relationship OCD (ROCD). As the name suggests, ROCD-related obsessions often center around relationships and can manifest in doubts about themselves, their partner, their relationship, or potential relationships.
“You might be comparing this first date to something you’ve seen on television, or what you’ve heard about first dates being like with other people or in the movies,” says Dr. McGrath. “You might compare your first date to those experiences and think, ‘This just doesn’t seem to be going the way that it did in those situations.’”
However, there are also other forms of OCD outside of Relationship OCD that can also make it harder for someone with OCD to date. Because OCD can be so debilitating, obsessions can actually make it harder to date, no matter what kinds of fears and ideas that your OCD latches onto.
Ultimately, “dates are stressors,” he says. “Even though they’re hopefully potentially fun and exciting, fun and exciting things can be stressors too.” The anxieties, fears, and repetitive behaviors can make it much harder for someone with OCD to date. They might decide that it’s not worth putting themselves through such a triggering situation, but then have to deal with depression, anxiety, insecurity, and doubt if they do want to date and/or be in a relationship.
Whether it’s dating anxiety or OCD, different forms of therapy can help
No matter where your fears around first dates stem from, working with a mental health professional can help you better manage that fear.
First, working with a therapist can also help with treatment for any underlying mental health issues that may be at play. If you’re struggling with conditions like depression, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, or issues with self-esteem, working with a mental health professional can help you move forward from unhelpful thought processes and reframe your approach.
Additionally, therapy can also be a great tool for preparing yourself for the dating experience along with the help of a mental health professional. They can offer better insights into first-date preparation, like practicing a variety of conversations beyond the standard icebreakers or defining and setting parameters around what a date looks like to you.
“You don’t have to just wing it in these situations,” says Dr. McGrath. There’s nothing wrong with practicing some of this. It doesn’t make it a less real experience.”
“There are even dating coaches who teach people how to date. I think that could be something very interesting for folks to utilize therapy as a way to practice how you’re going to approach the dating experience,” he adds. Together, these therapy strategies can help prepare you and somewhat minimize some of the uncertainty that comes with the dating scene. It’s common for people to practice and receive coaching for job interviews—and first dates are somewhat similar!
How ERP works for dating anxiety
If you’re dealing with ROCD or other forms of OCD, exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy is the gold standard for treatment. ERP involves guiding people with OCD to face the topics that bring them the most anxiety, all in a safe, structured, and supportive environment. Then, ERP-trained therapists help patients learn to sit with uncertainty and anxiety, rather than engaging in their compulsions. Ultimately, the process disrupts that cycle of obsessions and compulsions, allowing people to regain control of their lives over time.
So how can ERP help someone who is struggling with ROCD? “You’re going to acknowledge all of the doubts and insecurities that OCD is going to bring into the relationship, and recognize that just because OCD brings those things into it doesn’t mean you have to believe them or pay attention to them,” says Dr. McGrath. “So if you’re on a date and suddenly you’re having some of these intrusive thoughts, you’d be able to say to yourself, ‘Wait a minute. I knew this was coming. We practiced this in therapy already, and it’s not a surprise or shocker because we’ve already discussed this and prepared for this.’”
Dr. McGrath finishes with some final thoughts on dating. “Date because you want to date and not because you think you have to,” he advises. “If you’re not interested in dating, that’s okay. If you choose not to and want to be single, that’s okay. But if you are down about being single because you’re not dating because there’s something interfering in your ability to date and you would ultimately like to be able to do that, reach out to somebody so they can assist you with moving forward.”
He also cautions against all the “shoulds”: things like “I should know how to do this, and I shouldn’t have to see a therapist about that.”
“We all get coaching. I always say this: Even if you become a professional athlete, you still have a coach. Neil Peart, the greatest drummer in the history of the world, still took drum lessons. There’s nothing wrong with being coached through situations. It’s not a sign of weakness.”
If you are struggling with OCD and believe that it may be linked to your first-date anxiety, NOCD may be able to help. NOCD’s therapists are all licensed and ERP-trained to help treat people with OCD. To learn more about how ERP can help you, schedule a free 15-minute call with our team and get matched with a NOCD therapist.