Relationship anxiety is real, whether you’re single, dating, committed, or married. I keep thinking it will go away—after I find a partner, or after we move in together, or maybe when we finally get married—but I’m coming to accept that I’m just an anxious person and some form of relationship anxiety will be with me regardless of my relationship status. Acknowledging and accepting that about myself doesn’t mean I’m not working hard to figure out ways to cope with that anxiety when it pops up.
My anxiety tends to manifest in obsessive thought spirals. I’ll latch onto one idea—say, for example, the fact that my partner and I aren’t engaged even though we’ve been dating for four years—and I’ll work myself up about it. Will he ever propose? What if our ideas about marriage are too different? What if we break up too late and I don’t have time to meet someone new and have kids? What if I never have kids? WHAT IF I’M INFERTILE?
See how that escalated?
Those spirals aren’t good for me, they aren’t good for my partner, and they aren’t good for my relationship. And yet when I’m in one, they’re all I can think about. So what’s the solution?
I’ve found that there’s only one thing that keeps me from diving into an obsessive spiral of relationship anxiety—focusing on myself. Not on my partner, not on our relationship, not the future or the past—myself. When I’m doing the things I love, spending time with my friends, and working really hard, my brain doesn’t have the bandwidth to create problems where there are none.
It sounds so simple, but oftentimes it’s not. Anxiety was an evolutionary tool to signal physical danger, but in the modern age, many of our biggest fears have nothing to do with predatory wildlife. Some psychologists believe that even though we’ve eliminated many physical dangers in our daily lives, anxiety persists because our brains just haven’t evolved to catch up yet.
So if you’re like me and you find yourself getting anxious about your relationship (or your lack of relationship) don’t let your brain go there! It can be really hard to get out of an anxiety spiral once you’re in one and, to be honest, I’m still working on ways to cope. Here are the steps I take—I hope they can help you too.
Step 1. Recognize that you’re spiraling.
Recognizing that you’re in an anxiety spiral is the first and hardest step. When you’re deep in one, you feel bad, but you also feel like your brain is telling you the truth. Don’t believe it! Recognize that when you’re anxious, your brain is making connections between things that may or may not really be connected. Tell yourself that you’re in an anxiety spiral and that you’re going to take steps to get out of it.
Step 2. Pick one hobby to focus on.
Do you like to paint? When you were younger, were you into knitting? Maybe you like working out, but have fallen out of the habit? Or is there something completely new that you’ve been meaning to get into? Whatever it is that you like to do, it’s time to shift the focus from your relationship status onto that hobby. Occupy your brain with an activity, and you’ll find that you don’t have time to be anxious about your relationship. You’ll also have a bunch of happy hormones in your brain from doing something you love, which will help counteract the anxiety.
Step 3. Hang out with friends.
Whether you’re in a relationship or not, it’s always a good idea to take the time to reach out to your friends and hang out with them (without your SO, if you have one). Redirect some of that relationship energy to platonic friendships instead of romantic ones and you’ll find it’s harder to obsess. Also, having friends means you can get support from a variety of people instead of from just one, which takes pressure off of your partner and your relationship.
Relationship anxiety is rough—and I’m not saying you’ll ever get over it 100 percent. But I’ve committed to pushing back when anxiety rears its head, and you absolutely can too. It takes practice, but it’s worth it. I promise.