Anxiety rearing its ugly head in a new relationship, what do I do?
August 23, 2018 9:05 AM   Subscribe

Background: I'm a 25 year old gay man, and have had known issues with anxiety in the past. Through therapy, I have worked out the root cause of this is a mixture of two things: my natural sensitive tendencies and the rejection of my mother when I came out 6 years ago. I have been out of therapy for 2 years and have felt no real need for it again until now, as I have not had a relationship for 2 years. It is time to face my demons, and I am wondering how.

As a gay man, I'm used to meeting men for dates off dating apps. I met one by a happy accident while I was at work, on a shift I would not normally have been on. We exchanged names and began messaging on Facebook. A fantastic first, second, third, fourth, and fifth date. I knew I liked him intensely from the get go, but it felt very rationa unlike my past experiences of infatuation and obsession. I didn't feel insecure and was able to enjoy it for what it was. The more we progressed, the more my feelings intensified and anxiety poked its ugly face out. It's strange to think I was less anxious at the start of the process than I am now, as that's not normally the case. I bit the bullet and asked him to be my boyfriend. This may sound very high school, and it is, but I saw those butterflies and followed them all the way into Wonderland! Now I feel like I'm tumbling down the hole. He said yes.

Now he occupies my thoughts every waking minute, I want to tell him that I miss him and can't wait to see him, but scared I'll come across too clingy. I want him to say the same things to me, but you can't control other people's actions. I dream about him, I check my phone subconsciously the moment I wake up to see if I have a text. I'd like to say I wouldn't do this, but at the time, I feel like I have no control over it. Perhaps it was too soon to venture in the relationship grounds, especially with my past tendencies, but what's done is done. I am forever over-analyzing every text, fearful of coming on too strong, fearful of him realizing he doesn't want the same thing I do. I convince myself so hard that it almost looks true, if you look hard enough for a negative point in a string of words you're bound to find it. This fear and worry is ruining the first stages of a relationship - and shouldn't these be so happy?! It makes me incapable of enjoying it for what it is. Statistically, no, it probably won't last forever, but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy a sweet taste of it while it's there! I can't seem to do that.

My question is, what can I do to stop these thoughts? Therapy isn't currently an option, and having had several rounds of it in my's not something I really feel like I will benefit from. I've had the tools given to me, I've just never learned how to use them properly. Situations like this force me out of my comfort zone. I turn from confident and independent to miserable and needy. I work a very busy/stressful job, I have plenty of hobbies to keep me busy, and I love my own company, but none of these things are pacifying the fear of rejection. Open to any slap in the face anyone wants to give me! I'm tired of being in a relationship with three people (I'll let you guess who the third person is!)
posted by Lewnatic to Human Relations (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have a daily meditation practice or any kind of free writing journaling practice? You need to interrupt or redirect the fear energy that's running through your body. Those are two good tools for doing that. One thing it helps me to remember is that I'm the one giving the thoughts life by feeding them attention. If you starve them of attention they fade and become less present. Meditation can help with train your mind to refocus on the present moment instead of disruptive thoughts.
posted by edbles at 9:26 AM on August 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

Now he occupies my thoughts every waking minute, I want to tell him that I miss him and can't wait to see him, but scared I'll come across too clingy. I want him to say the same things to me, but you can't control other people's actions. I dream about him, I check my phone subconsciously the moment I wake up to see if I have a text. I'd like to say I wouldn't do this, but at the time, I feel like I have no control over it.

That sounds like a crush - which is awesome when it's on someone you are in a relationship with (as opposed to someone who has no interest in you). I can understand that you don't want to come on too strong, but given that you've had five(!) dates and he's now your boyfriend, I think he likes you too! (After five dates, I'd be planning the wedding, but I'm not normal: my husband and I went on no formal dates before starting our long-term relationship).

But I can understand that anxiety can be crippling and it's affecting the rest of your life in a bad way. I have pretty bad anxiety at times too, and all I can recommend are the basic coping techniques: deep breathing, conscious relaxation (this really can help). Give yourself times at work when you're allowed to check your phone for texts, like using pomodo techniques (20 min of work, 5 min of break/phone) to keep yourself on track.

If you are having catastophizing thoughts, question how realistic they are (e.g. "he doesn't like me!" "Wait, he still wants to date me, this means he likes me"). Crushing thoughts (oh, he's so awesome) are fine and healthy; it's the not-healthy thoughts (I'm terrible, why does he like me) that you don't want to let run free. Keep trying to ground yourself in reality - and not the pessimistic reality that depressive people (like me) are sometimes prone to. He wants to be your boyfriend, therefore he really likes you, maybe even is crushing on you as well.

As for the strong feelings: you can keep them private if you like, but don't feel the need to suppress them. In the past, I've found outlets for these sorts of things by writing in my diary, writing (bad) poetry or making (even worse) sketches. Try to keep the day-dreaming healthy - like the phone checking, maybe keep this within your break moments.

But given that you are formally in a relationship, also don't worry too much about being a bit needy and less independent: being vulnerable and needing the other person is the glue of relationships. And - with the caveat that I'm not normal - maybe more people in relationships should be open about their own fears and insecurities. If the other person cares about you - and given that they wish to be in a relationship, they probably do - they will understand and want to reassure you. You don't want to share catastophizing thoughts with them, but sharing a bit of insecurity just makes you more real. I know that I find vulnerable people easier to relate to - and when people share insecurities with me, it creates more sympathy and connection.
posted by jb at 9:32 AM on August 23, 2018 [4 favorites]

I've had the tools given to me, I've just never learned how to use them properly.

Then you didn't have the tools given to you correctly. Go back to the same person or a new one and ask for help actually implementing these tools and getting some skills training so you can use them.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:41 AM on August 23, 2018 [4 favorites]

First of all: You don't give us a timeline here (a week, a month, longer?) but it's worth taking a deep breath to just revel for a second in how amazing it feels to be falling in love with someone who seems to be falling in love with you, too, at the same time. That is just the best feeling, and it's one that doesn't come around that many times in a lifetime.

Secondly: Because it's such a special and rare feeling, being afraid that the bubble is going to burst is totally normal. So just, you know, cut yourself some slack about the anxiety you're experiencing in this specific situation. Also, I don't know about you, but sometimes the wires in my brain between "excited" and "anxious" can get a little crossed - so I occasionally have to remind myself that what I'm interpreting as anxiousness might actually be excitement. Maybe you do, too.

Thirdly: You know all the things you should do to manage daily anxiety. You got this. Keep up with your friends, your hobbies, your work, and your self care. Make a daily or weekly checklist if that sort of thing helps you. And while you're at it, you could also keep a journal where you can spill out your fears and your swoons without risking overwhelming your new partner.

Fourthly: It's also okay, though, to talk to your new partner about how you're feeling -- the excitement and the anxiousness. I mean, don't make it like a new everyday feature of your relationship (and definitely have these conversations in person rather than over text), but I don't see any harm in making yourself vulnerable here, at least a little bit: "Partner, I am so excited about this relationship that I'm also sometimes finding myself anxious about it, too. How are you feeling?" I'll bet you dollars to donuts that this conversation will be reassuring.

Finally: Sometimes relationships that bloom with magic do turn to dust. Remind yourself that you're resilient. You'll survive a letdown, a rejection, and even a tragic breakup. Romances end all the time for all kinds of reasons; people survive much worse all the time. And even if this romance never ends, it will still go through rough patches, and so you will have to step back every now and then to reground yourself in your values, your worth, your feelings, your actions, and your goals. So just remind yourself now that you can (and will have to) do some of that work with or without a romantic partner, no matter what.
posted by pinkacademic at 9:42 AM on August 23, 2018 [17 favorites]

Perhaps it was too soon to venture in the relationship grounds

No, I don't think so. I think you're doing something new and figuring out how to do it. That seems good. At best you'll make it work. At worst, you'll have taken the training wheels off and will be better set up for next time.

As far as getting through it and not letting the whole thing make you feel crazy, I wonder if there's a way to let him in on what this is like for you now. Maintaining the appearance of being totally normal about things sometimes makes it much harder to be at all normal about things. It might let the air out of your anxiety to tell him some version of: hey, I really like you, but I'm a little neurotic about things right now and would it bug you if I sometimes check in about stuff that may seem silly?

Maybe even find some humor in it.

Obviously, you'd need to tailor this for your own needs and comfort. But my gut feeling, reading what you wrote, is that you are maintaining a way of communicating that is nurturing your less great ways of relating.

It sounds like you're being really thoughtful about this. I hope it works out.
posted by Smearcase at 10:25 AM on August 23, 2018

It strikes me that so much of the uncertainty in this situation is brought on by technology. When I had a romance that felt like this in the '90s, it was much easier to put it out of mind while at work because there was no possibility of texting. You'd arrange things in advance like, "I'll call Tuesday at 9." There was so much less reading between the lines on tenterhooks all day. Certainly there'd be rumination after a date or phone call - what did he mean when he said _____?, but with the time and space available it was easier to distinguish anxiety from something that needed to be discussed.

So, all this is to say that when you get these anxious thoughts, ask yourself, is this a technology problem (how often to text, what the tone of it was, what else did he like on Instagram)? If it's technology, leave it aside. If it's about something you or he said in person or on the phone, try to formulate a conversation about it. "I really like you and this is exciting! But let me know if this pace is comfortable for you."
posted by xo at 10:34 AM on August 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

There’s a lot of over analytical therapy-speak in your message... which isn’t really useful. tl;dr: you can’t believe your luck and are afraid of screwing things up. We’ve all been there.

Guess what? That’s precisely why best friends were invented. Ring your best buddy and bore him to death over the telephone.
posted by Kwadeng at 10:41 AM on August 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

I don't know how to stop the thoughts entirely, and my personal strategy is to contain them. My therapist once told me that one way to think of anxiety is worrying about things that may or may not happen. That sort of blew my mind because that's probably 80-90% of my thoughts when my mind is idle. I can't totally tell if you're talking about pleasant anxious thoughts that are just out of proportion to the relationship at this time ("what if we move in together?" "I wonder if he likes Tab as a baby name?") or if you're catastrophizing things ("what if I have bad breath when I kiss him and I see him cringe? What if I tell him I miss him and he doesn't say it back??"). In either case, I try to give myself 2 options: make a plan (which shuts it down) or shut it down (usually with a "script" or motto or sane reminder).

I find the "make a plan" containment strategy for anxious thoughts works for me as long as I limit my time indulging (sometimes I literally set a timer) because it is sort of a release valve and then I'm not so "OMG I LOVE YOU" over the top in person and my nature is that I love planning and it comforts me. So one "make a plan" thing I've indulged in before is looking at real estate listings in the fantasy that my SO and I will buy a house and move in together. I might allow myself 20 minutes to browse and fantasize about living together, what kind of house we'd get, what it would be like living together, where the dog beds would go, etc. even though I know this might not happen and it's too soon to really be thinking about this. This also helps because next time I start thinking about it, I can remind myself that there were several affordable houses I liked so that's not an issue. Even for negative anxious thoughts the "make a plan" can work. If I'm worried about having bad breath when I kiss him, I'll decide that I'll handle it by asking him, "should I brush my teeth?" when it looks like things might get steamy so he can gently clue me in and solve the worry. The trick is that you can not spend too long coming up with plans because that's really just letting the anxiety run wild. Sometimes I have to physically do something different like get a glass of water, walk the dog, turn on an intense tv show, etc.

If it's not something you can make a plan for, then I think you need something you tell yourself to stop the thought. It needs to be something true and gentle, like "well I hope that doesn't happen, but if it does I know I'll be ok because x, y, and z." And x, y, and z should be real, comforting things like "I have great friends, Name and Name, I can call when I need to talk, I have a hobby I love, and I know I'm lovable."

Good luck with this relationship. We're rooting for you!
posted by kochenta at 10:50 AM on August 23, 2018 [3 favorites]

Strategies of varying complexity to implement:

1. Give your bf a special notification sound so that you know you don't have a text from him unless you hear the specific sound. This might free up some of your HIGH ALERT monitoring brain space. I tried turning my notifications off, and that made it worse for me as I was just constantly checking my phone.

2. This won't last forever, just keep telling yourself that. I am exactly like you in new relationships and that manic crazy intense thing tends to fade out after 2-3 months. Your brain is probably endlessly ruminating on the few data points you have. Once you have a lot more data points, it will not be such an addictive mystery to puzzle over.

3. Sometimes I fight fire with fire: if I am feeling stuck on something, I go do something else (harmlessly) addictive to distract myself. Binge-worthy shows, video games, etc. Socializing and hobbies are cool and all, but you need something that is really intensely exploiting that reward circuit to get you re-focused. Find an app that if you start playing you can hardly stop and use it to break the cycle for a little while until things calm down.

4. If it remains this uncomfortable for very much longer then I would recommend getting yourself to a primary care physician if possible and asking for anti-anxiety medication, if you are not already on any. That will seriously turn down the volume of the obsessive anxiety you are describing.

Also, congrats on your bf. I hope you have fun :)
posted by skrozidile at 11:06 AM on August 23, 2018

I think you should try to separate what is completely common and normal from the anxious thoughts. I don't think you need to stop thinking about this man. When I was dating my husband we texted each other constantly, told each other we missed each other and adored each other 100 times a day, texted first thing in the morning etc. etc. The difference is that we weren't anxious. (Or maybe we were a bit. We had an in-joke where we would look at the other and say "don't leave me" out of the blue.)

So, stop beating yourself up over/ trying to control what are basically just human feelings. Realise that you are feeling what millions and millions of other people have also felt. But, you need to address the anxiety. Maybe some kind of acceptance therapy workbook? Or, as someone else mentioned, mindfulness? Don't talk yourself out of the good feelings along with the bad, though.
posted by thereader at 11:41 AM on August 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

posted by catspajammies at 1:22 PM on August 23, 2018

Having been in this situation only once in my life, you may want to take this with a grain of salt but: it's time for the gym. Running. Any kind of physical activity will help ground you right now. Anxiety is just converted energy that had nowhere to go. You have a ton of excess energy falling in love like this, and it is imperative you find a way to burn some of it off before it turns into more anxiety.

Bonus if it's something you can do as a couple. When I was deep in limerance with my now ex-fiancee, we ran 5Ks together. (Usually on very little sleep because we were ******* each other's brains out morning, noon, and night.)

Enjoy it. It's a good time. It can be a roller coaster. Let it wash over you. Cry if you need to. It may seem ridiculous to cry over such a good thing but it releases emotions like nothing else.
posted by coffeeand at 1:42 PM on August 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

This is just what being in love is like. Sorry.

Things that can help: exercise, make art, read or write poetry, listen to or make music. They don‘t help much, though.
posted by The Toad at 2:37 PM on August 23, 2018

OH HUN, this is not anxiety. This is LIMERENCE. It's a real trip, huh? Like a goddamn drug. ENJOY IT -- just don't contact your beloved all the time. Take lots of showers and/or talk to yourself in the mirror: "OMG THIS IS SO FUN, OMG DO NOT TEXT THEM AGAIN OR BE SMOTHERING. OWN YOUR DAMN SELF." Repeat as necessary. When you're together, get high on kisses. Everything'll get easier, I promise.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 5:30 PM on August 23, 2018

Sometimes, back when I was dating, when I got this level of crazy for someone, I would talk it over with a friend. Not just enthusing over how great s/he was, but actual plan making with reality checks. Like, how often is it okay to call if they're not home (yes, I'm old, there weren't cell phones yet). And having a plan, that a friend had vetted, helped a ton. Some of this can also be done with your boyfriend. Like, how often does he like to text on workdays or on weekends. Does he like texting or talking on the phone better? Some of this will drive you less bonkers once you've got a better sense of what you both like. And it'll be easier to have these conversations along the way of dating and generally spending time together.

It is going to be harder for you to calm down and believe that your boyfriend wants to be with you, because of the rejection you've faced before. Please remember that it's not your fault your mother is homophobic. It is her fault that she is being a cruel and neglectful parent and only she can change that. I'm sorry she's treating you like this.
posted by Margalo Epps at 3:31 PM on August 29, 2018

Hi everyone,

Thank you so much for the helpful advice - most of it reassuring. We're still together, had a lovely weekend at a festival. I felt anxious a lot in his company, but most of it was just the desire for it to continue. Nothing lasts forever, though! Just have to enjoy the rollercoaster while I'm on it, and if it ends and I throw up afterwards then that's cool, I'll recover. I don't think therapy will help me here - I've had it before, I often find the more we point fingers at normal emotions and call them mental health issues, the more negative we think of ourselves. I'm trying to embrace the feeling more, and have been meditating/swimming which has been a HUGE help.

Sometimes I want to scream I LOVE YOU in his face, but past experiences have taught me that's not always a good idea. We live, we love, we break, we learn.

Thanks, all.
posted by Lewnatic at 4:59 AM on August 31, 2018 [5 favorites]

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