New Relationship Anxiety

Drawing of an anxious brain

So, you’ve learned all about New Relationship Energy & think you have that sorted, but then you find yourself having a WAY less comfortable experience. Perhaps you are suddenly having intrusive thoughts about what your new sweetie might think of you. You are finding yourself preoccupied with whether it is too soon to contact them or whether you’re being ‘too much’. You are writing and then editing and rewriting and overthinking every single contact you make with them. Yeah, that is also a common part of the experience of a new relationship too & its called new relationship anxiety. I think of it as NRE’s evil twin.

When emotions like anxiety come up it sometimes helps to think about where they come from & what they are doing. All emotions have a function (we talk about this in the DBT courses we run) and one of those functions is to protect us from loss and harm. At the start of a relationship we are all giddy and excited, getting all kinds of glorious chemicals running around in our systems. We experience the joy of becoming connected and seeing and being seen by a new and excellent human. We do not want to lose those feelings. Humans are also pretty impressive pattern making machines, and when we don’t know the other person particularly well it is VERY easy to look for the slightest hint that difficult things that have happened in the past are happening again. Those threats, of relationship loss or difficulty, are something our brains are wired to scan for, and tell us about with feelings of fear or anxiety. So, the function of the anxiety at the beginning of a relationship is to signal to us that the relationship is important and we need to protect it. Unfortunately, it often doesn’t work that way.

When we have histories that involve trauma or rejection (and honestly, who hasn’t experienced rejection at one point or another?!) we can be especially sensitive to any cue that things aren’t ok. This can be something as simple as a text that hasn’t been replied to, or the absence of a future plan with the object of your affection. It could be the gap between messages or the feeling that you’re sharing too much or not enough with your new sweetie. The more sensitive we are to cues of rejection, the more likely we are to experience new relationship anxiety, which makes it especially prevalent amongst neurodivergent folks, particularly those with ADHD (like me!). We often have more experiences of rejection because the neurotypical world isn’t made for us, and we are often more hypervigilant to cues that it may be happening again.

Drawing of brain

Many people respond to New Relationship Anxiety by doing all the things that their emotions tell them to. Often anxious thoughts or urges push us to behave in ways that aren’t in line with our values, long term goals or commitments. This sucks for us and the people around us. Sometimes it will mean that folks respond to the urge to be in contact all the time by being in constant contact because that’s what makes the urgency & anxiety less overwhelming. This might be a perfectly helpful way to cope if it doesn’t interfere with other parts of life, but unfortunately often it DOES interfere with maintaining work, other relationships and important life commitments. It can also be really difficult to manage & can result in the relationship feeling too overwhelming for the new person. Sometimes people respond to sexuality related insecurity by diving into a sexual connection with someone without doing the things they need to feel seen and safe (like disclosing their relevant trauma history, STI status or safer sex protocols or even what they like their junk to be called). This can make it hard to feel good about your sexuality and contribute to the feeling that you’re out of control in new sexual relationship.

On the other hand, some folks interpret the anxiety as meaning that there is something wrong with the relationship. They interpret the tense feelings and discomfort as meaning that it isn’t the right connection for them and so they don’t pursue it or they take some kinds of intimacy off the table. This reaction can also have some difficult results because it can contribute to feeling lonely, isolated and unable to build satisfying relationships.

If you’re experiencing New Relationship Anxiety, know that this is a common experience, even amongst monogamous people. It is your emotions doing exactly what they are supposed to do —protect you but in a kinda inconvenient way. Most folks find that it helps to name what is happening and link it to the fact these emotions are coming up because they really want a connection with their new sweetie. The next post is going to be about 5 ways to cope with New Relationship Anxiety that will help you not to derail your life or relationships. 

In the meantime, some questions that might help you to figure out what is going on for you

  1. Where do you experience this anxiety in your body?
  2. What do you do when you feel new relationship anxiety?
  3. Does this bring you towards the kind of connection you want with your new person?
  4. Does it bring you towards balancing this new connection with other aspects of your life?
  5. Is there anything that you’d like to do differently?
  6. What uncomfortable emotions or experiences would you have to cope with in order to do things differently?
  7. How could you notice when you’re having intense feelings or urges and attend to them rather than just doing what they say?

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