Even if you haven’t heard the phrase “relationship anxiety” before, odds are you’ve experienced it at some point in your life.
Maybe you’ve spent hours obsessively checking your phone, waiting for a text message from your partner. Or you’ve found yourself unable to think clearly at work, because you suspect your boss is mad at you. Perhaps you skipped out on attending a party, because you were nervous about the people you might meet there.
Feeling anxious about your personal and professional relationships is common, and in small doses, nothing to worry about. But too much anxiety about your personal and professional relationships can hold you back in life and even ruin important relationships.
Fortunately, there are ways to manage and overcome the issue. It’s not easy work, but it all starts with understanding the true nature of relationship anxiety.
What does relationship anxiety look like?
Relationship anxiety refers to feelings of extreme worry regarding relationships. While it’s not a clinically diagnosable issue, relationship anxiety often falls under the umbrella of what’s known as social anxiety—the fear of being judged by others.
Typically, when people talk about relationship anxiety, they’re referring to romantic relationships. But in this article, I’ll be expanding the topic to discuss relationship anxiety in four main areas of life:
Relationship anxiety in romance
Relationship anxiety is incredibly common in romantic relationships. Building a romance is naturally anxiety inducing—you are putting a lot of trust in someone, and hoping that they reciprocate your feelings.
But relationship anxiety becomes problematic in romances when it ends up interfering with the natural course of the relationship. You may find yourself constantly questioning whether your partner really likes you, or why they find you attractive. You may find yourself worrying about what your partner is thinking about you and the relationship overall.
Romantic relationship anxiety can cause you to become clingy, which will leave your partner feeling smothered. Or you may become jealous and distrustful of your partner, which will in turn lead them to feel undervalued and restricted.
To protect your feelings from getting hurt, you may become cold and distant with your partner. This can cause a lack of intimacy, which will cause big relationship problems.
In all these scenarios, relationship anxiety may end up sabotaging a relationship altogether. In other words, expect broken hearts until you’re able to manage the anxiety.
Relationship anxiety in friendships
Romance is not a required ingredient for relationship anxiety. You may also feel anxious about the relationships you have with friends. This is quite common for teenagers and young adults, who are navigating high school or trying to make friends as an adult.
A person who is anxious about friendships may overanalyze small things—like being left out of a group chat—and turn them into a much bigger issue in their head, perhaps even assuming that their friends don’t like them at all. They may also become jealous of their friends’ friends, or withdraw from their friend group completely.
Relationship anxiety can also make it hard to make new friendships. If you are frequently concerned about whether people like you or want to be around you, you’ll lose confidence and find it difficult to move past the acquaintance stage to make truly close friendships.
Relationship anxiety with family
Family relationships can be complicated, and when anxiety is thrown into the mix, things can get even trickier. Your relationship with your family is completely unique, and in some cases, it may make sense to have anxiety with certain family members. (For example, feeling anxious about seeing your loud and obnoxious cousin at Thanksgiving is perfectly normal.)
But sometimes, relationship anxiety is unwarranted. As a young adult, you may feel anxious that your family is judging you and the person you’re growing into. You may find yourself dreading family get-togethers, or foregoing them altogether to avoid the anxiety.
Certain events (like divorce, death, or moving out of the house) may cause new anxieties where there weren’t any before. Again, this is normal. But if anxiety seemingly arises out of nowhere, or isn’t grounded in reality, then chances are you suffering from familial relationship anxiety.
Relationship anxiety in the workplace
Like any relationships, the ones we form at work can bring anxiety. There’s nothing wrong with being nervous on your first day of work, meeting lots of new colleagues. Anxiety before important client meetings or a performance review with your boss is also normal.
But if you are feeling overly anxious and have persistent worries about what your colleagues or managers think of you, this could be a sign of relationship anxiety. Perhaps you assume that a short email from your boss indicates she is angry with you (even if there is no evidence for that). Or you find yourself unable to sleep or feeling sick with anxiety before you have to give a presentation, so much so that you don’t do your best.
This can cause you to underperform at work, or alienate you from other colleagues. Not to mention, work can be stressful enough, and adding relationship anxiety on top of this won’t be good for your work-life balance or mental health.
What are the main causes of relationship anxiety?
The key to overcoming your relationship anxiety is understanding where it comes from. Once you know that, you can begin to work on these issues and alleviate the problem.
When it comes to relationship anxiety, there are a few primary causes to consider:
Low self-esteem and how it causes relationship anxiety
The loudest critic is internal.
Low self-esteem is the biggest culprit when it comes to relationship anxiety (and many other forms of anxiety as well).
It may seem like relationship anxiety is all about other people—you worry about what other people are thinking or saying. But the reason you are feeling this way may well be because you don’t believe in your own abilities, self-worth, and values.
One of the easiest ways to envision low self-esteem is to imagine your “inner critic.” This is the voice you hear in your head that causes doubt.
For example, let’s say you’ve just finished up a really fun first date. You are excited to see your date again, so you send them a text thanking them for the night.
Your date takes a couple hours to respond. In that intervening time, your critic might show up in the back of your mind, telling you that your date hasn’t gotten back to you because they didn’t like you, or you were too goofy at dinner, or they didn’t like what you were wearing, or [insert your chosen critique here].
In reality, your date may just be taking their time getting home safely. Whatever the reason, a loud inner critic can stress you out just as much as a nagging boss or a blaring alarm.
Bear in mind, inner critics can be quiet as well. For example, your inner critic might pipe up as you’re scrolling through Instagram, with a quiet jab like, “Look how much better those jeans look on that person.” Then the voice will vanish back into your subconscious, and though you may not be conscious of it, your self-esteem has taken a blow.
Everyone has an inner critic to some extent. I’ll get into methods for reducing and managing that voice, but there are a couple other underlying issue for relationship anxiety to cover first.
Your past experiences shape relationship anxiety
A great future doesn’t require a great past.
If you’ve had trouble with relationships in the past, it’s possible your experiences have an impact on the relationships you’re trying to maintain today.
For example, imagine you recently left a job where your boss had a bad temper and would frequently yell at you. Once you left that job (thank goodness!), you find a new job where your employer is a perfectly nice person. But you still find yourself worried and anxious when you have to have a one-on-one meeting with your new boss, because the memories and habits of your old workplace linger.
Your distant past can also impact the relationships you have today. Your experiences interacting with parents, siblings, relatives, and close friends over your lifetime help you develop experience and behaviors that can last a long, long time.
In the world of romance, it’s easy to see how a single bad experience can give you anxiety about future relationships. If a partner betrays your trust in some way, it can feel very violating and painful. As a result, you may find you take certain actions to protect yourself from feeling that same pain again—even if it’s unlikely your new partner will hurt you in the same way.
Toxic people can cause relationship anxiety
Letting go of toxic people in your life is a big step in loving yourself.
Sometimes, your relationship anxiety isn’t solely from your past experiences or your own self-esteem issues—it may come from someone in your life who is making you anxious.
I could write an entire article about toxic people and what red flags to watch out for, but for now, let’s focus on an example. You’ve started going out for Friday drinks with your colleague at work. Usually, the two of you have a fun and relaxing night. But sometimes, your friend says something that sticks with you—and not in a good way. Perhaps they comment about the way your clothes fit, or make you feel embarrassed about something you said.
This kind of treatment can naturally cause anxiety. We often look to others to gauge our sense of self, and if you have someone who routinely says or does something that makes you feel bleh, you may well be dealing with a toxic person.
These people can make our self-esteem tank, and as a result, our relationship anxiety will rise.
How to overcome relationship anxiety: 7 methods to try
And now the big question: How do you overcome relationship anxiety? The answer largely depends on your personal situation and the root causes of your anxiety. But there are a few methods that can definitely help you take on this problem.
1. Seek professional counseling
Every other method we mention on this list will have a higher chance of success if you’re also seeking professional mental health counseling. Talk therapy is one of the best ways to manage all types of anxiety and help you grow as a person.
In therapy, you can explain your relationship anxiety issues to your counselor. They will help you gain a deeper understanding of what’s causing your anxiety and devise strategies to overcome it.
If you’re new to the idea of therapy, it can be intimidating to start. Remember that a therapist’s goal is to help you improve your mental health—not unlike how a trainer might help you improve your physical health. Ultimately, their goal is to help you become a healthier, happier person.
You also have total control over how often or how long you want to attend therapy. If you feel it’s not working after a few sessions, you can always end the therapy and look for a different professional who might better suit your needs.
You can start your search for a therapist through Psychology Today’s directory, or look for digital therapy options like Better Help or Talk Space. You can also reach out to the SAMHSA helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or visit MentalHealth.gov for more resources.
2. Recognizing your inner critic
Earlier in this article, I mentioned the inner critic—that little voice in your head that says, “You can’t do that,” or “You’re a failure because…” We all have that negative voice in our heads sometimes, but the key to overcoming it is recognizing it and even talking back to it.
This can take some practice, because you may have been listening to your inner critic for years without ever acknowledging it. When you feel anxiety rising, try to pause and center yourself. Reflect on what’s causing the anxiety, and see if you can hear any negative thoughts running through your head.
The more you practice it, the more you’ll be able to recognize your inner critic’s voice. Once you do that, you can begin counteracting it.
Let’s say for example you are feeling anxious about visiting your partner’s family for the holidays. That scenario is anxiety-inducing enough, but pause and think about what’s making you anxious. You might be thinking things like:
“Their parents are going to hate me.”
“I am going to look stupid in this outfit.”
“I won’t know what to say when they ask me…”
If you hear these kinds of thoughts, you’re listening to your inner critic telling you that you aren’t likeable, good looking, or skilled at conversation. Try to counteract that voice. You can even try talking out loud to the voice by saying something like, “Actually, last time I met their parents, I had them both laughing at my jokes pretty easily,” or “I bought this outfit because I like the way it looks on me, and that should be good enough.”
This won’t silence your inner critic altogether, but it will get you in the habit of recognizing and pushing back against it. Over time, you will wear out your inner critic, and they’ll stop sending you so many pesky, anxiety-inducing thoughts.
3. Maintain a sense of self
This tip is particularly for those who are dealing with romantic relationship anxiety. Often, when we have an exciting new relationship, it’s easy to get caught up in that other person. While it’s a good thing to feel excited about your partner, this can go too far and cause you to lose a sense of yourself.
In turn, your world will become more and more dependent on the person you are in a relationship with. This means that any minor hiccups in the relationship will cause you major stress, and if something happens to end the relationship, you will walk away feeling wounded and perhaps mistrustful of future relationships.
Instead, it’s important to maintain a sense of self. If you find yourself giving up your hobbies, friendships, or goals/dreams for someone else, it’s time to take a step back from the relationship and regain some of what you’ve put aside.
Of course, you may find new interests and friendships when you have a new relationship in your life. But you should avoid allowing these new experiences to replace what you enjoyed before you met this person.
If you can manage that, then you won’t feel as anxious, because your life will be bigger and more fulfilling than just the relationship you’re in. In other words, you won’t feel as much pressure to make sure your relationship is perfect. Less pressure means less anxiety.
4. Set up boundaries with toxic people in your life
Above, I mentioned that there may be people in your life who unduly make your anxiety worse. Allowing these people to have such influence over your emotions will exacerbate the problem, so it’s best to find a way to deal with them.
First, you need to figure out who might be causing you unnecessary anxiety. Start thinking about times when you’ve felt anxious—can you identify anything someone said or did that made you feel that way? For example, maybe you were feeling anxiety about a presentation you had to give at work in front of your colleagues. One of your colleagues mentioned to you, “I hope you do better this time than last time!”
While it might sound like this colleague is wishing you well, this is a backhanded compliment that can cause stress—they are reminding you that last time, you didn’t perform well (at least by their standards).
Toxic people can also be more overt. You may have a family member who consistently tears you down, or your romantic partner may go out of their way to make you feel jealous, for example.
Reflect on whether these comments and actions cause you anxiety because of your own inner critic’s interpretations, or if it’s really what they said or did. Look for patterns—are there people who consistently seem to be part of the picture when you’re feeling anxious?
Once you identify who the toxic people are in your life, there are two ways to deal with it. The first is to confront it by talking to the person who is causing the issue. This can be challenging, but your best bet is to think carefully about what you want to say and approach the conversation as calmly as possible. Don’t throw blame around, as this can make people defensive; instead, focus on explaining to the person how their words or actions make you feel. Hopefully, they will hear your perspective and change their ways.
If not, the next best thing to do is put up some boundaries. This may mean you cut a toxic friend out of your life altogether, or end a relationship that is rooted in toxicity. If you aren’t able or ready to cut this person out altogether, then setting up softer boundaries can work. For example, you may choose to only hang out with a particular friend in groups, because one-on-one they say things that are hurtful and cause you anxiety.
5. Work on being vulnerable
Emotional vulnerability isn’t easy for most humans. Allowing vulnerability means showing your emotions, acknowledging your shortcomings, and letting others know what’s troubling you.
Our natural tendency may be to cover these things up, because vulnerability opens us up to what could be painful experiences, like being bullied or taken advantage of.
But on the flip side, hiding our emotions and worries to protect ourselves is impossible. Bottling up your feelings will cause anxiety, because you are working hard to conceal your true self from those you love and care about.
Alternatively, you can work on being comfortable with your vulnerability. This starts with practice—opening yourself up to someone you trust. This could be a family member or close friend, or you might want to do this with a mental health counselor.
Either way, once you learn that there are ways to show your vulnerable side without being hurt in return, you might discover that many of the things you consider to be weaknesses are actually just insecurities that aren’t worth worrying about. In other words, allowing yourself to be vulnerable is a great way to fight back against your inner critic.
6. Communicate what’s on your mind
This goes hand in hand with being vulnerable, but you can also tackle your relationship anxiety by improving your communication skills.
Often, relationship anxiety happens in the echo chamber of our own mind. If your anxiety is rooted in insecurities, then you are probably left alone with those worries most of the time.
Finding ways to express these insecurities with others can help you overcome them. For example, let’s say you find yourself getting jealous because your partner has started hanging out with a group of friends you don’t know well.
Sitting at home worrying about this, without saying anything to your partner, is a recipe for disaster. Your anxiety will continue to grow, and your partner will have no idea that their behaviour (even if totally innocent) is causing you to worry.
Consider this: Rather than hiding them, what if you tried expressing your anxieties to your partner in a calm, mature way. For example, you may say to them, “I’m happy you have new friends, but I’ll admit, I get a little anxious when you’re hanging out with them. I think it’s because I don’t know them well.”
Phrasing it like this acknowledges your own feelings without making your partner out to be the bad one in the relationship. They won’t feel attacked, and instead will likely offer you reasons to not worry—they may tell you more about the people they’re hanging out with, agree to check in with you via texts or a phone call, or invite you on the next get-together.
A word of warning: Communicating your feelings is good, but it’s different than seeking constant validation from your partner. In the above scenario, you could take a very different approach. You might say, “Do you think I’m as good looking as your new friends?” or “You’re not going to leave me for someone in your new group, are you?”
These kinds of communication are not effective, because they don’t address the root of the problem directly—your own insecurity. Instead, you are fishing for compliments or putting undue stress on your partner as a way to manage your own anxiety. Spoiler alert: Even if your partner says exactly the right thing, it’s highly unlikely that this form of communication will lead to a happy, lasting relationship.
7. Take a break from relationships as needed
If you’ve read through the above methods, you know that tackling your relationship anxiety isn’t going to be a walk in the park. It takes hard work that can cause discomfort, though ultimately the result will be worth it if you stick with it.
That being said, sometimes dealing with large issues like insecurities and anxieties is easier to do when you aren’t also trying to keep relationships afloat—particularly romantic relationships.
If being in a partnership leaves you feeling anxious, drained, and stressed, the easiest thing to do for your mental health may be to take a break from dating. This will give you the time and space you need to focus on the core issues causing the anxiety in the first place.
How long this break lasts is up to you—you may need a few months, or you might find that you enjoy being single and keep at it for years. Either way, if and when you return to the world of romance, you’ll have taken the time to manage your relationship anxiety. This means that the relationships in your future will be stronger, more fulfilling, and hopefully, anxiety free.
Anxiety is part of life, but it doesn’t have to rule your world. By improving your self-esteem and focusing on building positive relationships, your relationship anxiety can become a thing of the past.