As one year ends and another begins, people start thinking about what they want to change in their lives. Last year, Paula was one of those people.
She came to me with a common problem. She loved the idea of being in a relationship, but she hated the process of dating. (If you're in a relationship, keep reading; this pertains to you, too).
She complained that the anxiety of dating was too stressful, and if she was meant to have a relationship, she would simply meet Mr. Right. The problem? She never did.
Why dating is stressful:
Anxiety associated with dating is normal and natural. The hope, after all, is that you'll fall in love, right? When that happens, parts of your brain will shut down. This includes the amygdala—the part of the brain that causes the anxiety.
Your amygdala is like a watchman; it scans the environment looking for threats, and when it finds one, it sounds an alarm—you feel it as anxiety. To make sure you don't fall in love with the wrong person, your brain works overtime on vetting; this creates the anxiety that comes with dating.
As you become more vulnerable during the dating process, the alarm (your anxiety) increases. But here is the important part: When you finally fall in love, the amygdala disconnects for a while, and that anxiety disappears. This is great when you fall in love with the right person but can be calamitous if you've chosen the wrong one. Without a functioning amygdala, you don't notice how incompatible you are, and you feel like everything is fine. But when your amygdala comes back online a few years later, you begin to see problems, and this can cause major stress in a long-term relationship.
How to keep anxiety from ruining your (dating) life:
There are two techniques that can help reduce both the stress you experience during the dating process and the stress that starts after you've been coupled up for a while: mindfulness and meditation.
Mindfulness is simply the practice of being fully present in the moment. For example, as you read this, become aware of your environment. When you are fully present, worry and concern slip away. There's no room for them anymore.
Meditation is essentially the practice of quieting your mind. When you meditate, you still have thoughts, but you learn to allow them to pass—you begin to control when and how those thoughts affect you. You're able to set them aside in order to successfully live your life. Meditation can take many forms, but whichever practice you choose, incorporating it can dramatically improve your love life.
Studies at the University of Pittsburgh found that mindfulness and meditation actually shrink the amygdala. As the amygdala gets smaller, anxiety decreases. Meanwhile, the area of the brain associated with inhibitory control of action grows. In other words, you feel less stress and more self-control and self-restraint.
How this applies to the longterm relationship:
After a couple of years in a relationship, the location of neural activity changes. There's more activity in the prefrontal cortex occupying neurological space with other types of love and virtues, like compassion and empathy. But stress has the power to sever those newly formed connections and can cause you to be more defensive and potentially less loving.
That's another way meditation can really make a difference, reducing the destructive effects of stress. Someone who meditates will be less likely to take things personally, more likely to be secure and forgiving, and more able to be present and loving in the relationship than their non-meditating counterpart. This can dramatically improve a couple's chances of making a long-term relationship work.
At my suggestion, Paula started meditating before she tried dating again. She said the difference was dramatic. She found herself relaxing and finally beginning to enjoy dates. After several dates with different men, she eventually settled on one guy. They've been together for several months, and she's looking forward to bringing in the New Year with him.
She admits that she probably wouldn't be with him without the meditation. She was tempted to stop seeing him after the first date because he wasn't exactly what she was looking for. But then she decided she didn't need to make an immediate judgment. After a few more dates, she realized she really liked him.
As you envision what you want for yourself this year, I hope you'll consider incorporating meditation and mindfulness. Whether you're in a long-term relationship, just started seeing someone, or you're newly single, these practices will inevitably help you enjoy the journey even more.