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How do you know if it’s anxiety or love?

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Today, my anxiety is raging. But so is my love. I woke up at 3.30am (!!) with all the telltale signs of a heinous UTI, on the day that I am coincidentally moving house. The last time I had one was in 2020, mid-lockdown, when my girlfriend kindly drove me to our local emergency department out of sheer desperation for immediate antibiotics.

Fast-forward to the black of very early this morning, and I felt the exact same sting, discomfort and sheer anguish. But this time I was lying beside my partner of five-ish months. I remember how unsupportive the person I was seeing in 2020 had been when I had my little emergency department moment of hysteria, and couldn’t help but think back to that gruesome semi-relationship when I drove to the hospital this morning.


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Back then, I recall thinking to myself ‘This is your fault!’, because we all know sex can bring on UTIs. But I also remember wondering my the person I was seeing didn’t care about me being upset.

Today, I thought, ‘Wow, how things stay the same, but also how they change’. It seems like a weird context to have a revelation in, but I thought about how different of a romantic situation I am in now versus then. My anxiety this morning was there for good reason, but my very calm and reassuring partner was there to console me.

There’s no comparison between how I feel now and how I felt a couple of years ago. Back then, I was so infatuated and I was very confused about what love is. Actually, I even got infatuation confused with anxiety. I think the dating situations I’ve been in during my early twenties are experiences shared by so many of you reading Fashion Journal, and of course many friends.

We’ve always been told to listen to that ‘butterflies in the tummy’ feeling of giddiness, but this has since been pointed out as a warning sign to me by a friend studying psychology. When we’re overly high-strung, nervous, impatiently awaiting replies or for plans to be solidified, and then feel a rush of relief after they put the bare minimum in, those aren’t butterflies.

That’s your stomach tying itself in knots and your brain running a million miles an hour because your dependence on them to do better sends your body into physical turmoil. It’s a bit of a fight or flight response, with our head whispering ‘proceed with caution’ and our heart saying ‘go full steam ahead’.

We often don’t realise why our body is having a visceral reaction and just assume it must be because we really like them and can’t lose them. Kind of like thinking you just need to wee again for the fifth time in an hour, but it’s actually your urethra’s way of alerting you that you have a UTI. Kind of like that.

The thing is, love – or feelings masquerading as love – can be really addictive, especially when someone gives you little bites of it, but leaves you feeling predominantly unwanted for the majority of the time. Dopamine seeps out, and you ride the high on a once-a-week date night until you’re reeling from a lack of interaction or communication and you need another hit.

I don’t think that’s two people fully committing to one another or amplifying the greatness of each other’s lives. If it doesn’t bring you ease and joy, it’s likely not a romantic endeavour worth pursuing. That’s my new bottom line.

Of course, anxiety and love can coexist sometimes. Like, you may be really worked up about putting a label on your relationship, or meeting their parents for the first time, or waiting for the whole ‘I love you’ thing. But I think it’s safe to say that we should be feeling good and chilled-out and loved-up for the most part.

I’ve put a little list together of the anxiety red flags and the love green flags, speaking purely from my own findings over the last few laps around the dating circuit. If you’re grappling with a confusing, quasi-relationship or feel up-and-down with a current partner, hopefully, a run through these checklists will prompt some reflection.

How to know if it’s anxiety

  • You feel excessively needy, when you’re just wanting reciprocal care and consideration
  • You’re clinging on and white-knuckling it to keep them around, but don’t feel they’d be too shattered to let you go
  • Physically, you’re experiencing seesawing highs and lows – one Friday night drinks might’ve been fantastic fun, but it’s Sunday afternoon now and the scaries are hitting harder than usual
  • You over-analyse text threads or messages with them, trying to decode certain conversations like they’re ciphers
  • You are constantly seeking support and advice from friends or your networks
  • Nothing you do feels good enough to impress them
  • You’re giving a lot more than you get back
  • You make endless excuses for subpar behaviour because the thought of losing them and what you’ve put in to get this far feels really scary
  • You refuse to confront them about any feelings of unease out of that underlying fear of them walking away

How to know if it’s love

  • You feel calm and cared for in their presence, whether it’s out for a date night or cooking dinner for an evening on the couch
  • Meeting their friends for the first time feels inclusive and enjoyable, even if you’re not besties with a new crowd straight away. That person is ensuring you’re having a great time regardless
  • When you bring up an issue or something to resolve (even really early on), they actively listen and try to understand your point of view
  • You can message or call them whenever you like (of course when appropriate), and never feel like ‘too much’
  • You notice they do little things to express their feelings about you. Typically, it’s these actions that cliche-ly speak louder than any lofty words
  • Of course, you’ll occasionally need to run by internal disagreements or discrepancies with friends, but these are few and far between in the grand scheme of things

Genevieve Phelan is Fashion Journal’s Lifestyle & Careers Columnist. Her writing fuses introspection with investigation, calling on her own personal anecdotes and the advice of admired experts in the realms of intimacy, money, friendship, careers and love. You can find her here and here.

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