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Dating Advice #124 - Engagement Panic

May 9, 2009 | by Rosie Einhorn, L.C.S.W. and Sherry Zimmerman, J.D., M.Sc.

She's engaged and enduring daily anxiety attacks. Is there a way to get to the chuppah without totally losing her mind?

Dear Rosie & Sherry,

I recently became engaged to a terrific guy. The last few weeks of dating were pure torture, I so much wanted to get engaged to him. So we went to meet my family, then his family. Then he proposed and I said yes!

Within three days of getting engaged, I found myself having major panic attacks. It's fairly consistent -- a few times a day.

I think my fiance is an amazing man. Indeed, I can actually say that I do love him. I've read your book, "In the Beginning," and can check the list off with no problem. Indeed, the only time I am not panicking is when I am with him.

I don't know what is wrong with me. I have spent the last six years dating with the singular goal of getting married, and now that it's here I find I am terribly afraid of getting married. My friends (married) all say this is normal, but I have the feeling most people freak out once or twice, not twice every day!

Let me add two important facts: I had a broken engagement around two years ago. Most people have forgotten, but it definitely scarred me. Also, my father died last year, and my fiance and I are making this wedding on our own (financially).

We have scheduled our engagement party and I haven't publicized it to my friends yet, because I keep having this ugly premonition that we won't make it that far.

I want to marry this man, but the next few months until the wedding will be torture if these panic attacks keep happening every day.

Any thoughts or advice is most appreciated.


Dear Rachel,

First and foremost, Mazel Tov on your engagement! Your fiance sounds wonderful, and from what you write it appears that he is the right person for you to spend your life with.

We are glad that you wrote for help with your anxiety, and we hope our suggestions will help you manage it until the wedding. In our experience, these panic attacks will not completely disappear until you are married -- but once you arrive at that point, you won't believe how calm you will be!

You should think of these high levels of anxiety like a bad case of the flu: You feel awful while you are sick, but you know that once the illness runs its course you're back to normal.

A flu sufferer can do a number of things to minimize the symptoms and discomfort, just as you can adopt a number of strategies to help minimize your frequency and degree of anxiety. Before we get to that, however, we'd like you to adopt a "mantra" to repeat to yourself over the course of your engagement. That shouldn't be hard to do, since you already realize that you've got a great guy, and you are insightful enough to understand that your anxiety is completely unrelated to what the two of you have together.

In fact, your insight has helped you realize that your prior broken engagement and your father's recent death play a big role in the discomfort you are now feeling. In all likelihood, the fact that you have mixed feelings about getting married in his absence is the biggest factor here. Yes, the financial pressures play a big role, too. You need to keep this in mind, and reassure yourself. Here's the mantra:

"I know these feelings will pass once our wedding takes place. I also know that my fiance and I are right for each other and will have a great life together."

(By the way, you are definitely not the only person who has several panic attacks a day. We've seen this phenomenon in a number of people who, like you, were engaged to very well-suited people and were anxious because of issues that were not at all related to the quality of their courtship. We are pleased to report that each of them was fine immediately after the wedding ceremony, and is now very happily married.)

Now let's talk about alleviating some of your anxiety. If you haven't found one or two close, married friends or relatives to serve as your hand-holder/sounding board/cheering section, please do so now. (If you are afraid they won't understand what you are experiencing, ask them to read this letter.) Simply having an understanding friend who will allow you to vent, and who will reassure you that everything will be fine, will help you a great deal.

We also strongly recommend that you begin a daily exercise program and follow it every day, or at a minimum five times a week. It will be easier if you make it part of your routine -- aim for a half-hour each day. You can do different activities each day -- brisk walking to music a few times a week, an aerobics tape a couple more, swimming, Israeli dancing (good practice for your wedding), or another sport. Exercise releases endorphins, and they help elevate mood and relieve anxiety. This alone will help minimize the severity of the symptoms you feel.

Another important suggestion is that you need to follow a daily schedule. When you are feeling anxious or stressed, it is very helpful to have a set routine for work, recreation, spiritual matters, and wedding preparations. If you are the type of person who feels calmer if you have a schedule to follow, then make a weekly schedule of the things you need to do to prepare for your wedding, and check off finished tasks as you go.

And speaking of wedding preparations, we have two must-dos that will probably seem like life-savers to you after the fact. The first is to make your engagement period as short as possible. The longer your engagement, the longer your "flu symptoms" will last. Think of a short engagement as the medication Tami-Flu. It will shorten the period of your anxiety.

The next must-do is to delegate the wedding preparations (as much as possible) to friends and family, including your fiance and his family. Cut some corners in the interest of sanity -- for example, have a friend set up a mail merge for your wedding guest list and ask her to print up the envelopes on your computer, instead of doing them by hand. Ask other people to help with things like centerpieces, keeping track of who is coming, getting recommendations for wedding halls, photographers and music, choosing a menu, etc.

Also, instead of worrying about having an apartment perfectly set up before the wedding, just focus on getting a few basics taken care of now. After your wedding, you and your husband can enjoy shopping for furniture and accessories for your home together, and you will feel a lot less pressured because you won't need to have everything in place by a specific date.

All of this advice will definitely help you make your engagement more survivable. Just remember the mantra: "After the engagement period is over, me and my fiance will have a wonderful life to look forward to."

Now go call your friends and invite them to your engagement party!

Best wishes for a great future,

Rosie & Sherry

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