What to do if your brain goes blank when you're dating

'Say something for god’s sake! Say something!’'

I was in bits. For the last 48 hours, the voice in my head had been making me miserable, attacking me for not knowing what to say and scrutinising every word that came out of my mouth.

‘What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you speak? What must he think of you?’

The guy sitting opposite me was supposed to be my boyfriend, but right now he felt like a stranger. The silence between us was deafening, and had been for the last two days.

I stared out the window, blinking back tears, watching the trees whizz past as the train moved its way from Central Berlin toward the airport.

Tumbleweed on our first mini-break

We’d been dating for three months when he suggested going on our first mini-break. I never expected it would turn out like this. The agonising, tumbleweed silence. The dinners where we barely spoke. The tension and anxiety in my body. Secretly crying myself to sleep at night.

The day we arrived had been fine. Everything was new and exciting. We navigated through the city. Found our super cute apartment. Drank cocktails at a hipster bar.

But something happened the next day. For whatever reason, I started feeling awkward and self conscious. I began wondering what he was thinking of me. And my mind started a running commentary on every word that came out of my mouth.  Have you ever had an experience like that?

The more I noticed the silences, the longer they got. The more I tried to think of something to say, the more my brain went blank. The more I beat myself up, the worse it became.

Over that weekend we went from landmark to landmark, pub to restaurant. I was grateful for anyone who talked - the tour guide, a waiter, a passing stranger. Anything to break the silence.

I was silent on the outside, but on the inside my mind was screaming at me. Calling me every name under the sun. Willing me to speak. But I couldn’t.

Now here we were. Finally on the train. Finally going home. And the voice in my head was still going. ‘What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you speak? SAY SOMETHING!’

Finally I cracked

The barrage of self criticism over two days had been so intense. It’d used up so much energy. I was exhausted. I couldn’t take it a moment longer. Finally, I cracked. And new thought popped into my head.

’If you never say one single word to him again in your whole life, that’s OK.’  it said. ‘You have permission. You never have to speak to him again.’

It was a radical thought. Really? Never?

‘You never have to speak to him again.’

Wow.  The relief of that thought was incredible. As I held it gently in my mind I felt my body start to relax. I settled back into the seat and exhaled. Sitting in silence, I watched the trees as they whizzed past. A sense of peace descended on me.

And then the strangest thing happened.

After about 10 minutes, thoughts started popping into my head. As they did, they started coming out of my mouth easily and freely. I started babbling, asking silly questions, making conversation. The silence had been broken. I came back to myself. And the torture of the weekend was over.

brain with amygdala highlighted

Brain chemistry at work

What I didn’t realise at the time was that there were biological reasons behind my brain shutting down. In actual fact, I was in the middle of an amygdala hijack.

The amygdala is the oldest part of our brain, it’s been with us since caveman times and is responsible for keeping us safe. Back then if you saw a sabre toothed tiger in the bushes, the amygdala would immediately go into fight or flight mode, redirecting the energy to the parts of your body required for running or fighting (such as the muscles, heart or lungs.)

Energy to non-essential areas would be shut down. This includes the pre-frontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for logical and rational thinking and decision making (and for making conversation.)

The problem is the amygdala can’t tell the difference between a threat from a sabre toothed tiger or a threat from social rejection or judgement. It reacts in the same way.

So any situation that induces anxiety can cause your pre-frontal cortex to shut down. If you’ve ever gone blank during an exam or when you’re asked to speak in a meeting you’ll know what I mean.

woman holding cup of coffee

Managing anxiety when dating

It’s normal to experience some anxiety when going on a date. ‘Will he like me? Will we have enough to talk about? Will it be awkward?’   If you have the added worry of your mind going blank, it can be scary.

The first thing to do if you find yourself in the middle of an amygdala hijack on a date, is to recognise objectively what’s going on in the body. When you do this, you understand that there’s nothing wrong with you, it’s simply a biological response. That in itself is a calming thought.

When you realise what’s happening, you can take steps to calm your amygdala down and bring the pre-frontal cortex back online. One of the best ways to do this is deep diaphragmatic breathing.

two images of the body, one showing the in breath and the diaphragm movement, and the other showing the outbreath

How deep breathing helps

The diaphragm is a sheet of muscle that sits underneath the lungs. When you do deep diaphragmatic breathing, the muscle expands downwards and pushes the belly out. Most people take shallow breaths in and out through the chest (so the stomach and diaphragm hardly move.)

When you breathe deeply in and out, extending your diaphragm downwards, it hits the vagus nerve which activates relaxation. It’s like pressing a button that puts you into rest and digest mode and brings the prefrontal cortex back online, as there’s enough blood flow for it to do its job.

Try it out

To try deep breathing from your diaphragm, simply place one hand on the belly and take a deep breath in, seeing how far you can push your belly out. Then exhale. And repeat.

As you consistently hit the vagus nerve, your body and mind will begin to relax, and your brain will start to unfreeze. Try it for as little as five minutes and see the difference it makes.

So if you find yourself on a date feeling nervous, simply go to the toilets and do some deep breathing. Your pre-frontal cortex will come back online and you’ll calm your nerves so you can have the conversations that you’d like.

For more information on how to do deep diaphragmatic breathing, check out this article

And if you’re having trouble meeting people that are right for you, click here to do the Breakthrough to Love Quiz and figure out what could be getting in the way.


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