I have massive phone anxiety.
I feel a bit silly saying that, since using a telephone seems like the simplest task possible. But thanks to my brain cranking my anxiety up to 11, a phone call can be pretty daunting. I’ve tried to encourage people in my life not to randomly call me, but most quickly go back to their own telephone habits and my phone is ringing soon enough. They think I’m just part of a younger generation who prefers texting and email, and a little phone call won’t hurt. Part of the problem is this particular anxiety makes me feel fairly pathetic due to how simple and universal the task is, so I’ve never wanted to explain precisely why I’d prefer texts or emails. But I’m trying to be more open about mental illness, including anxiety, so I want to explain exactly why I hate the phone so much.
What my anxiety boils down to is basically this: Social situations terrify me because I’m certain I’ll be rejected or mocked for saying something embarrassing or foolish. I’m overly concerned with how others judge me (thanks childhood bullies and overly demanding adults!). Phone calls are a particular source of anxiety for a couple of reasons:
- I have a difficult time understanding what someone is saying from their voice alone (which is the same reason why I tend to hate podcasts). I think it’s partially not having the greatest hearing, and partially relying on some lip reading to fully understand people. Add the usual static and terrible reception of my cellphone, and I feel like an idiot. I feel like a burden asking people to constantly repeat themselves, and like a fool when I reply with a non sequitur because I thought someone said something totally different.
- I prefer written communication because it gives me time to think about what I want to say, and to digest what others are saying. A phone call has the pressure of instantly responding to what you just heard. I can never fully understand and process what I’m hearing, and I’m never eloquent about what I’m saying. It makes me feel ignorant and like I’m bumbling through a conversation. The anxiety is even worse when I’m talking to someone who knows I’m a writer, because all I can do is wonder if they’re thinking “This person is actually a dumbass, maybe they’re a fraud.”
- When the option of writing is taken away from me, I will try to imagine the conversation ahead of time, scripting out all the potential things that may be said. This is a neurotic waste of energy, since I can rarely predict what will actually be said and will just feel anxious anyway. The only reason I can order take out is because I mentally practice “I would like the carne asada tacos” a dozen times before dialing the number. Most conversations are not so simple. And even with the simple ones, an unexpected “flour or corn tortillas” is enough to fluster me for a moment, and then I’ll hang up stewing over how stupid I sounded stumbling over a simple question.
- Most people prefer phone calls to discuss more detailed, difficult, or involved topics, but to me that is the very worst time to use the phone. Everything I said about preferring writing is multiplied here: I need time to process and think. I also find it extremely irritating to use for organizational stuff, since then you’re left with no written record of what everyone said and it’s easy for details to fall by the wayside. Board meetings with the SSA were especially stressful for me. A dozen or more voices speaking at the same time is like phone hell, as is the need to vote on stuff that you’ve only had a half hour of phone debate to think about. But the absolute worst situation is when someone wants to call me to aggressively discuss something we disagree about (I’m sure you can imagine how often that happens to this blogger). Putting a hostile situation over my baseline anxiety has literally given me panic attacks and will leave me feeling miserable all day as I wait for the angry call. I don’t feel like I can articulate my views well in a quick, verbal argument, which leaves me feeling totally unable to defend myself.
- As an anxious introvert (no, that’s not redundant) I usually have to psyche myself up for any sort of social interaction. From going out to dinner with friends to giving a talk where I know I’ll be expected to mingle afterward, it takes mental preparation for me not to totally stress out or feel immediately drained. Getting an unexpected phone call is like someone saying “Drop whatever you’re doing – you must interact with me right now.” I don’t know what that person is about to talk about, and that lack of preparation makes me panic, not answer the phone, and then wait for a voice mail to see what they wanted to talk about. That voice mail has four main options:
1. Specific message about what they wanted to talk about. Now that I’m prepared for the discussion I’m about to have and I can think ahead about some of the things I will probably say, I call back fairly quickly.
2. Vague message saying to call them back. It may take me days or a week to psyche myself up enough to call back, or I may forget to do it before I gather the mental energy.
3. Vague message saying they’ll call me back. I stare at my phone in terror every time they call and wish they would just leave a goddamn message.
4. No message. I obsessively wonder why they called in the first place if it wasn’t worth leaving a message, and wonder what I have yet again missed out on because of my stupid irrational anxiety.
- And that’s all talking about phone calls from people I actually know. Unknown number? Yeah, I’m never answering those.
Now, I do think there are times where a phone call is way more useful than a text or email. Emergencies are obvious exceptions. It’s also way more convenient to call someone when you’re trying to meet them or find them somewhere, but those situations don’t trigger my anxiety because I’m prepared for the brief calls in that context. Surprisingly, I’m slightly less anxious doing interviews, mainly because I know the topic beforehand and the questions are either known to me or highly predictable. At this point I have canned responses for most questions, so there’s no fear in thinking up something on the spot.
I wanted to write about this because I want people to better understand where I’m coming from. This anxiety does interfere with certain aspects of my life, and it’s extra frustrating when alternative tools (text, email) are super common but some people refuse to use them. Ironically, this anxiety is the reason why it took me so long to find a therapist. Most therapists require you to call them as the very first step, which felt like an unconquerable step. The only reason I was able to meet with my current therapist was because he allowed email inquiries. Phone anxiety was also one of the reasons I stepped down from the SSA board: they had a new requirement that all board members would have to call a certain number of donors, and I just couldn’t do it. The board meetings were hard enough. Calling strangers and asking them for money? Even thinking about it made me feel like puking.
I fear that I often come off as unreliable when I’m ignoring or putting off phone calls, but in reality I’m fearful or trying to psyche myself up. I’m worried that my friends think I’m avoidant or just don’t like them when the truth is it’s the phone call I’m scared of. I feel annoying constantly asking for the conversation to be switched to text or email. I wonder how weird people think I am when I reply with a text to a missed call. And then there’s a whole layer of meta-anxiety where I feel bad that I have this problem at all, even though I know I shouldn’t be ashamed of symptoms of mental illness and that I’m probably not the only one with this problem.
I hope writing this will encourage my friends to stop calling my texting device by helping them understand where I’m coming from. And I suspect this will resonate with some of my readers who also deal with anxiety. If you relate, I hope you’ll share your stories in the comments so people can better understand living with anxiety.