After a long day of kid texts, work Slacks, personal and professional e-mails, assorted DMs on social media and the usual face-to-face interactions, I finally get home, grab a snack and plop down on the couch for a quiet minute of relaxation. The dog puts his fuzzy head on my lap, and I settle in to read an article on my phone that I’ve been looking forward to all day. Ahh.

Suddenly my ringtone goes off and I am so startled I almost drop the phone. I stab the red “decline” button over and over until there’s silence.

All at once, I feel violated, as if a SWAT team just burst in while I was doing yoga in my undies. I’m also angry, with a little bit of sandwich-generation panic mixed in: Surely no one would be so rude as to just, like, use the PHONE to make a PHONE CALL without texting me first (who does that?!), so it must be an emergency! I quickly swipe to make sure it wasn’t a hospital calling to say one of my elderly parents had fallen. But there’s no voicemail, which means it must have been a scammer or a spammer. Grrr.

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Why do I hate talking on the phone?

It wasn’t always this way. Not that long ago, the phone was my lifeline, a regular source of happy social or remunerative interaction. I remember sitting on my family’s curly-corded landline doing the “You hang up first!” “No, you!” dance with boyfriends late into the night, yammering with friends. Even just a few years ago, when mobile companies still charged for individual texts and IM-type apps weren’t in wide use, I'd get frustrated when I missed a call. At minimum, a phone call was an efficient way to get stuff done. Now I feel as though everyone wants a piece of me around the clock, and the phone feels like just another demand on my time (because it is).

The urge to avoid the phone is partly about our brain’s instinct to protect us.

I’m not the only one who feels this way. Especially now that the pandemic has made us even more reliant on our personal devices and we're subjected to endless Zoom calls for work, “our expectations are different and the phone becomes more of burden,” says Amber Petrozziello, LMHC, a therapist at Empower Your Mind Therapy in New York City. “That’s personally been my experience — it speaks to the kind of interruption in your day, and the un-planned-ness of it all creates so much anxiety.” Hitting the green button would mean dropping whatever you’re doing or thinking about, then expending the emotional labor to shift gears to be a cogent, public-facing person. Rejecting the call is just easier. “It becomes a habit really quickly,” she says.

The urge to avoid the phone (or anything potentially unpleasant, really) is partly about our brain’s instinct to protect us. "Any type of uncomfortable feeling or anxiety is seen a threat to be avoided," she adds. "Answering would mean slowing down and rallying to deal with whatever it is, and you’re like, nope, that’s uncomfortable, and hitting ‘cancel’ is much easier." Once you do that, you feel relieved — the anxiety is gone, along with the call.

But the problem is, that only sets you up for more phone anxiety. “That’s how anxiety cycles start — you feel like 'Good my anxiety is gone!' That teaches your brain really quickly to continue in that pattern,” says Petrozziello.

Is phone avoidance a sign of social anxiety disorder?

Maybe, but there are a ton of other reasons you might not want to pick up the phone. A Pew Research poll from 2020 found that more than 80% of American adults don't answer calls from numbers they don’t recognize, which might have more to do with not wanting to deal with campaign robocalls, nefarious randos trying steal your passwords, work calls after hours, or the like.

There’s also the fact that there are so many less demanding ways to get in touch with people: email, Slack and texting are asynchronous, and so allow the receiver to pause, think about a reply, or do so at a more convenient time. That could be why the cold call has come to feel downright obnoxious (“You need to talk to me NOW!”).

Personally, I love chatting with people in person, even strangers, and can easily do long, planned catch-up calls with friends. But I am anxious in general, and given all the options for communicating, when my phone rings, my mind jumps right to “What’s the emergency?” After 18 months in a pandemic when a call might very well — and sometimes did — indicate bad news, a ringtone (even the soothing Jack Johnson tune I use for mine) juices my instinct to catastrophize to level 11. If it’s the kind of “are you sitting down?” news someone needs to relay verbally, I really don’t want to be smacked in the face with it. I want to be prepared.

But for many, experts say there may be a smidge of social anxiety disorder (SAD) at play as well. Fear of calling or answering calls is often a feature of the disorder, which is an intense fear of being judged negatively or rejected in a social situation, says Franklin Schneier, M.D., co-director of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at Columbia University and Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

yellow telephone

Lek in a BIG WORLD

How common is phone anxiety?

While some 15 million American adults have social anxiety disorder, according to the American Anxiety & Depression Association, there’s not a lot of data on phone-o-phobia specifically. A 2019 survey in the United Kingdom of 500 office workers (conducted by a business providing call answering services, so take it for what it is worth) found that 76% of Millennials and 40% of Boomers have anxious thoughts when their phone rings. (As per usual, nobody asked us GenXers, but I’m guessing we are somewhere in the middle.) And many respondents reported avoiding the calls altogether; their concerns, according to the survey, include a fear of not being able to give the caller what they need, worry about sounding weird, that they’ll be misunderstood, or that the caller will think poorly of them.

Being able to pick up the phone is not a skill you want to lose.

These fears are the same ones folks with social anxiety disorder have. “Common things that people who have SAD experience are fear that they’ll say something stupid, that they won’t express selves clearly, that people will think badly of them, that they’ll stumble over their words or will show signs of anxiety,” says Dr. Schneier. “They have a fear that they’ll say something inappropriate or that their voice will be shaky, and the other person will think that there’s something terribly wrong with them.” Like all anxiety disorders, the way SAD looks in any given person falls on a spectrum, he says, ranging from mild to severe.

And there are other conditions that might cause you to avoid the phone, such as depression. “When you’re depressed you feel like you may not have a lot to offer, or that you don’t have the energy to speak,” says Dr. Schneier. People with agoraphobia, or a fear of crowds, might also not want to interact, and that may include on the phone, and people with generalized anxiety disorder might also worry about what could happen on a call too, says Petrozziello.

Whatever the reason, phone avoiders might want to be careful that they don’t dodge the phone to the extent that they can't pick up a phone when they really need to. “We know that if you have some fear of something and you start avoiding it, the fear gets bigger,” says Dr. Schneier. And since there are times when using the phone is critical — synchronous conversations can be way more efficient in conveying information, and being able to hear someone’s verbal cues or inflections is a more intimate way of connecting, he adds — it’s not a skill you want to lose.

Is my aversion to phone calls a problem?

Below are some signs that your hatred of the talking on the phone is or might become problematic, according to Petrozziello.

  • You miss opportunities to make money, or lose out on social or romantic connections because you can’t deal with the phone.
  • You leave consequential things (like fixing a leaky dishwasher) undone because the plumber hasn’t responded to your email and you don’t want to call.
  • You tell people you’ll call them, but don’t.
  • You let calls go to voicemail, telling yourself you’ll call the person back, but don’t.
  • Not speaking to others on the phone contributes to feeling lonely and disconnected.
  • Avoiding the phone is a response to fear, instead of a way to protect your personal boundaries and take care of yourself.

    How to get over phone avoidance

    The usual treatment for SAD is therapy (and possibly medication), specifically Cognitive Behavior Therapy with a gradual exposure to being social. Through taking small steps and practicing, says Petrozziello, you begin to build confidence and to challenge the idea that your fears are facts. But even if your phone anxiety is mild and you don’t need therapy, here are some tips for becoming phone friendly again.

    ? Check in with your body. When the phone rings, pay attention to what your body is doing, says Petrozziello. “I think that a big piece working through the anxiety is tolerating that distress in the moment,” she says. Note to yourself what is going on, i.e., you're having trouble breathing right now, your stomach is tightening up. “When people jump into anxiety, they start breathing from the neck and chest, which signals to the brain that there’s an emergency,” says Petrozziello. Then consciously start breathing slowly from your stomach, which will calm you down.

    ? Ask yourself why you’re avoiding the call. You might find you’re tired, hungry or in a groove on another project — or you might feel distinct fear. The difference is important in knowing if anxiety is an issue, says Petrozziello. If this all takes too long, it’s okay to let it go to voicemail, as long as you listen to it later and deal with the message appropriately.

    ? Start small. “You might begin with something that will be easy for you, like ordering pizza,” suggests Dr. Schneier. Calls like that (especially ones that you make, as opposed to receive) will help you get more comfortable talking spontaneously on the phone. The next time, choose to call instead of sending a text, he advises. Gradually you can build up to accepting calls.

    ? Don’t expect calls to be smooth. Human interactions often aren’t, and that’s normal. Add tech glitches, speakerphone delays and barking dogs in the background, and calls can be wonky for everyone. “Part of it is accepting that phone calls can be messy, with pauses and ums — that comes with the territory, and it’s not a disaster,” says Dr. Schneier.

    ? Keep at it. “By putting yourself in the situation you fear, easier ones, then building up to more challenging ones, you are disproving your worst fears,” says Dr. Schneier. Depending on how ingrained your phone fears are, it may take awhile, but it does work.

    ? Be kind to yourself. If someone calls and you just can’t deal right then, don’t judge yourself, says Petrozziello. “It’s okay to hang up, organize your thoughts and call back, or let it go to voicemail so you can take a second to calm down.” What’s important is that you follow up.

    The bottom line: The phone is no longer a plastic blob you need to wait by so as not to miss something important, but talking to other people, no matter the medium, is still worth doing, so don't let your skills dry up.

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