If email stresses you out and makes you anxious, you're not alone! Email is one of the most common triggers for social anxiety and productivity-related anxiety (the feeling that you're not getting enough accomplished).
One reason email communication is so stressful is that it's asynchronous, meaning there's a delay between sending messages and receiving replies. There's uncertainty about when we'll get a response.
In addition, many contextual cues are missing from email. For example, you don't know if the person replying to you is sick or just got yelled at by their boss. These factors mean that email can feel very emotionally confusing and anxiety-provoking.
Here are some of the most common sources of email-related anxiety and what to do about each.
1. When someone is slow in replying to you.
When you expect someone to reply to your email immediately and they don't, it's difficult to know the reason why, and our brains like to make up stories to explain it. We tend to infer social rejection. People end up ruminating about whether they said the wrong thing and their recipient is angry or doesn't like them.
- Make the baseline assumption that other people's email behavior is much more likely to be about them, and what they have going on, than it is about you.
Try recalling one recent example in which you felt anxious due to a delayed email response and the situation turned out well. For example, it took three days to get a reply—but when you did hear back, it was good news.
Try not to personalize it when you email someone and they don't respond. If a friend or colleague doesn't reply to an email, it may not mean very much. Keep in mind that there are lots of people who are so overwhelmed by emails they don't reply to every message they get, even if they'd (ideally) like to. Sometimes, emails simply get forgotten amidst the deluge, and sometimes your recipient will be wracked with guilt over not replying but simply can't get to it.
Going forward, note down specific examples of when you stress out over a slow reply and there was no big problem behind it. Keep a running list of these instances as they happen. When you do this self-experiment, you'll start to notice how common this is and how it typically doesn't mean anything negative or ominous. Collecting your own real-life data is a powerful way to convince your brain.
2. When emails lack effusiveness.
Because tone of voice and body language are missing in email communication, many people try to make up for it with exclamation points and smiley faces. People who are anxious often worry that the absence of clear signals of positive emotional tone in an email means something is wrong. This isn't necessarily the case.
In particular, people who tend towards anxiety typically read negativity or hostility into situations in which it isn't there. Here's what you can do to try to counteract this thinking bias.
- Notice when you have this reaction and have some balancing self-talk ready. Think about the other possibilities. The worst case scenario is the writer is grumpy with you or doesn't like you. Other possibilities include:
- The writer isn't naturally effusive.
- The writer was tired or distracted while writing.
- They were trying to dash off an email quickly before rushing to something else.
In most cases, you'll never know what was going on. That's the nature of email—and why it's often anxiety-provoking.
- When an email triggers anxiety for you, go back and read it with fresh eyes. If you're anxiety-prone, there might be positivity in the email that's "hidden in plain sight." Perhaps your anxious state when reading the email (or just your dominant thinking filters) caused you to overlook the positivity that was actually present. I often use the term "cognitive blindspot" when writing about anxiety-driven thinking errors. These biases really do function like physical blindspots. We can be completely blind to signals of positive tone that are present and, instead, fixate on anything that seems slightly negative or ambiguous. (I'm personally anxiety prone by nature and the pattern I've described here is something that happens to me at least weekly, causing me to internally overreact to perceived negativity that isn't really there. However, since I know my biases, I use the strategy I've outlined—and it's very useful!)
- Try dialing back some effusiveness in emails you send. Doing this can help reinforce the idea that the absence of multiple explanation points and smiley faces doesn't typically connote a problem.
3. Anxiety about the volume of email on your plate, and about always being connected.
There are some days where I think I should change my job description to "emailer" as it seems email takes up so much of my work day and energy. It's anxiety-provoking and frustrating to feel like you can't get onto important work because you're immersed in your inbox.
- Try using RescueTime (free version) to track how much time you spend emailing. By doing this, you can realistically problem-solve how you can gradually reduce the time you spend emailing. For example, you might try to decrease the time you spend on email by 5 to 10 percent each week. One way to do this is to practice writing shorter emails. Many emails can be responded to with just a few sentences.
- Make sure you're not being tougher on yourself than other people expect you to be. For example, people have varying work schedules and people who send emails in off hours don't necessarily expect a reply straight away. If you think you need to reply to emails on weekends or late at night, ask yourself if that's really the case, or if it's psychological pressure you're placing on yourself.
- Look at how other people handle this problem. For example, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg apparently has a system where after-hours emails that need a response straight away are flagged that way, and those that can wait till the next work day are flagged differently. If you're feeling overloaded with email, you won't be the only one in your company or workgroup that's facing the same struggle. It's worth attempting to problem solve this with your coworkers and come up with a solution that works for your team.
The most important message of this article is not to jump to conclusions when you feel anxiety about an email you've received or the lack of a response. The second most important take-home message is to gradually chip away at reducing your email burden. You won't be able to change your situation overnight, but there are practical ways you can monitor and reduce the time you spend emailing.
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