During a recent online discussion in a writers’ group, it was interesting to notice a lot of people reporting anxiety speaking on the telephone. Some of them did not even have other more well-known forms of social anxiety like public speaking or interviewing. There was something about the “disembodied voice” that phone calls involve that can potentially throw people off-kilter.
Social anxiety disorder (also known as social phobia) is a common, if under-discussed, mental health condition characterized by symptoms of fear and anxiety that are triggered by social situations: including conversations, eating in front of others, going to public restrooms, giving speeches, performing before an audience. A flood of negative thoughts paralyzes the person with discomfort, that others will view them in the worst possible light and judge them, and the thoughts reinforce themselves due to the physical fear symptoms that join in: sweating, racing heartbeat, quavering voice, mind going empty, etc. The discomfort becomes so great that afflicted individuals will start avoiding these situations at all costs, leading to isolation, decreased opportunities, lost income, even depression and alcohol abuse, and more.
Telephone anxiety is likely a more limited manifestation of social phobia, triggered by the social peculiarities of telephone calls themselves. Without the input of facial or body or nonverbal cues to go with a person’s voice, the afflicted person might feel more confused or ill-at-ease about the person on the other end of the line. Is that person responding to you the way you would hope or expect? Are they more annoyed or offended than you realize, or vice versa? What are they going to say or do next? Is it a bad time to call? Are you about to say something ridiculous?
Telephone anxiety like other types of social phobia can lead to avoidant behavior, where one actively refuses to take phone calls, procrastinates, or reverts to other forms of communication. One may be able to get by this way compared to other forms of social avoidance, but some consequences still may happen related to lost connections or friendships or angry customers or lost time or more.
The rates of this type of anxiety might have even increased due to the rise of non-telephone communication methods like email or texting. Email or texting presumes the other person can open and read it and respond whenever they choose, so it feels less intrusive. There is some time to pause and edit what you write, as opposed to talking in the moment. And there are no direct emotional cues to indicate or stimulate anger or joy aside from silly emojis and emoticons.
The key to overcoming telephone anxiety is similar to treatment methods for other forms of social phobia—graded exposure and cognitive therapy and relaxation techniques:
1. Exposure and practice: The more one dives in and practices the dreaded activity, the more one can feel ready for all the different responses and scenarios they fear, and realize they can survive without the worst results they anticipate. Frequent practice can help with developing your own vocal “phone persona” that feels comfortable and confident.
2. Cognitive therapy: Refocusing about the automatic negative thoughts resulting from telephone anxiety is important. Cognitive therapy can help focus on the reality and evidence for the fears about the situation that develop and help modulate them and help the person feel in control of those fears. They can reduce the expectations of perfection and pressure associated sometimes with the “instant performance” aspect of telephone conversation, modulate the fears of intrusiveness, or try visualization/connection of the “voice” to a real-life non-threatening image of that person.
3. Physical relaxation: Relaxation techniques like deep breathing and biofeedback, and in severe cases medication can help with the physical autonomic distress that can arise.
People with telephone anxiety can learn to tolerate and forgive themselves even if calls don’t go totally smoothly or awkward moments happen. As with social anxiety in general, the key is not to feel alone in experiencing this issue, and to take reassurance that some action and treatment can definitely help. Technology creates convenience, but new anxieties as well. The good news is that the same fundamental techniques that treat other anxiety conditions are known to be effective. Don’t hesitate to ask for help if needed.