Is This Normal? 'I Get Anxious Every Time My Phone Rings'
The ringing of the phone can become synonymous with a technological barrage, exacerbating feelings of stress and anxiety associated with constant connectivity.
In this series, we dig into our strange phobias, fixations, and neuroses, and ask ourselves — Is This Normal?
I dread the sound of my phone ringing. My WhatsApp status, too, requests people to preferably not call at all – and if they absolutely have to, to at least drop me a text to let me know they'd be calling. It might seem a bit over the top, but it's the least I could do to let people know I don’t want to be called – not that it works, though. Lately, I’ve realized that even when the phones of people I’m hanging out with ring, I begin feeling anxious.
Is this normal? And, if not, have we brought this upon ourselves?
“Many people may not like talking on the phone or will avoid conversations that they have to make over the phone. But when your hesitance to make and receive calls causes you to experience symptoms such as severe anxiety, shortness of breath, or a racing heart, you may actually have phone anxiety or telephobia,” writes Arlin Cuncic, a psychologist specializing in social anxiety. “It is a common fear among those with social anxiety disorder.”
Telephobia is defined as “the reluctance or fear of making or taking phone calls.” So, evidently, it’s common enough to have a name for itself. According to a 2019 study in the U.K., more than 75% of millennials are estimated to experience phone anxiety, compared to 40% of baby boomers. With phones serving multiple functions beyond traditional calling – such as receiving emails, text messages, and social media notifications – the constant influx of digital communication can lead to a sense of overwhelm and sensory overload. “I get edgy when my phone rings out loud… I suspect that mine stems from the sensory overload the phone’s sound brings. Ringtones, notifications, pings – all these sounds jolt me out of whatever stable keel I am on. And this is where my anxieties come from,” notes an individual.
The ringing of the phone thus becomes synonymous with this technological barrage – exacerbating feelings of stress and anxiety associated with constant connectivity. These feelings are further compounded for people with diagnoses like ADHD and autism, both of which entail heightened sensory sensitivities. As a person diagnosed with both, no wonder I’m terrified of phone calls.
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The issue is a generational one, too – attesting to the theory that we’ve brought phone anxiety upon ourselves. “Younger generations might feel more comfortable communicating virtually rather than over the phone because of the online disinhibition effect. This describes how people feel less restrained and express themselves more openly when interacting virtually,” explains Elizabeth Perry, a writer with a background in psychology. “Talking online shields people from their biggest phone-related anxieties, like fear of problem-solving on the spot, freezing up, or being judged.”
The immediacy and spontaneity of phone conversations leave little room for preparation or editing of responses, which can be daunting for individuals who struggle with verbal communication. The fear of stumbling over words, misunderstanding the caller, or being unable to articulate thoughts coherently can contribute to heightened anxiety when the phone rings. In a sense, then, it resembles performance anxiety – one of the reasons why telephobia is often compared to stage fright. Especially in professional settings, the ringing of a phone can evoke feelings of performance anxiety – arising out of the apprehension of delivering a subpar “performance” on the phone.
“We don’t like being evaluated by other people. All of our survival as humans depends on other people – we’re very social creatures – so anytime we put ourselves out there to be evaluated, that produces a lot of stress for us,” Jeremy Jamieson, a psychology professor at the University of Rochester focusing on social stress and emotion regulation, explains. “It’s kind of the same thing as public speaking, going into a job interview, other sorts of experiences that tap into this evaluation process. People perceive that they might not be able to perform well in those situations.”
What's also strikingly common between anxiety and telephobia is the element of uncertainty. It's among the primary reasons individuals experience anxiety when their phone rings: the uncertainty of who may be calling, what the nature of the call is, and how much time and energy it'll require one to devote to it can fuel stress and apprehension — exacerbated further by the fear of receiving bad news or encountering an unpleasant conversation.
Moreover, in the hyper-connected society we live in, there exists a pervasive pressure to be constantly available and responsive – yet another feature of the modern society built by humans. The ringing of the phone can thus symbolize an intrusion into one's personal space and time. Simultaneously, though, the social expectation to always be reachable can contribute to feelings of obligation and guilt if one doesn't answer promptly – or, worse still, ignores the call. It's an almost no-win situation.
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The anxiety, of course, can be compounded if one has already been subjected to negative experiences pertaining to phone calls – like receiving distressing news on a call or being forced, unprepared, into confrontational conversations. The ringing of a phone can act as a trigger for the memories – leading to a conditioned response of anxiety and avoidance.
The pandemic may also have worsened people’s anxiety surrounding phone calls. “Covid19 has altered us and how we communicate… These days, we experience much less face-to-face interaction. This has made many people more anxious about making small talk or returning to minor social interactions. We're awkward,” notes Perry. “It might feel more difficult to pick up on verbal and nonverbal cues that were once a part of our everyday interactions.”
While in-person interactions might feel more challenging in the post-pandemic world, phone calls are somehow worse. “[I]t’s not just harder to grasp what the other person’s saying – it’s also more of a challenge to know what they think about what you’re saying… Raised or furrowed eyebrows, for instance, silently convey that you’re listening, while a head nod encourages the speaker to keep going (and on the flip side, eyes glazing over means it’s probably time to change the subject). Without those cues, the conversation becomes more of a guessing game, with no way of really understanding whether you’ve guessed right,” notes an article in The Cut. “[W]ith written communication, at least, you have time on your side: time to gather your thoughts, time to edit, time to reconsider before hitting send. The phone gives you no such luxuries… Pauses are more loaded, too; in person, you can see when someone is thinking, or when they’re distracted. But over the phone, especially for the anxiety-prone, every silence can be a sign that things are going awry.”
So, clearly, I’m far from alone in my anxiety about phone calls. While the bravehearts who don’t relate with me continue to believe phone calls are the best way to reach someone, I’ll hope my WhatsApp message dissuades them from inflicting the dreaded sound of a ringing phone on me.
Devrupa Rakshit is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She is a lawyer by education, a poet by accident, a painter by shaukh, and autistic by birth. You can find her on Instagram @devruparakshit.