My Phone Anxiety is Preventing Me from Writing
It’s starting to become a problem.
Despite being a text-centric Millennial who grew up on AIM and talking primarily through written communication, I didn’t always have phone anxiety. As a teenager and college student, I was happy to call my friends or family on the phone, and would often speak to them for hours.
Something changed a few years ago, though, and now I panic every time my phone rings or am tasked with making a call. The anxiety seems to be getting worse, and it’s making it hard to be a journalist.
Being a reporter requires calling sources. There is probably no way around this if you want to be successful. For a simple story that requires a little bit of research, I may call four different sources. Usually, once I’m on the call I’m fine. Unlike some people with phone anxiety, I don’t stammer or trip over my words (much) and am able to conduct a professional interview.
But the anxiety leading up to the call and the eventual post-anxiety crash can take a lot out of me, sometimes preventing me from working for the entire rest of the day.
This may sound extreme and dramatic, and perhaps it is, but the truth is that this anxiety really does affect me.
“It saps your energy, leaving you dry when it finally runs out.”
For example, if I have a call at 2 pm, I’m normally so anxious and unsettled throughout the day that I’m not able to focus on deep work. I’m not totally useless (usually), and can do some easier tasks like sending emails or working on marketing my writing, but I can’t do the main thing I should be doing: writing.
After the phone call is over I’m usually proud of myself for handling it well and relieved it’s over, but a full six hours of anxiety leading up to the call leave me exhausted. Much like how many people feel like sleeping after they cry because of the emotional and physical exhaustion, I feel like sleeping after a long bout of anxiety. It saps your energy, leaving you dry when it finally runs out.
I’ve tried to commit to publishing every day, but my phone anxiety is getting in the way. When I recently had three days in a row with phone calls, that meant three days in a row where I got basically nothing else done.
I’m hardly the only Millennial with this problem — 75% of millennials experience anxiety when they hear the phone ring, versus 40% of Boomers. 61% of UK Millennial office workers claim they attempt to avoid phone calls entirely.
I have to wonder, though; do people without generalized anxiety have phone anxiety to the same degree as me? Can a scheduled phone call make an entire day disappear into the anxious void? Or is my general anxiety compounding this fear?
In some ways, my fear doesn’t seem totally irrational. When I left college and entered the “real world”, phone calls stopped being about fun and talking to friends and started to become about problems. Most people who call from unrecognized numbers are calling for something you don’t want to deal with. Debt collectors, scams, or bad news. No one calls from an unrecognized number for something good.
Each of these has had a real impact on me. I’ve changed my number to avoid debt collectors, some of whom called up to five times a day. When I was really struggling financially a few years ago, the calls were constant.
“Debt collectors, scams, or bad news. No one calls from an unrecognized number for something good.”
Phone scams can also cause me serious anxiety — and they are getting harder and harder to tell from reality. Two years ago I ended up crying on the bathroom floor until my partner got home and found me after a phone scam sent me into a panic attack. I knew logically that the call threatening to have me arrested for owing money to the IRS classic scam, but there was a teeny part of me that wasn’t completely sure it was a scam. That seed of doubt was enough to leave me panicked and terrified.
The other day, when I was waiting for a call from a source, I got another scam call instead. This one insisted that I had missed my court hearing so police would be sent to collect me from my place of work, and my employers had been informed. Now, I know I don’t have a court hearing, and I also don’t have an employer — I work for myself — but being told police are coming from you is still scary, especially for someone with anxiety.
“I knew before I even answered the phone that something bad had happened.”
In September of 2015, I received a call in the wee hours of the morning from my stepfather, someone who never called me before. I knew before I even answered the phone that something bad had happened. There was no other reason for him to be calling at this time.
After he called me to tell me my mom had passed away, I was in charge of making the rest of the phone calls. I called my nana, grandpa, aunts and uncles, and all of my mom’s friends to inform them of her passing before they read it on social media. Over and over again I repeated the same line, “Hi, it’s Mary Kate. I’m calling to give you some bad news…”
A few months ago, when my partner and I were attacked at gunpoint in our West Philadelphia home and hiding in the basement, we were desperately trying to call 911 for help. The line kept ringing and ringing with no answer. It turns out that there had been a shooting a few blocks away at the same time, and three people were wounded. Our call was getting drowned out by so many others. It took us nearly 10 minutes to finally get through.
While I’ve certainly had many pleasant phone calls since then, such as any time I talk to my best friend, there is hardly a phone call that could be pleasant enough to counteract these negative phone-related experiences. How can I retrain my brain that a phone call can be a source of good rather than a source of trauma?
One thing I’ve learned about anxiety is that I can’t let it win. Even though a large part of me sees my aversion to phone calls as rational based on my life experiences to this point, it is currently preventing me from succeeding at what I love to do.
“How can I retrain my brain that a phone call can be a source of good rather than a source of trauma?”
If I continue to make calls regularly to sources, though, eventually the act will become normalized. Getting an unsolicited call from an unknown number will probably still give me anxiety every time, but when I know who I’m calling and what we’ll be talking about there’s no real reason to get anxious.
At least, that’s what I’ll tell myself as I attempt to power through.
M. K. is a feminist writer and activist with a background in mental health advocacy. Subscribe to get her latest posts directly in your inbox.