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Phone anxiety, and what it’s like to live with it

Anxiety on the phone? Come sit with me…

Confession: I can’t remember the last time I voluntarily used my phone to actually CALL someone. 

In fact, the last time someone tried to call ME on it, I was so surprised – and, OK, confused – by what was happening, that I ended up hitting the “end call” button instead of the “answer” one by mistake (“Yeah sure,” said Terry, when I told him why I’d just hung up on whoever was trying to call me. “AS IF it was a “mistake”…), and sending them straight to voicemail. Then I did it AGAIN when they called back a few seconds later.

“I swear I’m not doing it deliberately,” I insisted, when I caught Terry rolling his eyes at me in despair. (We were in the car at the time, so he was able to witness my extreme ineptitude in close-up…). But seriously: WHO uses phones to actually CALL someone? And WHY? Why wouldn’t they just DM me on Insta, or even send me an email, like a normal person? Why do they hate me, though?

It’s a question I am destined never to be able to answer: because, no matter how carefully you try to explain it to me, or how good your reasoning is for trying to contact me by phone, I’m still going to assume you’re a psychopath or something, because that’s not normal, right? Like, you don’t just… PHONE someone? Not without giving them fair warning, at least, and, ideally not even then, because, the fact is, some of us have phone anxiety, and we’re going to hate you for making us face it. Sorry, but it’s true.

Phone anxiety, as I’m sure many of you know, is actually pretty common – especially amongst people with social anxiety – and it can be a really hard thing to deal with, because of… well, because of all the people who think the phrase, “Let’s jump on a call!” is a reasonable thing to say to someone in 2020. (Which, no, it isn’t, just FYI. Not ever, really.)

Just in case it wasn’t obvious, then, “jumping on a call” is not something I’m EVER going to want to do. (And what’s with all the “jumping”, anyway? Seriously, stop trying to make pointless phone calls sound cute and fun, because they’re really, really not. It’s like when people go around telling everyone how “totally KERRAAZZZY!” they are, and you instantly know they’re going to be the dullest people ever…) The fact is, I HATE talking on the phone. In fact, I’d go so far as to say I suffer from phone anxiety: for instance…

Amber and Max, September 2020*  The sound of the phone ringing makes my heart race with anxiety. Part of this goes back to my ectopic pregnancy, when the results of the frequent blood tests I had to have were given by phone, and I would literally have panic attacks when it rung in case the news was bad (I actually ended up having to get the hospital to call Terry’s phone rather than mine, because I’d be panicking too much to speak. Once the whole thing was over, he had to change his ring-tone, because the sound of it would trigger pure panic in me…), but, if I’m honest, I’d get anxious even before that, so I have no excuse, really.

*  This is the case even when it’s not my phone, and there’s absolutely no expectation of me having to answer it. 

(Random aside: does anyone else always feel obliged to answer a ringing phone, even when it’s not theirs? Like, I remember once I was waiting in line to pay for something in a shop, and the phone behind the counter started ringing. The whole time I was standing there, I had to keep on reminding myself that it was NOT MY RESPONSIBILITY and that no one was expecting me to answer it. And still I felt guilty for ignoring it.)

(I get the same thing with crying babies, ever since I had Max. I hear a baby crying somewhere, and I just have this instant feeling of guilt, as if everyone around me is thinking, “FFS, why isn’t Amber doing something about this?!”)

(Yeah, it’s fun living in my head. Not.) 

*  When our landline rings (Yes, we have a landline: it’s purely for Terry’s business clients, stop rolling your eyes like that….), and I’m on my own, I will almost always just let it go straight to voicemail, because I know it’s not going to be for me anyway, and, on the few occasions when I have answered it, the person on the other end has been so astonished to discover that there’s someone other than Terry living in the house that it always ends up being super-awkward.

*  We’ve had this landline number for seven years now, but I have absolutely no idea what it is: I mean, why would I, though? 

*  There’s almost nothing I wouldn’t do to avoid having to make or take a phone call. If I need to make a doctor’s appointment, for instance, I always have to fight the impulse to just walk the 2+ miles to the surgery and ask in person, rather than phone them. Like, that seems like an easier option to me, really?

(I should probably add here that I’ve never actually done this. I’ve just THOUGHT about it…)

*  On the rare occasions when I absolutely HAVE to make a phone call, I will have to psyche myself up for it like I’m preparing to go on stage or something. (And, after I’m done, I feel like someone should be waiting in the wings to hand me flowers for my performance…)

*  A large part of my working life right now is spent making up excuses to explain why I can’t “jump on a call” with people. Because it’s apparently not acceptable to just say, “No, I don’t want to, and you can’t make me!” to someone who’s offering to give you money, but only if you agree to have a “quick chat” with them about all of the things you’ve already discussed via the far more civilised medium of email.

This is actually starting to become a little bit of An Issue for me, because I’ve found that, ever since the pandemic kicked off, people have become much more likely to want to “jump on a call” with me for some reason, so what would previously have been a quick email interchange becomes something I have to dread for hours, and which then takes up far more time than it really needs to. #TINYVIOLINSPLEASE

Of course, you don’t have to be a psychiatrist to work out why some people have phone anxiety, do you? In my case, I hate talking on the phone because, as someone who’s always communicated far better in writing, phone-calls leave me feeling at a huge disadvantage – almost as if I’m being put on the spot, and not given the appropriate amount of time to consider my responses and make sure they’re the right ones. The knowledge that this feeling of pressure is almost certainly all in my head doesn’t really help either: I’m the kind of person who will always try to fill an awkward silence (And who will inevitably find every silence “awkward…”), and who will often do it by blurting out the first thing that comes into her head. Which makes phone calls all kinds of angsty for me, really.

Also, because I find phone calls so awkward, I find that I’m concentrating so hard on sounding normal on them that I totally fail to concentrate on what the person’s actually saying to me, which means I get off the call, start mentally congratulating myself on having done it… then realise I’m now going to have to email the person anyway, because I’ve forgotten everything that was said. GAH.

Because I can sense that I’m making myself sound even crazier than I actually am here, I’m just going to quickly add that I can and do use the phone successfully when I really need to, so it’s not like I’m completely incapacitated by fear, or anything like that. I deal with it: I… just don’t want to HAVE to, really, and I know from conversions with friends (Even ones who wouldn’t generally describe themselves as anxious…) that I’m not the only one who feels that way. So, what do we DO about it? 

Well, a quick Google tells me that the main treatment for phone anxiety is good ol’ exposure: in other words, you just repeatedly force yourself to make those calls you’ve been putting off, and eventually it gets easier. It’s a good theory, and I’m sure it works for some (Or maybe even most…) people, but here’s the thing…

I used to work in a call centre.  Yes, even though I had phone anxiety.

Because that’s the IDEAL choice of job for someone like me, right? 

Here’s the OTHER thing, though: 

I was absolutely FINE with answering the phone all day at work. In fact, I even used to train other people how to do it: that’s how little it bothered me. 

How did this come to pass? Honestly, I have NO freaking idea. All I know is that I’d answer phone calls all day at work, then come home and have to call up to make an appointment with the optician, say, and find myself thinking, “What if I just went blind instead, though?”

So, yes, exposure certainly worked in the sense that it allowed me to answer phones while I was at work (And bear in mind that I worked on what was effectively a complaints line, so every call I got was from someone who who absolutely FURIOUS, and ready to take it out on whoever was on the other end of that phone…), but I suspect the effects of that were only temporary, because by the time I moved onto my next job, I was back to my phone phobic ways, and have remained like that ever since. 

I could get therapy for it, obviously: that’s what a sensible person would probably do, but if there’s one thing I’m not, it’s a sensible person, so I just keep bumbling along, thanking my lucky stars that I’m living in an era of text messaging and emails, and hoping to God that this whole, “Jump on a call,” thing comes to a natural end sooner or later, and everyone just accepts that email is SO MUCH EASIER. Because it just IS, isn’t it? 

(Oddly enough, though, much as I hate phone calls, I’ve actually been really enjoying the video calls we’ve been having with friends during the pandemic. I don’t know, I guess the fact that I can actually SEE them makes it feel more like a normal conversation, so totally non-scary? Or something?)

Anyone else out there suffer from phone anxiety? How do you deal with it? 

Phone anxiety and how to live with it

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  • Laura Steel


    I’m exactly the same! I’ve had to learn to cope to an extent because of my job, but I would still much rather email or talk via Skype message. Pet hate is when someone rings me, I don’t pick up for whatever reason, then they email me to say “please call me asap”. Like, at least give me some indication of what it’s about!

    Funnily enough I used to work in a call centre too, and I also had no problem answering the phone all day. I wonder if knowing what the call was going to be about made it easier?

    September 16, 2020
  • Hazel

    September 16, 2020
  • Alice


    Literally the only person who ever phones me out of the blue is my father. Like you I’m fine using the phone at work but absolutely hate it in my personal life.

    September 16, 2020
  • Mary Katherine


    I usually send someone a text message first and say “got time for a quick call?” if it’s something I can’t be bothered to type out with my thumbs because I don’t have access to my computer, or it could possibly be misinterpreted just being read. I don’t think anyone should assume people have their phone in their hand 24/7 and are constantly checking their text messages. My MO is that if you need an answer right away, you’d better call me. I may not respond to a text for hours, depending on what I’m doing, and it could be 24 hours to respond to an email.
    I do like getting your perspective as an anxious person, as my husband suffers from anxiety, especially social, and including phone. I have a very difficult time imagining this, so your descriptions really help me understand and be more helpful.
    Kudos to Terry on really magnificent shots on this post, too!

    September 16, 2020
  • Amy


    I loathed using the phone, any phone, for years. Literally crying in the bathroom at work because using the phone was so awful. Before I could order food online (miracle) I used to text friends with me and my wife’s orders so that they could call it in for us. Genius solution at the time.

    When I was about 30-years-old though, I stopped caring what other people thought of me. I didn’t even know that was what the problem was in the first place. It was a weird/pleasant side effect of being more comfortable in my own skin. I still don’t do it unless I have to though!

    September 16, 2020
  • Nicole


    Me too! I recently switched banks and it took me literally months to get around to closing my old account since I couldn’t do it online. I finally accepted the fact that I was never going to make that phone call and made an in-person appointment to deal with it. The worst part? I was getting charged a monthly “account service fee” that entire time since I had emptied the old account. Apparently I am willing to pay $5/month to avoid phone calls…

    September 16, 2020
  • Eva


    I have done the thing where I go make a dentist’s appointment in-person, rather than on the phone. Somehow it’s easier!

    September 16, 2020
  • Fiona


    I once walked the mile (and back obvs) to my dentist with my baby in a sling (big mistake as he just got heavier and heavier…) to avoid having to phone for an appointment.

    September 16, 2020
  • Dee


    I absolutely hate using the phone, mainly because I’m hard of hearing. It’s okay when it’s close family or friends who know that they need to speak up, but when it’s medical staff, bank staff, etc., they always mumble and are impossible to hear and I get so stressed about it. I’ve put off a lot of non-urgent medical stuff this year because all GP appointments are conducted over the phone at the moment – I’d far rather wait until next year or whenever it’s going to be that I can go see them in person again!

    September 16, 2020
  • May


    I used to have demi-phone phobia. Taking a call? No problem, might as well have been a switchboard operator in my past life. Calling myself? Absolutely NO. Then we went through a health emergency and I suddenly found myself having to phone hospitals, doctors, friends and family, etc. There was no one else to do it so my Sense of Responsibility overrides my fear. Now I’m completely fine with both taking and making calls.

    Well, no. That’s a lie. I may not fear it like I did but I freaking hate using the phone. And I kinda dislike texting too if I’m honest. It’s plain old one-to-one (but one-to-one only I get nervous otherwise) irl conversations for me

    September 16, 2020
  • Miss Kitty


    I don’t like phone calls, but I don’t have any particular problem making them, although I do like to make sure I know exactly what I need to say first. What I have realised recently, is that I have a severe phobia of being photographed. I have always known that I strongly disliked being photographed and will go to fairly extreme lengths to avoid being photographed at social events etc. Seeing myself in photos always brings on a huge cloud of depression, I don’t really know why, I can’t explain it, it’s not like I’m terribly ugly just average looking, and I don’t go around worrying about what I look like most of the time, but I just hate photos of myself. What really made me realise just how severe it was, is on my birthday recently friends were posting pictures of me to wish me a happy birthday, and I spent the whole day stressed out and hyperventilating, in tears and on edge just waiting in case someone else posted a picture. I told my mum how I was feeling and she says, ‘But they’re nice pictures!’ That’s not the point, they are pictures of me and I wanted to crawl into a small hole and die. My birthday turned into one of the worst days of my life. The worst thing is I don’t know how to say anything to all those well meaning friends about how severely anxious it makes me to have someone take my picture or worse, post it for everyone to see, without feeling like an utter cad because they were doing it to be nice! And whenever I do say something to someone about it, they always say something like, ‘Oh I hate having photos too’, but that is not the same thing as having a panic attack at the thought that someone has just taken your photo. Years ago I had a complete psycho at my mum for taking my picture and made her delete it, I have hardly any pictures of myself because I delete them all. Now I have a wedding coming up and I am absolutely dreading the thought of the photos, it’s really stressing me out. Does anyone else have this? I have found a few things online about it but it doesn’t seem to be very common. I would love to hear anyone else’s strategies for dealing with it.

    September 17, 2020
  • Caroline


    I’d take a phone call over a zoom or a Skype anyday!! I feel so uncomfortable with the little video of me and get. distracted by it xx

    September 17, 2020
  • Sam


    Oh, thank god I read this! I thought it was just me!
    My phobia is so bad, my dad once made me work on the switch board in our family business for a month. I handled it perfectly well, but it didn’t change a thing.
    Try being in your 40s and dating, with a phone and video-call phobia – men think you’re absolutely loopy. I loathe video calls even nore than the phone – I spend the entire call obsessing about my double chin and small head, and making a mental list of cosmetic surgeries I want to have.
    Thank you for making me feel slightly less loopy!

    September 19, 2020
  • Liz


    I have this irrational jealousy that your social anxiety applies to phone calls and not writing. Mine is much worse about writing. Sending emails gives me a horrible stomach ache and I often have to have someone else read them for me first. I hate expressing myself in writing and I hate not being able to see/hear the recipient’s reaction. I’m a school teacher who is remote right now so the number of emails I have to send has gone up exponentially. When I ask to “hop on a call,” I’m saying “please don’t make me write another long email.”
    Despite being fine on the phone for work and social reasons, I’m almost incapable of calling a medical office. I’m very lucky to have a partner who will do it.

    September 19, 2020
  • Nicola


    Hahaha I could have written this post! I think a big part of my phone anxiety stems from the simple fact you can’t see the other person, meaning you’re missing out on all the non-verbal cues (which is weird, because I’m autistic, so I’m rubbish at non-verbal cues anyway, but somehow I’m even worse when all I’ve got is the sound of the person’s voice). If I’m calling up to book an appointment, I will rehearse what I’m going to say beforehand, and then STILL haiver on to fill any silence. For years after my sister passed away my heart would race every time the phone rang because I was convinced it was my parents with more bad news, especially when it was after 9pm (it was usually just my mother-in-law calling because her internet had stopped working and she needed my husband’s help).

    That said, I also loathe them for work, even with video. I feel much more put on the spot compared to with an email, especially if someone wants me to walk them through something that I’ve given them detailed written instructions for, and I get almost stage fright, where I know how to do something but utterly lose the ability to explain it. On top of that, it interrupts my day because I have to do it at a set time, rather than composing an email when I have the opportunity to. And I prefer email for work because it means there’s something to refer back to later; with a phone call, we’re relying on our own memories and notes, not the written record of our communication.

    So, yeah, I do not like to just ‘hop on a call’.

    September 20, 2020
  • Jay


    It’s so nice to read a post from someone who also suffers from phone anxiety. I’ve had it for as long as I can remember, I panic when I see an unexpected phonecall from friends and family because I always assume its bad news otherwise they would text. I hate talking on the phone and try and avoid it wherever possible. Like you, I would rather make more effort to talk to someone face to face rather than by phone.

    September 21, 2020
  • ML


    Phone-avoidance is a personality thing …. so, not weird, just an aspect of some people’s personalities and communication preferences. For me it’s easier to make calls if I don’t think about it too much (like jumping off a diving board – just do it fast) and I have a role to play (for a job, etc.) But, if it’s an important cold-calling type situation, I will often write out exactly what I’m going to say to the other person, word for word, to at least get through the whole – “this is why I’m calling” thing. That being said, if I can get my husband to make calls for me (appointments for the kids, reservations, talk to dr’s offices, cell phone company, etc.) then I’ll do that, every time.

    September 30, 2020
  • Alice


    I really don’t like the phone. I’m just about ok with pre-arranged calls, but much prefer email. Unexpected calls are terrifying, and I never answer, just let them leave a message or SMS. I actually think they’re very intrusive, why does the caller think you are just sitting about waiting for a chat with them? It assumes that your time is less important than the caller’s. Glad to read others dislike them too!

    November 12, 2020