The Psychology Behind Phone Anxiety

Cole Saladino/Thrillist

The simple act of talking on the phone can give some people unbearable anxiety, whether it’s a serious talk with a loved one or a two-minute call to order pizza. What is it about the phone that provokes such distress?

We asked two psychologists -- co-director of the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland, Dr. Sally Winston, and clinical director of the Light on Anxiety Treatment Center in Chicago, Dr. Debra Kissen -- why some people dread picking up the phone. 

What’s up with the phone being more difficult than just talking?

Making a telephone call is a performance, so it’s likely that the anxiety associated with it is a type of performance anxiety. Talking on the phone can become an excruciating task if you’re susceptible to performance anxiety, making you afraid you’ll do it wrong, you’ll sound nervous, you’ll freeze up, or you’ll be rejected. “It’s something that can subject you to the bad judgments of someone else, and the core fear is becoming humiliated,” Winston says. 

Clients who get anxiety from speaking on the phone usually -- but not always -- have other forms of anxiety. According to Kissen, “In general, they more prefer texting or email to in-person or phone [conversations].” 

One explanation for this is the weirdly simultaneous distance and proximity of a phone chat; it’s a spontaneous, real-time conversation, but you don’t receive the facial cues you get when you’re face to face with someone. “Like right now we’re on the phone and I have no idea if you think I’m dumb or if I don’t know what I’m talking about,” Kissen says. “I’m not getting a head nod or ongoing feedback that what I’m saying is acceptable to you.” 

Why is texting OK, if it’s still the phone? 

Texting gives you control over the conversation. On the phone, you make a statement, your interlocutor responds, and you’re expected to reply immediately, more or less. There’s much more performance, and you can’t write the script. “It seems out of control,” Winston suggests. “Whereas if it’s a text you can think about it, you can control your response more carefully, you can limit emotional involvement.” 

Are there any other explanations? 

Winston offers a couple other reasons people who hate talking on the phone do so with such vehemence:

  • It could be related to trauma. Maybe you got some bad news over the phone earlier in your life, and now every time the phone rings you have a conditioned response based on that negative experience. 
  • It could be a symptom of depression. Perhaps you’re suffering from depression and don’t feel like talking or can’t even put feelings into words. 

How common is this? 

There are more people with social anxiety disorder than any other disorder, and with today’s technology, it’s so much easier to get away with not using the phone than it used to be. The result is that actual phone conversations have become more and more rare, making them feel more artificial. Twenty years ago, you had to place calls if you wanted to get anything done. Now, you can pretty much get by without ever having to seriously confront your anxiety.

What’s the difference between disliking the phone and full-blown phone anxiety?

You might prefer not to make a phone call, but that’s different from anxiety to the point that you swear it off the device completely. As with most anxieties, this one isn’t necessarily a problem unless it’s disrupting your life or someone else’s life, i.e. creating distress or impairing your day-to-day functioning. 

What can I do about it? 

  • First, try to identify the thoughts and core fears that are getting in the way of talking on the phone, because then you can think more rationally about it. Once you identify the issues, you can begin telling yourself that the anxiety is small compared to the response. For example, you might say, as Kissen suggests, “Even if I don’t sound like I know what I’m talking about when I order a pizza, really, who cares?” 
  • Face your fear gradually. Practice making phone calls, but don’t start with the situations that are likely to be more stressful. “If someone’s biggest fear is talking to someone they are starting to date on the phone, maybe start by ordering Chinese food on the phone,” Kissen says. Break down the fears so you can slowly approach it and practice as consistently as possible. 
  • Change your attitude, which means means you have to be willing to be uncomfortable. “That’s how you create new circuitry in your brain so that the fear circuitry doesn’t come first—it’s the new experiences that eventually take over,” Winston says. “If you just kind of white knuckle your way through it, and dread it and hate it and hope that you don’t get upset, that’s not it.”

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Nadia Imafidon is a magazine editor at Sunflower Publishing in Lawrence, KS, and will absolutely ignore your phone call just to respond with a text message less than 30 seconds later.