How to overcome 'texting anxiety'

Eve Upton-Clark 22 March 2022

Does the endless stream of messages and the thought of replying to unopened texts give you anxiety? Here's how to take back control

Do those little grey typing bubbles create an anxious knot in your stomach? Can the group chat feel so overwhelming you want to throw your phone out the window? Texting anxiety is a real thing, and more common than you’d think.

Gone are the days of the occasional, painstakingly written message popping up on your Nokia 6300. Now the expectations are 24/7 accessibility, rapid-fire answers, and full conversations via text, wherever we are, whatever we are doing. In the last 25 years, texting has permanently changed the way we communicate. And many would argue, not for the better.

Your boss reaching out in the evenings and weekends. Your ex sending you long and confusing messages while at the office. The person you went on one date with who can’t take a hint and continues to check in monthly. While promising feelings of closeness and connection, social media and messaging apps can often do the opposite. Many find themselves exhausted from the constant notifications, multiples conversations, and numerous exchanges.

The result? Delayed responses, forgetting to reply to a message entirely, and texting that feels as cumbersome as drudging through work emails.  

From Slack to WhatsApp, Snapchat to DMs, likes, shares, long threads, and group chats join traditional forms of communication like email and texting. Added up that is a lot of conversations. The average person in 2022 checks their phone 262 times a day, up from a daily average of 80 in 2016. Overwhelmed, many end up consciously or unconsciously opting out, stopping responding to loved ones and friends. Unfortunately, not everyone will be understanding.

"The average person in 2022 checks their phone 262 times a day, up from a daily average of 80 in 2016"

On average, each person will have 47 unread text messages and 1,602 unopened emails. Yet the average phone screen time is more than ever before, at 4.2 hours per day. A 2020 study exploring the effects of information overload and online conversation dynamics explains this as “over-exposure to information can suppress the likelihood of response by overloading users, contrary to analogies to biologically-inspired viral spread.”

The effect of the Pandemic

As expected, the coronavirus pandemic has only made things worse. There was 61% increase in social engagement during the first wave of the pandemic, however 73% of users have expressed a negative sentiment towards social media in the past year. We can’t live with it, but it seems we also can’t live without it.

Miscommunication is another anxiety to add on to the pile. Much of communication comes from non-verbal cues such as body language and tone. Take this away and you are left with overused exclamation marks and ambiguous full stops.

The physical and emotional symptoms of text anxiety

Leah Aguirre, LCSW, a psychotherapist and counsellor explains that text conversations are usually a source of anxiety as they come with a lot of uncertainty. “We can’t predict how someone will respond, if they will respond, or how quickly they will respond. We can’t control other people’s actions or behaviour or how they think and interpret things, and for people that are already prone to anxiety this can be hard to cope with.”

Aguirre says this can manifest in a physical reaction, tightness in the chest, tensions, or increased heart rate. You also may feel a little more on edge or short with others, compulsively check your phone or have obsessive and intrusive thoughts about the text conversation. Simply hearing a notification, if our phone is out of reach, causes the brain chemicals associated with stress to spike.

"Miscommunication is another anxiety to add on to the pile"

Psychologist Nancy Cheever hooked a subject up to a computer and tracked his heart rate and perspiration while secretly sending him texts to his phone, causing his notifications to go off and his skin conductance to spike.

How to move on from text anxiety

As well as the personal effects, text anxiety can put a strain on your relationships with friends and loved ones. A 2018 study found that romantic partnerships and friendships are far more successful when you and the other person have a similar texting style. If both parties are quick responders, the relationship is less likely to hit the rocks. Similarly, if all parties are happy to go hours, days, even weeks between responses, then everyone is happy.

Establishing a texting schedule and/or guidelines with people you interact with frequently is one way of curbing some of the stress if you have different texting styles. Aguirre suggests limiting the amount of time you are on your phone to also help with the anxiety. “By eliminating or reducing how much contact you have with the source of anxiety, you’ll feel some relief,” she says.

“You can give yourself a pep talk, tell yourself that you are okay and that you have no control over another person’s response or behaviour. Remind yourself that this is just a phone or a text message and that, big picture, you are okay and will be okay.”

Now, time to get to all those unanswered texts.

Read more: 3 Alternative treatments for anxiety

Read more: 8 Hacks for a happier life

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