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Social anxiety and phone calls

July 3, 2023

For many of us, picking up the phone and chatting with friends is an effortless and enjoyable thing to do. But for people with social anxiety, it can be about as fun as falling into a bed of stinging nettles.

It’s normal to worry about social occasions every now and then, but a person with social anxiety will worry about them consistently, from the moment plans are made, until long after they’ve happened. This response often stems from a fear of being perceived badly by others. They may worry about doing something embarrassing or accidentally rude, and then being judged for it.

We tend to think of social anxiety as being triggered by in-person events, however, phone calls can be just as (or even more) confronting. Think about it, a lot of communication is non-verbal; we use body language, expressions and gestures to let people know how we’re feeling. We might smile at someone when we’re happy to see them, nod when we agree or widen our eyes when we’re surprised.

However, when we talk on the phone, we’re relying entirely on voice. Not only can this make it more difficult for us to express ourselves, it’s also harder to know how the other person is responding when we can’t read their body language. This means we have to do a certain amount of guesswork, which can lead us to overthink the situation and become self-critical.

When we’re feeling conscious about how we’re coming across, it can be much harder to stay in the moment and enjoy a social interaction. We may become distracted by imagining what the other person is thinking and lose track of the conversation, resulting in long pauses or having to re-ask questions, which makes us feel even more uncomfortable.

We might also feel the pressure to ‘perform’ in order to keep the conversation going. When we meet up with someone in-person, there are natural pauses in the conversation where someone has a drink or checks their messages. But on the phone, there are no external distractions, so the focus is entirely on us. Being put on the spot like this can make us more aware of saying the wrong thing.

Not only can anxiety around phone calls impact our relationships, as we may not be able to keep in touch with people as much as we’d like, it can also impact our professional life. A 2019 survey of UK office workers found that 76% of millennials and 40% of baby boomers have anxious thoughts when the phone rings. Because of this, 61% of millennials would completely avoid calls, compared with 42% of baby boomers.

When we feel anxious about something, it’s natural to want to put it off or find ways around it. For example, if you find calling someone on the phone stressful, you may text or email them instead. However, the more that we ignore the issue, the worse our anxiety can get.

How to overcome phone anxiety

1. Get to the root of the issue

Firstly, it’s important to recognise why you’re avoiding phone calls. Make a list of all the people you need to speak to on the phone and try to pinpoint why each conversation makes you feel anxious. Perhaps you’re worried about how you’ll come across, being put on the spot, or getting bad news?

2. Practise making phone calls

It may be the last thing you want to do, but the only way to overcome your fear of the phone is by facing it. Try making or answering just one phone call a day. The more you do this, the more normal it will feel for you. And, make sure that you acknowledge your achievement after each call - perhaps you can reward yourself by doing something you enjoy.

3. Share how you’re feeling

Sometimes it can be helpful to let the other person know that you get a little bit anxious when talking on the phone and that you may need more time to explain yourself. That way, they may be able to encourage and support you throughout the call.

4. Test you assumptions

Is there one phone call in particular that you’re putting off because you’re worried about the outcome? Why not test your assumptions with another, less important, call? Predict what will happen on the call and see if the reality matches up. Was it as bad as you thought it would be? If not, the chances are that the more important call won’t be either.

5. Write down your points

Another way to prepare for an important phone call is to write down the main points that you want to get across. You may find it reassuring to have something on paper in front of you. However, it’s best not to rely on this method too much, as you won’t always be able to plan your conversations ahead of time.

6. Consider talking therapy

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a proven treatment for social anxiety. CBT helps you to manage your anxiety through exercises that encourage you to change the way you think and behave. At ieso, we offer online CBT which may be more comfortable if you’re worried about speaking to someone in-person. Find out more on our website.

ieso Online Therapy
This blog has been written by a member of the clinical team at ieso.
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