Do those little grey typing bubbles (you know the ones) make your heart race? Can a group chat with your friends feel just as overwhelming as a Trader Joe’s line on a Saturday morning? Does the sight of a singular “k” send you immediately into a spiral?
If you’re an anxious person (*clears throat*), texting can feel like a particularly special circle of hell. While it is a convenient method for sending and receiving information, the use of emojis, abbreviations and punctuation (or lack thereof) can leave plenty of room for misinterpretation and subsequent miscommunication.
It also doesn’t help that texting feels more conversational ― unlike email ― therefore a more immediate response usually feels expected. Throw dating someone new into the equation and texting can feel downright excruciating at times.
Of course, texting has been around for decades so this is hardly a new phenomenon. But experts say it’s increasingly becoming a problem for people ― especially as more companies develop apps with DMs, captions, comments and other ways to connect. The more “online” you are, the more potential for anxiety.
“I refer to this as the ‘Instant Gratification Society,’” said Karla Ivankovich, a psychologist based in Chicago. “The immediacy of texting has brought with it so many difficulties that are epidemic, it’s causing a decline in communication from a multigenerational standpoint. I’d love to say this is just a millennial thing, but that is far from the case. I see adults and even senior citizens with their cell phones tethered to their hands with a kung fu grip.”
But just because texting culture has seeped into our everyday lives doesn’t mean it has to take over your life. We spoke to experts about the strategies you can implement if those notifications on your phone ― or the content inside them ― are causing you to stress:
Start by identifying where your anxiety is coming from.
Take a moment to think about what exactly is causing you to feel stressed in the particular texting situation.
“These fears are often borne out of expectations we have not articulated in the first place,” Ivankovich said. “Be honest with yourself about how your fears impact the process. Many times we look at the content of the messages rather than the process by which this keeps happening. Evaluate the patterns that set you off.”
Ivankovich said a good starting point is to ask yourself if this is your issue or an issue with the person you are texting. If it is yours, evaluate the situation. Can you fix this on your own or do you need to reach out to a counsellor to help you address the situation?
If it is the other person’s issue, have you talked to them? Have you established an expectation of which they are unaware? If so, communicate and compromise to find a desired outcome that works for both of you.
“Recognise fear of rejection and how it plays out in this scenario. Is it the text message you are anxious about or the fear of being left behind by the texter?” Ivankovich said.
And remember: “Overthinking the situation is not a means of problem solving,” she said.
Keep your brain busy and your phone away from your fingers in moments where it’s particularly causing you distress.
“My friends know it’s a classic move of mine to send a slightly risky message and then immediately turn my phone on airplane mode, delete the thread so I don’t have to see it, etc.,” said Tess Harkin, a 22-year-old who lives in New York. “I know it’s something some of my friends do now as well. It’s reassuring because I know even within my friend group that other people feel the same way. It sort of normalised that it’s OK to feel anxious sometimes.”
Other things you can do to keep from feeling high-strung is to put your phone away in another room or take part in activities that specifically keep your fingers active, like painting your nails or even taking a shower. If anything, use your texting anxiety as a reason to do something you enjoy such as reading a book, practicing yoga or watching a movie.
Communicate your needs.
It’s that simple. For example, if you’re someone who needs a timely reply from a loved one, kindly express that. Or if you’re someone who can’t keep tabs on a group chat, make sure you communicate that.
“The worry is in what is NOT said,” Ivankovich said. “If we had the answers up front, then there is no need to begin fearing the worst.”
Similarly, in addition to your needs, take inventory of the needs of others. You might enjoy texting 24/7, but that doesn’t mean certain friends, family members or partners feel the same way.
“Pay attention to when your friends are communicating to you and the style of communication that works best for them,” said Shivonne Odom, a therapist based in Maryland. “You’ll find that you’re more inclined to have communications with that person when you communicate in a method that works best for them.”
Don’t text complex information.
Repeat after Odom: “Not everything needs to be a text.”
Breakups, emotional conversations ― save that stuff for in-person convos. It’ll cause you less anxiety as a texter and hopefully encourage others who are texting you to do the same (especially if you’ve already communicated to them what you need, like mentioned above).
“When it comes to texting, less is more,” Odom said. “Text directions or simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions, like, ‘Hey, wanna hang out?’ or ‘When are you free?’ And then walk away from your cell phone.”
The more complex your text message is, the chances of it becoming misinterpreted are more likely.
“On more than one occasion, I have had individuals, and/or couples come in for therapy as a direct result of a misunderstood message,” Ivankovich said. “When you are face-to-face or speaking over the phone, you can identify body language typically supporting the conversation. Additionally, you can request clarification much easier face-to-face. Via text, we are stripped of this capability and often fall to the side of fearing the worst before we shrug off the text as a possible miscommunication.”
Establish boundaries with your phone.
“Consider texting breaks, even if your phone is in your pocket,” Ivankovich said. “During this time, utilise the ‘Do Not Disturb’ feature on your phone. Start with short periods of time and build up gradually to a time that you are comfortable with.”
Other strategies to consider are leaving your phone at home or setting aside specific time frames during the day where you will look at your messages and nothing more. You can also turn off your notifications if you don’t want to be alerted.
But no matter how stressful texting can get, remember to cut yourself some slack and know that your feelings are real.
“I try really hard to focus on the fact that what I’m feeling is temporary, and that I know I’ll feel better in a little while,” Harkin said. “It’s really helpful to just remind myself that my feelings were valid, and even if I’m anxious, that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. I have a right to feel how I feel, regardless of if it’s anger or anxiety or happiness or whatever else is going on. Those feelings are valid and how to manage them is my choice.”