I’ve always been the friend who responds to texts right away. Perhaps it’s the writer in me, but I enjoy giving a lengthy, essay-like response whenever a friend is in need. Or if I need to vent, a quick text to a loved one has always served as an easy release.
But like many of us, I noticed a shift in my temperament when quarantine set in. I couldn’t put it into words at the time, but I now realize it was tech exhaustion. Whether I was texting, emailing, or even responding to DMs, a wave of anxiety would course through my veins. What was once a normal part of my routine became something I dreaded.
Was it because everything—my job, my workouts, talking with friends and family—was now happening through a screen? Perhaps what once made me a “reliable texter” depended on the strength of my relationships outside of social media and communicating via phone. Knowing that I could see people and hug them in person was a motivation that I had now lost. Or maybe I was feeling the emotional labor of having to answer “Is everything okay?” texts during the height of a monumental human rights movement, a particularly triggering time for Black people.
To this day, I still can’t put my finger on exactly what triggered my apprehension towards texting. It’s likely a culmination of all of the above. But, in talking to friends and colleagues about my state of mind, I’ve learned I’m not alone in experiencing discomfort around communicating virtually.
To help me further explore “texting anxiety” as a concept, I spoke to three therapists about what it is, from the different ways in which it might manifest in different people (constantly checking your phone, or constantly avoiding it), to dealing with the guilt of not answering right away.
What is texting anxiety?
According to Dr. JaQuinda Jackson, Ed. D, NCC, LPC, a mental health clinician at Jackson Consulting and Therapy and DRK Beauty Healing, texting anxiety could appear as a desire to have your phone with you at all times, as well as “the feeling of missing out when you do not get texts and or notifications.” Because of these impulses, it could manifest as checking one’s phone constantly or endlessly scrolling to the point where “you lose track of time,” Dr. JaQuinda adds.
Rachel Hoffman, Head of Therapy at Real, adds that “the combination of generalized anxiety and social anxiety inherently creates texting anxiety. There is a desire to ‘keep in touch’ and to remain engaged, as to not feel lonely or isolated from friends and family.”
How might the pandemic and its consequent lockdowns contribute to texting anxiety?
During the pandemic, “the only real option to be social is through texting and zoom calls, but after months of the same routine, people are generally ‘over’ this mode of communication,” Hoffman says. “Additionally, I have seen an increase in people reporting headaches and general fatigue from staring at screens.” Hoffman says that many of her clients have turned to cooking, reading, “or just simply staring at a wall” when the work day ends as a way to relieve some of their stress and anxiety from the day. “Texting just does not seem to be as high of a priority especially because plans are not being created,” she notes.
“We’re all in a heightened state of anxiety. We are in a collective trauma, our baseline level of arousal is high, and we’re overstimulated in a very particular way. Working from home often means working more than ever before and we’re also more accessible than we were previously. In addition, we’re less active and under-stimulated,” explains Therese Kempf, LCSW and HealHaus therapist. Without travel and our typical social interactions, Kempf adds, it makes sense that we’re ‘at capacity’ in our communications. “We are in overdrive in cognitive and written connection but missing out on some of the more meaningful and rich parts of connecting with others that is nonverbal,” she says. A certain playfulness we once had might be part of what is missing, she notes. We’re missing subtle interactions like comfort through hugs, flirting through eye contact, and as Kempf puts it, “simply just sharing energetic space with someone where we don’t have to say anything, yet we feel comforted and at ease.”
What are the best ways to self-soothe when faced with this type of anxiety?
Dr. JaQuinda recommends scheduling time with loved ones and finding ways to be in person while staying socially distanced. (A walk outdoors is one good way to do this.) Making these types of plans “can decrease texting anxiety while promoting a healthy social-emotional balanced life,” she says. “It is healthy to take time out of our busy schedules in order to make time for direct people to people interaction.”
“We are all in the mindset of doing whatever we need to do to cope and survive. Our baseline anxiety is generally higher so having empathy for yourself is required,” Hoffman says. “Also it is helpful to remind yourself that you are not alone in feeling this way. It is actually healthy to take space and time away from your devices and you can be proud of yourself for being self aware that you need to do so.”
“Transition from screen time by doing something that is more tactile and sensory focused such as cooking, exercise, stretching, knitting, painting, taking a bath, and listening to music,” Kempf recommends. “Understand that you can’t give to others if your cup is full and you’re at capacity. Many of us don’t want to engage in Zoom parties or long phone calls after a long day of virtual meetings and email/text exchanges with colleagues. That’s ok! Check in with yourself about how 2020 is really impacting you, and see if you have been minimizing the impact of this year. Allow your identity and role in relationships—people pleasers this is for you—to shift and see how that feels,” she says. It’s okay to say “no” more, take breaks, and set boundaries. Kempf recognizes that drawing a line isn’t always easy: “If it feels right to set a boundary but it causes anxiety, engage in some practices that are calming, (deep breathing, stretching) or releasing, (crying, journaling), or self-soothing (guided visualization, butterfly hug) and say NO anyway.”