Fearing the phone

Some people fear snakes or spiders, but others fear a phone call. 

No caller ID can evoke worry in some phone users. Photo: Sara Petrie

Phone anxiety appears to be prominent, with almost half the respondents in a recent online survey saying they suffered from some form of the condition.

Clinical Psychologist and co-director of the Centre for Anxiety and OCD, Cassie Lavell, says phone anxiety is a fear of speaking on the telephone.

“It is usually associated with experiencing significant anxiety or distress during phone calls and/or avoiding answering the phone completely,” Lavell says.

Rosie Kinnaird, a university student, sometimes experiences this. “My phone anxiety isn’t too bad, but I work at a shoe shop and a dance studio, so when the phone rings I instantly feel a little bit nervous,” Kinnaird says.

A survey, recently conducted by Dscribe via Instagram, garnered 40 responses from people aged 16 to 29 years. Of these respondents, 47.5% said that they believe they have phone anxiety and 95% said their favoured form of communication was texting, emailing or in-person rather than a phone call.

Lavell says research shows the prevalence of anxiety has been stable over time, however now there is more awareness and therefore people are likely to get diagnosed and receive treatment.

She says anxiety is quite common and can be associated with a mix of genetics and environmental stresses. Phone anxiety is a common symptom of social anxiety, Lavell says.

“People with social anxiety are afraid of negative evaluation from others, this means they are likely to be afraid of being judged by the person on the other end of the phone, for example that they will say the wrong thing or that they might misread the social situation due to the absence of non-verbal cues,” she says.

Kinnaird says she is nervous on the phone because she fears the unknown. “I think it’s probably just that idea of uncertainty, especially if it’s an unknown number, you don’t know who’s going to ring you or what they have something to say about,” she says.

Phone anxiety can affect someone’s personal and social life, Lavell says. “If the person is so fearful, they avoid making phone calls, this can have an impact on their day-to-day functioning. For example, they may be unable to schedule needed medical appointments, or function at work if phone calls are required as part of their job,” she says.

On a positive note, Lavell says that there are ways to overcome anxiety, and ultimately phone anxiety.

“Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is the first-line treatment for anxiety and fear-based problems,” she says.

“The central ingredient to CBT is something called exposure therapy, which involves gradually facing fears in small steps at the individual’s pace.”

She suggests ways sufferers can do this at home to help with their phone anxiety. They can call businesses outside office hours to practise leaving voicemails, or call stores to have conversations about their stock. This gradually helps sufferers learn they can cope with their anxiety as their feared outcome doesn’t occur.

However, Lavell does advise that it’s important to seek professional help if this technique is not working.

In line with Lavell’s advice, Kinnaird has found a way to help overcome her phone anxiety. “I think for me it all comes from practise, so the more that I get used to being rung and ringing people, I think it gets easier,” she says.

Evolving technology allows people to communicate in various forms other than phone calls. However, Lavell says that the more someone avoids it, the more anxious they will become.

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