Texting Culture Is Giving All of Us Anxiety
Here's how to calm down when you're waiting for a text.
It was kind of embarrassing to admit to myself that I had texting anxiety. Especially because it’s starting to be categorized with new and lame-sounding clinical terms, like textiety and textaphrenia. But there I was, month after month, staring at my phone, waiting for a green bubble to pop up on my screen and save me from myself.
Since text messaging entered our lives—officially 25 years ago, but for most of us a bit later—it has permanently changed the way we communicate. Your boss can reach you after work hours, your mom can reach you when you’re about to climb onto a random person’s motorcycle in a different country (not recommended). You can have long, confusing conversations with your partner while at the office (also not recommended).
Text messaging can prove helpful and essential, but it has certainly brought along a host of stressful issues. While there's no solid data on how many people experience texting anxiety, one-fifth of Americans in an American Psychological Association study associated their mobile devices with stress. And research, like this study in the journal Health Educator continues to document the negative physical, social, and emotional impact of sending texts.
Some of this distress is inherent in the way texting works, and the varied response times that come with it. “There’s a huge amount of chance and uncontrollability,” says Natasha Schull, a professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University. “You can’t really rest when you have an action out in the world and you haven’t gotten the feedback yet. You get in a heightened state of agitation.”
This, of course, also depends on who’s on the other end. Most of us don’t get stressed if a casual friend takes a day or two to text back. But Schull says the stakes are much higher with a partner, child, or potential employer. And the anxiety is undeniable: sweaty palms, heart racing, obsessive thoughts. It doesn’t help that contemporary phenomena like ghosting—i.e. someone disappearing into the digital ether—has become commonplace, especially in the world of online dating.
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Text messages are also breeding grounds for miscommunication. Much of our traditional communication happens nonverbally—through body language and tone and emoting. These are all much more difficult to convey through text, and can cause significant friction (think of the notorious period at the end of a text).
Mental health professionals are starting to see anxiety around texting show up in their offices more often, and it’s part of a new area of research and treatment related to mobile devices and online communication. Texting and social media can make life more difficult for patients who already have underlying depression and anxiety, says Nicholas Carson, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and researcher at Cambridge Health Alliance in Boston.
“There are positive aspects—it can help people stay in touch with friends and family,” Carson says. “But then there’s addiction and compulsive use.” And that can manifest in multiple ways, from disrupted sleep, anger issues, and threatened relationships to heightened social anxiety.
The treatment for texting anxiety, though, is still developing. Some of the ways we treat traditional anxiety disorders can be helpful—methods like cognitive behavioral therapy, SSRIs, and psychotherapy. But when it comes to mobile devices, Carson says therapy might also include using your phone less, or at certain times, and changing the configuration of your apps and notifications.
It’s not just mental health professionals who are noticing that we need to reassess our mobile phone habits to adjust to a relatively new phenomenon: Organizations like the Center for Humane Technology exist for this very purpose.
The initiative, started by former Googler Tristan Harris, has recommendations for texting in less stressful ways. Sending audio notes instead of texts, for example, could help limit the miscommunication that happens when you can’t tell someone’s tone through a text. And using the quick reactions feature (the thumbs ups and hearts on iMessage, for example) can help craft a quick, emotional response to a message.
For me, curbing some of the stress and anxiety I had around texting meant establishing a schedule through which I engaged with my phone, and a predictable cadence with the people I interact with on a daily basis. I’ve since read about couples, and families, who have similarly worked out their own texting guidelines. It can feel forced at times, and kind of vulnerable to say out loud, but the result was not feeling glued to my phone all day long, or being unable to concentrate when waiting for someone’s response.
In our current weird and overconnected world, I think that makes it worth acknowledging that “textiety” is real, no matter how dumb it sounds.
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