Telephobia isn’t a fear of phones as objects; it is performance anxiety related to being on or making a call. Claire Eastham shares five tips for overcoming this common fear.
I’m much better on paper than I am in person.
This statement has made many people laugh over the years. They appreciate what they presume to be my sense of humour. But, little do they know that I’m being deadly serious.
For someone with social anxiety, doing things “live on air” can be stressful. What if, for example, I say something foolish or offensive? What if the other person is rude, and I don’t know how to respond? What if I freeze? The pleasant and enjoyable conversation that comes so naturally to others can feel like a battle for me.
This is natural to a certain extent. Real life, after all, doesn't come with a script. You can't think about what you'll say (for more than a few seconds at least) or edit if you make a mistake.
Can you imagine?
“Oh, excuse me, a moment ago, I mispronounced a word. Can we rewind so I can correct this and look much cooler?”
Unsurprisingly, shaming my anxiety didn’t make it any better
This fear of interacting "live on air" started at a young age for me. As a teenager, the one thing guaranteed to induce anxiety was a phone call. This was back when nobody had a mobile, and landlines were connected to the handset with a cord. Ours was in the kitchen, a family hotspot for hanging out. So not only would I have to interact with someone on the phone, but I’d also have an audience.
My parents noticed my phone avoidance and decided to deal with it the way only 90s parents could - with "tough love." They made me answer every phone call to the house, thinking this would cure my fear. Unfortunately, it only made things worse. I was on edge all evening, waiting for the dreaded ringing to start, jumping out of my skin if it did.
“Why do you do that?” they’d ask. “Why are you being weird?” Therefore, cementing my irrational belief that I was “different,” and not in a good way.
Making phone calls can feel like a particularly cruel and unusual form of torture
The only thing worse than answering the phone was making a phone call; this put me in the hot seat. I was the one initiating the conversation. I was the one in charge, the one who wanted something.
Obtaining an appointment from my local GP was particularly stressful. My heart pounded as the phone rang, and my mouth felt like sandpaper. The receptionist who answered was irritable and had trouble hearing me over the line.
"WHAT?" she interrupted as I tried to request an appointment with the nurse. "I don't know what you want. You're not making sense at all!"
Eventually, feeling exposed and vulnerable, I just hung up.
Over time, I learned more about social anxiety. I understood that my fear of being judged negatively by others was causing me to think irrational thoughts that weren't true. Rather than force myself to "be good on the phone," I needed to find ways to make myself feel more comfortable.
5 Top tips for tackling phone anxiety
1. Embrace the discomfort
Clinical Psychologist David Carbonell, who specialises in anxiety disorders, writes about “desensitisation.” This is basically, what my parents were trying to do with “tough love,” but from a more diplomatic and gentler place!
Fear and avoidance are what give anxiety its power. The fear of the symptoms, both physical and mental. The fear that we won’t be able to cope. Carbonell argues that embracing fear is the best way to deal with it.
“Increasingly spend time with anxiety, to expose yourself to the thoughts and sensations, and allow them to subside over time.” (Carbonell, “The Anxiety Trick”)
Allow anxiety to hit and let it wash over you like a wave. Don’t question it, and don't fight it. Just let it happen. From experience, I can attest that this method is very effective.
2. Practise, practise, practise
Listen to that pesky cold caller and engage in some conversation before hanging up. Ring a coffee shop and ask what time they close, or a cosmetics company and ask which items are suitable for sensitive skin. Alison Papadakis, a clinical psychology professor at Johns Hopkins University, recommends setting concrete goals, such as staying on the line for two minutes.
You could even ring The Samaritans and explain that you're doing an activity to help with your anxiety! Practise facing your fears in a safe space before building up to bigger (and possibly more public) challenges.
3. Make notes.
I still do this if I have to make a particularly difficult call. I don't mean writing a full script (I've tried that, and unfortunately, the other person never sticks to it)! Instead, make notes or jot down key phrases to keep you on track.
For example, note some bullet points for what you would like to achieve from the conversation to avoid getting flustered or sidetracked. Or, as Papadakis suggests, try saying a few things out loud to yourself before picking up the phone.
I also write down little mental health affirmations to cheer me on during a call: "Just breathe! This conversation doesn't have to be perfect!" or "You're doing great! Don't fight the anxiety!"
4. Plan your “phone call environment” ahead of time
If you work in an open-plan office and would prefer to have a specific phone call in private, then book a meeting room in advance or go to a breakout area.
I also like to practise "belly breathing” beforehand to help me feel more comfortable.
5. Be honest with would-be callers
In certain circumstances, if you genuinely feel that you would communicate better in another way, then it’s ok to voice that. For example, I prefer answering journalist questions via email rather than on the phone. I like taking my time and giving the most informative response possible.
Phone anxiety is not a reason to feel ashamed, and others shouldn't shame you for it either. With a bit of self-patience and practise, it can become much easier to manage.
NPS-IE-NP-00712 March 2023