August 11, 2020  |  David R. Novak

Anxiety & Communication

Anxiety & Communication

Anxiety. Nervousness. That dread that pops up during, or in anticipation of, a communication interaction. Let me be clear that communication certainly isn’t the only thing that stimulates anxiety. Anxiety has biological, neurological, psychological, and even philosophical explanations and causes.

I am not a medical doctor. I am not licensed in any way, shape, or form. Medically and neurologically-speaking, what I know about anxiety consists of what I read on Wikipedia. I can’t tell you what anxiety drugs work or their side effects. I can’t tell you what is happening physiologically or neurologically when you have a panic or anxiety attack. I can’t even tell you what behavioral therapies would be prescribed to manage social anxiety. If that’s what you need, go talk to a psychologist, psychiatrist, or other licensed medical professional.

What I can tell you is that, without question, people experience anxiety related to communicating with others. Some people, with great regularity.

Why is that, if communicating comes so naturally to us?

Anxiety can be sliced and diced and poked and prodded from multiple angles. Psychiatrists will tell you one thing, a psychoanalyst —something else. Neurologist? Different explanation still. And this doesn’t take into account the health scientists, public speaking teachers, or even those pesky philosophers!

If you have any anxiety about any aspects of communicating, first things first, you’re not alone. Second, if you’re able to better pinpoint what it is that causes you anxiety about communicating, well, that’s the first step to figuring out how manage anxiety. And you’re already heading down the path of communicating better.

Anxiety & The Self

We’re often causers of our own anxiety. Anxiety seems to work as such, sending us down spiraled paths of increasing dread and despair until we snap out some how. We wind ourselves in knots over the ideas in our head, how we anticipate things are going to be, how they are, how they were, or how they went.

I get it. I have a brain in my head too.

A lot of people fill their heads with negative self-talk. Sometimes my brain tells me things I’d rather it didn’t. And the voice in my head isn’t particularly negative. I know for others, a negative voice, pumping up that self-doubt is the norm.

Where does that come from? Evolution? Culture? Are our brains primed for anxiety somehow due to ancestral genetic or neurological residue? A modern manifestation of fight or flight, perhaps? Does it result from culture? Is anxiety one of the ripple effects of the amplification of negative messages? Maybe. Sometimes anxiety just seems to stem directly from the self, origins be damned — some early memory, a stimuli trigger, or anticipation of things yet to occur.

Anxiety can be anywhere.

Communication — the act itself, or the anticipation of it — surely causes a lot of anxiety for people though it’s only one cause or source among many.

Many people often fret the wrong things about communicating if you ask me. For example, nervousness about exactly correct wording or phrasing to achieve a communication goal is effort incorrectly spent as far as I’m concerned. Exact phrasings don’t matter all that much in everyday conversation. Communication just happens. We work it out. Exact wordings usually aren’t worth losing sleep over. Volume of communication is another. How much is just the right amount? There is no exact right amount of communication. Don’t worry about those sorts of things.

I have my own anxieties about communicating, of course. For example, I’ve dreaded conversations with a person because a prior interaction didn’t go well. I’ve felt nauseous prior to high-stakes conversations with work supervisors. I’ve also paced circles rehearsing how to say something in anticipation of an emotionally-charged conversation. Large groups of people wear me down after a while. I’m experienced enough that I know my limits. Anxieties all my own.

Hell is Other People

When communicating, other people can cause anxiety. (That’s an understatement.) Sometimes, communicating with other humans, or particular humans just isn’t that fun.

If so, and that interaction can be avoided, that’s probably your best course, problem solved. If it cannot, you’re going to have to find ways to manage that anxiety or behave in that relationship in a way that is not so anxiety-inducing (if possible). You can try getting the other person to change, but that’s on them, not on you, and isn’t often realistic anyways. Plenty of people have no interest in changing.

I worked for someone whose manners of interacting caused me a great deal of stress and anxiety. The relationship actually started out pretty well. I was excited to work for them and to build a relationship. We did build a relationship but it certainly was not the one I dreamed of it my head or hoped for after our early encounters. Because of how they were as a manager, how they spoke to me (or didn’t) at times, political games they would play and more, their encroachment towards my office door or an email landing in my inbox was enough for my anxiety to bubble.

We all have our own stories to tell about how others create anxiety in us. The ways in which others can behave in ways that cause us anxiety are beyond quantification.

Situational Anxiety

Situations cause anxiety too. Ever feared giving a speech? That’s an anxiety-causing communication situation. Having taught public speaking in a past life, I’ve seen some things. Every public speaking teacher has. I’ve seen: fainting, panic attacks, someone who walked straight out of the class mid-speech, and even one student — in what I imagine was some sort of mild psychotic event — who rubbed chicken wing sauce around his lips prior to starting his speech.

Anxiety causes people to do some crazy things. And situational anxiety certainly isn’t limited to giving speeches.

Plenty of people’s holidays with family, for example, cause them anxiety. Others dread first dates. Even others stress about hitting send on emails because emails are so…final. Whatever it is, you’re not alone. Anxious about talking to doctors? Lots of people are. It’s an intimidating situation: lots of information, very personal, can be overwhelming or emotionally heavy, and it all happens in a sterile non-personal environment. There’s a lot to be anxious about, frankly.

Do you go the other way when you see a salesperson approaching? I have. Come to think of it, I’m sure there’s plenty of retail workers out there who dread customers approaching them with a question. Anxiety about communicating.

You never know quite where communication anxiety is going to come from or when it will pop up. Plenty of situations cause anxiety. Often, we worry about being judged. This is closer to the clinical definition of social anxiety: an intense, persistent fear of being watched and judged by others. It certainly isn’t unreasonable to sometimes be worried about other’s reactions. How often that is healthy? I don’t know that is a question with an answer. For most of us, anxiety isn’t extreme enough for a clinical diagnosis, but your run-of-the-mill everyday anxiety is plenty enough.

Technological Channels

Channels are the last category I’d like to discuss related to communication and anxiety. Channels are all different, each with their own shape, impact, and outcomes. It’s also safe to assume that channels can cause anxiety. They all do so in different ways for different people. Some channels don’t cause anxiety at all…for you. I, for example, don’t enjoy talking on the phone all that much. I never really have and don’t know quite why. Certain types of phone calls ratchet up my nervousness more than others. Cold-calling anyone is basically the worst. Calling in to a service center of any kind is a close second.

Certain forms of social media, as another example, stimulate all kinds of anxieties that we’ve only grown aware of since…well, since social media has been around. Every communication channel out there likely stimulates anxiety for someone. There’s is: fear of mail, television-induced anxiety, and texting anxiety. And plenty of face-to-face situations cause anxiety as well: meeting new people, being called on to a question, or being on an interview.

What channels of communication cause you anxiety?

Communication anxiety can be a real challenge. There is a lot about communicating with others that can cause anxiety. I fear harping on anxiety because generally speaking communicating with others is fun, but the flipside of that has to be acknowledged. Don’t overthink or fret the wrong things. Communication moves on quickly. This isn’t to say it’s wrong to worry about your interactions with others. Healthy anticipation and visualization can be great tools for better interactions. We can learn to manage situations and adapt our behavior, hopefully towards better outcomes and a less anxious communication process.

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