Now More Than Ever, It’s Time to Take Telephobia Seriously

Fear of answering the phone is a legitimate social anxiety disorder. The pandemic isn't helping.

February 23, 2021 10:19 am
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Imagine you’re sitting at home enjoying a movie, out for a sunny walk in the park, or at your desk gliding through a productive day. Then, out of nowhere, some of the worst physical and emotional feelings you could have are instantly triggered. Your stomach turns, your heart starts to race, your muscles tense up. Your body breaks out in sweats, and when that trigger finally goes away, a deep guilt and sadness reigns, because you feel, however irrationally, as though you’ve just engaged in an act of self sabotage or let someone else down.  

This is what happens to some people at the sound of a telephone ringing. Their condition goes by several names, but is most commonly called “telephobia.”

“The anxiety hits when the phone rings, it hits throughout a phone call and, after the phone call is over, there’s a lot of rumination where the person obsesses about how the phone call went, and has a particular focus on the areas that they perceived did not go well,” says Steve Mazza, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist at the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders

Telephobia is a specific form of social anxiety disorder, which cultivates “fear of an awkward social interaction,” Mazza says. “This fear oftentimes exists in other contexts as well, but is exacerbated when the phone is involved because there are a lack of social or visual cues to help in facilitating a social conversation.” 

For people with telephobia, there’s “an intolerance of uncertainty” that accompanies phone calls, says Ariane Ling, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine, who’s encountered telephobia in her clinical work. At the sound of a ringer, Ling says, telephobic individuals may think to themselves, “I’m going to answer the phone, and I’m going to stumble or stutter, and this person is going to think I’m an idiot.”

“My brain tries to shut down the sound of the ringing phone,” says Thuli Nguni, a pseudonymous 32-year-old research scientist from Pretoria, South Africa, who says she lives with “extreme” telephobia. She adds in an email that when a phone call comes through, her stomach becomes upset, and she begins to speedily debate her next actions. Eventually, she calms herself down enough to see who’s calling, and then decides whether or not to take the call. If she chooses not to, her anxiety will continue through the ringing and for minutes afterward because there’s a chance the caller will dial her again. At that point, she’ll switch the phone off.

Nguni says, “I live by the motto, ‘If it’s textable, why call?’” If the phone call is a must, however, she prefers to field a request for one via text and then initiate the call herself. “At least that way, I don’t get to hear or see a call coming in because that makes me uneasy,” she says.

Telephobia symptoms only began manifesting in Nguni’s body in her late teens, when, after leaving home to attend college, she got a cell phone for the first time. Up until that point, she didn’t see the need to have her own cell phone, and would use other family members’ phones when she needed to. In college, with a phone on her at all times and increasingly visceral reactions to incoming calls, she concluded that she wasn’t a very social person. This had a troubling impact on her personal life. 

“I often hear my sister saying people are complaining to her that I ignore their calls,” Nguni says. “There will always be those who will understand you and those who will not. So, I put up statuses on my WhatsApp to explain my telephobia and assure people that if they text, I will surely respond.”

Many people who suffer from telephobia will turn their phones off completely when ringing persists.
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Griffin Condon, a 24-year-old resident of Long Island, who works and takes classes in special education, relays similar telephobia symptoms and outcomes. He experiences anxiety over texting, too. 

“I never initiate calls or texts,” Condon tells us via Twitter DM. “I have tried explaining telephobia [to people in my life] but it is such an under-the-radar thing that it has been met with deaf ears.” He adds that his telephobia has compromised his romantic life “multiple times” as well, while family members and friends “have often reached out in anger, claiming I do not care about them [and] dodge their calls.”

Like Nguni, Condon has not sought treatment for his anxiety in his adult life. During our discourse, Condon volunteers that “alcohol obviously ‘helps’ deter these feelings but in the long term may provoke them.” When I ask if he believes he’s an alcoholic, he says he doesn’t think so, and drinks as much as the average person in his age group does on weekends. But he says while attending a residential treatment center for anxiety and depression in Utah at the age of 16, counselors there “forced” the label of “addict” upon him. “Their way of therapy was incredibly manipulative,” he writes. “I spent time in self isolation. They would hold ‘being released’ over your head. I essentially just don’t trust therapists.”

According to Ling and Mazza, however, telephobia is very receptive to treatment, particularly exposure therapy.

“Usually it starts out with practicing phone calls between the therapist and the patient,” Mazza says. “So just role playing, pretending that one person is working at Apple and the other person is asking for help with an IT problem, and then actually have the patient call Apple.”

Therapists can also work their clients up a fear ladder, starting at “the bottom” with the types of calls they worry the least about. This could be calling a close friend or a loving family member. Once the patient gets comfortable with those kinds of calls, they’ll work their way up to “the top” of the fear ladder, which could be a phone call with an employer.

Other conditions can help cause social anxiety and telephobia symptoms as well. A 20-year-old college student who asked in Reddit messages to be referred to only as “Tiffany” says their ADHD sparks telephobia symptoms in them, including nervousness. (Condon also thinks his telephobia is tied to his adderall prescription.) During phone calls, “Basically there’s no visual cues to help me understand. Because there’s nothing to look at, my mind takes it upon itself to find something visual to focus on,” Tiffany says. “My friends have always joked that ‘I can’t hear without my glasses’ because I don’t quite understand everything if I can’t see lips.”

Mazza says anxiety disorders and ADHD are commonly linked as “comorbidities.” “There isn’t just one pathway to the development of a social anxiety disorder or a telephobia,” Mazza adds. “There’s usually a multitude of factors involved. ADHD would be one additional predictor that could lead to social anxiety — and not only over the telephone, but just in general, because children with ADHD tend to have difficulty picking up social cues and navigating social situations.”

Ling, whose clinical work takes place primarily at the NYU Langone Military Family Center, where most of her patients are veterans, says telephobia can also emerge as a result of trauma. “It’s always been in the context of receiving really terrible, fatal news on the phone,” Ling says of her experience with telephobia in veterans. “It leads to a lot of avoidance of the telephone; we see a wariness of picking up any calls [from phone numbers] they don’t recognize.”

A 67-year-old woman from the Southwest, who through Reddit messages of her own asked to be referred to as “DesertRose,” says her telephobia symptoms, ironically, worsened after retiring as a receptionist. She says she is “startled” by a phone ringing, “like a fight or flight reaction,” and though she didn’t enjoy using the phone at work, says she never mentioned her discomfort to her bosses. “I would just suck it up and deal with it,” she says. 

But the trauma of an abusive relationship, which ended three and a half years ago, has since triggered harsher telephobia symptoms in her. “The guy was very controlling and was always on me about who I was talking to on the phone,” she says. 

DesertRose puts off doctor’s appointments because scheduling them over the phone is too difficult. She must “psych” herself up to get them done, she says. 

And when a pastor in her church asked her to do some volunteer work that involved making outreach phone calls, she turned him down. She communicates with her daughter only through email and with others through Reddit. 

Video-based calls on platforms like FaceTime are also unpleasant for DesertRose. The pandemic conditions, which have driven many to video-conferencing platforms, haven’t helped her, nor Griffin Condon. In his case, the crisis has worsened his anxiety because he must take part in classes over video-conferencing platforms. 

“I have lost participation points out of an inability to answer questions on Zoom,” he says. “Yet in a classroom I would be one of the most active participants.”

Like so much else in the mental health world, however, telephobia symptoms operate on a spectrum and modulate on a case-by-case basis. 

“Zoom calls or any other forms of video conferencing are not that much of a problem,” writes Thuli Nguni. She says this is the case for her because video-conference platform calls “are scheduled and they usually have an agenda, which means I can take part with an idea of what I will be dealing with.” (Video conferencing also supplies more visual cues than audio-only phone calls, which could be helping Nguni, too.)

Google search results for “telephobia” turn up a lot of content about how it affects people at work, particularly if they’re in the sales industry. Ling and Mazza say concessions for such employees that allow them to avoid phone calls altogether won’t help the problem. Instead, those employers should help any of their workers living with telephobia — whose jobs are protected by federal law — receive treatment for the condition. The first hurdle may be in overcoming the social stigma against mental health issues. 

But, says Ling of telephobia, and all the disruptive symptoms that come with it: “This doesn’t have to ruin your life or employment or these other important aspects of someone’s experience.”

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