If you're already someone who sweats the small stuff, you may be well aware of the stress that texting can add to your life. Even if you're literally #chill (can't relate) and aren't likely to lose sleep over that too-niche joke you made to your co-workers that didn't land, texting can still be a strain on your mental wellbeing. If you've ever felt anxiety when someone doesn’t text back or lost sleep wondering if you chose the wrong emoji, understanding the psychology behind texting anxiety may just help you learn how to deal with the stress. In fact, the root of your text anxiety could be something engrained in you that you don't even know is there.
"Texting as a medium can be difficult because how it is received is 1) out of your control, and 2) has no tone or inflection, like a phone call would, to let you know if you are understood,” Diana Dorell, intuitive dating coach and author of The Dating Mirror: Trust Again Love Again, previously told Elite Daily. “Everything can get amplified in our own head and interpreted.”
While texts get sent virtually in some sort of cyberspace no one really understands, the stress from texting and the feeling of anxiety when someone leaves you on read is totally real and happens IRL. And if you've texted someone four times in a row only to immediately regret it or if you've looked at a long text from an ex with doom in your heart, then know you are in good company. Here’s why texting anxiety exists, according to science.
Is Texting Anxiety Real?
As a 2019 study by Asurion — a global tech protection and support company — reported, the average American checks their phone 96 times a day. That’s once every 10 minutes. Of the study's 1,998 participants, 75% admitted to looking at their phone while other people were speaking to them, and nearly 20% even said they do this frequently. With nearly half of Americans say their smartphones actually help them achieve more work life balance, not less, it's clear that the stress one feels from texting isn't all in their head.
As iconic pop star Lorde said, "I overthink your punctuation use, not my fault, just a thing that my mind do." From overthinking punctuation to emojis to how long between responses, Lorde is totally right — it isn't your fault, and it is just a thing that your mind does. If your high school health class included visuals of your brain on various substances, you may already be familiar with the neurotransmitter dopamine and all its glory.
For those of you who weren't subject to glossy posters of the brain from the '80s, dopamine is linked to feelings of pleasure and happiness and feeling a sense of reward. It's something we're all after, and something that can be super stimulated by getting a text from a cutie or sending a super funny meme to your partner. Causing the pleasure center to pop off, it may not seem like dopamine would be the source of texting stress, but alas, it may be the culprit. Research on dopamine has linked the neurotransmitter to feelings of seeking or longing, in addition to pleasure and receiving, meaning: You get a wave of happy when you send or get a text, but a thunderstorm of reply to me now when waiting for a response, and a monsoon of I will literally never go outside again if read receipts are involved.
Why Does Texting Anxiety Happen?
The dopamine in your brain can make you excited when your phone lights up — but also totally anxious when you see that your text was read. This cycle can create a sort of never-ending loop, like periods or bad fashion. Dopamine looping is put on overdrive with the instant nature of texting. After years of smart phone conditioning, your brain is used to instant access to everything it wants. With your brain in the habit of getting waves of dopamine instantly — like, from Googling that actress in that indie movie to seamlessly namedropping her to your new Bumble boo or buying Boy Brow the second it goes on sale — you start to expect a reply instantly, and low-key lose it when you don't get one.
As Dr. LeslieBeth Wish, psychotherapist and author of Training Your Love Intuition, previously told Elite Daily, "Many people have text anxiety. It's the surprise element that can get to us. We wonder: Is this good news or bad? Even if you each feel that your relationship is on firm ground, you can still get that little catch in your throat or that skip in your heartbeat each time you hear that message ding from your phone." And with ghosting or leaving people on read on the rise, it's easy to assume the worst when you haven't heard from someone you've been texting.
Like a boy in a bad indie band, dopamine thrives off of uncertainty and anticipation. Wanting someone to reply makes you want them to reply more, and not knowing what they are going to say makes you unable to not be thinking about it. Brain scan studies reported that the brain is more active when it's anticipating something, rather than when it literally receives it. Meaning you may be checking your phone in the shower, à la He's Just Not That Into You, expecting and daydreaming about the amazing response you're going to get, and when you finally get it, your brain may not be super fazed. Weird flex there, brain, but OK.
Of course, if you're texting a new cutie, someone from a dating app you haven't met IRL yet, or are in a tense convo with a partner or hookup, there could be some social anxieties disguised as inbox-related stress. "We always feel anxious if there is a risk of rejection," Dr. Dominique Samuels, the resident psychologist for relationship health app Emi Couple, previously told Elite Daily. “"The minute that the '...' is moving, or you look at the phone expectedly, your fear increases.” If you worry you're annoying someone, or they're not going to like you back, or you’re being "too much,” the uncertainty of texting — compared to say, face-to-face interactions — can totally crank up the anxiety you're feeling.
How Can You Manage Texting Anxiety?
If you're feeling texting uneasiness with a partner, it may be helpful to talk in person about healthy phone boundaries or to move big conversations from texting to calling. You know your boo cares deeply about you, so if you're feeling any sort of stress from your phone interaction, it's totally OK to ask for some clarification. And if you're feeling texting stress with a new boo, it may be because you're not super comfy with them yet (which is totally valid!). Meeting in person or calling them on the phone may help to gauge what their communication style is, and though it may seem intimidating to discuss texting etiquette with someone new, the discomfort you may feel in the moment could be totally worth getting on the same page for the foreseeable future.
"You can say in person or on the phone something like: 'You know I love getting your texts — and so I get distracted too easily! Please help me out by texting just a few happy things or confirmation of getting together or change of plans,'" Dr. Wish previously suggested. "This approach sets the ground rules without your having to appear anxious or vulnerable or negative and rejecting." If you need your boo to text you back in a timely manner, or if you don't like to text during school or work, it's also OK to establish some healthy boundaries, no matter how many dates you've been on.
While it seems like the little box in your hand is begging for your attention instantly, you don’t have to respond right away. “Use the medium to your advantage — a benefit to texting is that you do not have to respond immediately," licensed psychotherapist Kate Deibler previously told Elite Daily. "In a spoken conversation, it can feel strange to slow things down, but texting is more forgiving when it comes to timing. Use this to think about what it is you want from the conversation.” In fact, remembering this for yourself may help you engage with others’ texts more easily as well.
It’s also helpful to not assume the worst right away. When it comes to dating, sometimes we want to see rejection before it’s actually there as a method of self-preservation. If the person you’re texting is consistently not responsive, then it’s time to step back, but when you’re just getting to know someone, give them some time. “The worst thing you can do is to overanalyze the text you've received and how to respond," online dating expert Julie Spira previously pointed out. "I recommend thinking about how you'd react to a friend's text and respond similarly."
If you're feeling plagued by texting anxiety, there are some awesome ways you can start to suppress the stress. Try having dinner with friends and making everyone put their phones in a pile or spending one night a week with your phone off. Ask people to call you instead of text you, or talk to the people you're texting about a realistic texting timeline. Make a list of everything you love about yourself, all your accomplishments, and everything you're proud of in your life and refer back to it when you're holding your breathe waiting for a reply. If you're really feeling spicy, go out to lunch or to the store or to a friend's and leave your phone at home. You may be happy you did.
Don't let the digital aspects fool you — feeling stress from texting is physically real. If you're feeling uneasy about an unread message or if three exclamation points were too many, there may be some dopamine to blame. Of course, you are amazing and anyone who is texting you is lucky to be in your inbox — and that is something you can unabashedly leave on read.
Kate Deibler, licensed psychotherapist
Julie Spira, online dating expert
Asurion. (2019). Americans Check Their Phones 96 Times a Day. https://www.asurion.com/about/press-releases/americans-check-their-phones-96-times-a-day/
Kent C. Berridge and Terry E. Robinson. (2019). What is the role of dopamine in reward: hedonic impact, reward learning, or incentive salience?: Brain Research Reviews, 28, 1998. 309–369.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated by Elite Daily Staff.
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