What Constantly Texting Your Friends Is Doing To Your Anxiety

Photo: Meg O'Donnell
Are you the kind of person that speaks to your friends at every opportunity? Probably. Aren't we all that person? Whereas once you had to pick up the house phone, dial your friend's number and actually speak to them out loud (gross), now, all that stands between you and your best friend is a couple of taps in a free messenger app.
Comforting, right? But could this unlimited access actually be bad for you?
Perhaps, says an article from clinical psychologist Danielle Einstein published on The Conversation. It turns out, there's a difference between texting your friends saying "omg I just saw a pigeon that looked like Bruno Mars" and "My boss hates me so much, I am so bad at my job, am I going to get fired today?"
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The former is harmless. A (debatably) humorous observation shared from one person to another for no reason other than to make the recipient smile. The second, however, according to Einstein, could be indicative of "intolerance to uncertainty", affect our "self-management" skills and actually, in the long run, only increase our anxieties. "Smart phones and social media apps," she says, "mean we can easily contact other people to obtain reassurance when facing a worrying situation instead of coping with it ourselves."
See, a little uncertainty is actually good for us. In fact, Einstein cites a study from the Journal of Anxiety Disorders which shows that people suffering from mental health issues like anxiety and depression do not deal well with uncertainty. Trying to prevent ourselves from experiencing any uncertainty, then, by seeking outside reassurance before we've had a chance to rationalise it in our own minds, could be problematic.
And it makes sense. Receiving a reply from your friend instantly – "You're absolutely not going to lose your job, your boss is a total dick and you're really great" – may provide some instant respite – "Phew ok, someone thinks I'm great, it's ok" – but past that, is there any takeaway that could help you in the future? Texting your friend for comfort hasn't forced you to think about the situation analytically. What evidence is there that you're going to get fired? Does your boss really hate you or are you letting your own insecurities form opinions in your mind? Perhaps you should think about leaving your job if it's a particularly toxic situation?
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Part of anxiety is learning to live with uncertainty. Einstein points to a study of hers that provides the possibility that psychologists who make their clients sit back and wait to find out the outcome of a particularly uncertain situation experience success. "Targeting the Need for Predictability" says the study, which was published in the journal Clinical Psychology Science and Practice, "Could increase resilience." Or in layman's terms: Preventing every situation from having a predictable outcome can actually be good for those who suffer to relinquish control.
Staying at work, waiting to see that your boss probably won't fire you today (unless you've done something truly questionable in the stationery cupboard), may provide you with evidence to present to yourself next time you have this same fear about getting fired. Getting instant respite from a friend means next time your mind could take you even deeper into the fear.
Having said that, opening up about things is hugely important. It's just about doing it in the right way. "If something unpleasant happens, it is healthy to talk to someone and reflect on a situation that upsets us," advises Einstein.
So don't hold back, perhaps just think about why you're opening up.
If you are struggling with anxiety and not sure where to turn, please contact your GP or Mind.
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