Responding to people online or through text seems like an easy task, right? You simply read what is sent to you and respond accordingly. However, for people with anxiety disorders or who are experiencing heightened anxiety, it can be a challenge to even open the message sent to them.
Since last spring, most of our forms of communication have become solely online — relying on email or text message. How does this affect the way we think about communicating? Why does it seem like more and more people are struggling with online classes and communication more than ever?
Sean Murphy, a Ph.D student in the UT counseling psychology program, described how increased social isolation contributes to the intensity of someone’s stress and anxiety towards communication.
“Loneliness and isolation have been linked with depression, as well as anxiety. As a result of depressive symptoms, we may lack the motivation to respond to messages,” Murphy said. “Again, without having the non-verbal cues to interpret how responses are landing, we tend to be less likely to respond.”
Non-verbal cues, like facial expressions and tone of voice, can assure someone of the nature of a conversation. When communicating through email or instant messaging, non-verbal cues are lacking, causing uncertainty in the essence of how someone is addressing you.
Murphy said that to people prone to social anxiety, they can default to interpreting messages negatively. This can interfere with their motivation to respond.
“Everyone's anxiety is subjective and different, however, we again see a pattern of self-fulfilling prophecy. Some thought processes that can contribute to this is what cognitive behavioral psychologists refer to as ‘cognitive distortions.’ These common thought patterns can cause individuals to catastrophize an outcome, see things in black or white or a number of other unwanted and automatic thoughts,” Murphy said. “These cognitive distortions can zap motivation, but the good news is that a little self-knowledge goes a long way. Recognizing unwanted or unhelpful thoughts as a cognitive distortion can help to combat the negative behavioral consequences.”
Murphy described self-awareness as a major aid in dispelling perceived potential disasters that can cause people to avoid different tasks. Being overwhelmed can cloud your judgement about the severity of a situation. To improve clarity, take a step back from what you are doing and reevaluate it once you have calmed down.
An important misconception that arises among college students is referring to any kind of delayed action as “procrastination.” Many people prone to procrastination are people with extremely high standards for their own work and who harshly judge themselves. Procrastination is extremely harmful to one’s mental health and can also cause harm physically too, in the form of insomnia and lowering the strength of one’s immune system.
Murphy described a cycle between procrastination and anxiety, and he advises people to portion off their tasks rather than take them all on at once.
“In its most basic form, anxiety and procrastination form a vicious cycle, where anxiety begets procrastination and procrastination begets anxiety in a negative feedback loop. … The initial anxiety about responding actually ends up confirming our suspicion that we are incapable of responding,” Murphy said.”One way of combating this is by portioning off tasks into more manageable bits. Any amount of work can help disprove the theory that we are incapable of completing something and that it is futile to make the attempt.”
While some stress and anxiety are normal and good for motivation, an overabundance of it can be overbearing and promote an endless cycle of procrastination. If anxiety is debilitating to your schoolwork or everyday tasks, this can lead to serious consequences, like appearing incapable or lazy to superiors or advisors.
Murphy described the ways that not responding to others can affect your work and personal relationships negatively, which causes long term problems.
“As many of us can probably relate to: No response is a response. Although those of us who are experiencing anxiety may even obsessively worry about responding, a lack of prompt response is taken for apathy by the recipient,” Murphy said. “Especially when relationships are important and the topic is complex, people can put additional pressure on themselves to get the response perfect, which is seldom a reasonable goal. In a work environment, this could be interpreted as an employee not fulfilling their responsibilities.”
Sometimes, it is better to complete things or get back to someone in a non-perfect way. Instead of avoiding the issue completely, anxiety can be reduced by finishing a response or task in the most simple way possible. As hard as it may be for a perfectionist, completing things imperfectly is a great first step at reducing the amount of pressure on yourself.
In a TED Talk by Olivia Remes, a mental health researcher at the University of Cambridge, titled “How to cope with anxiety,” Remes discussed how there are coping mechanisms that can help lower, not erase, your anxiety and can help you feel more in control of stressful situations.
The first coping mechanism mentioned by Remes is aimed at feeling more control over your life.
“A way to overcome indecision and this lack of control in life, is to do it badly,” Remes said in the TED Talk. “This will make it that much easier to start something, and as you're doing it badly to finish it, when you look back, you'll realize, more often than not, that actually it's not that bad.”
Instead of setting extremely high standards for yourself, try to accomplish things simply; there is always a way for you to improve upon things after you complete them By simply completing a task, you will gain confidence in your ability to be productive, and this will reduce your overall stress.
The second coping strategy mentioned by Remes is to forgive yourself.
“If you had a panic attack and are embarrassed about it, forgive yourself; if you wanted to talk to someone, but couldn't muster up the courage to do so, don't worry about it. Let it go; forgive yourself for anything and everything, and this will give you greater compassion towards yourself,” Remes said.
By forgiving yourself for your mishaps in the past, you are minimizing the stigma of doing that same action again in the future. That means that if you forgive yourself for failing at something, when you are encountering that same task, you won’t have as much fear and anxiety around doing it again. Failing at some things is better than failing at everything, so forgive yourself and keep trying in the future.
The third coping resource is the simplest, yet sometimes hardest one for someone suffering from depression and anxiety: finding a purpose and meaning in life.
“Whatever we do in life, whatever work we produce, however much money we make, we cannot be fully happy until we know that someone else needs us, that someone else depends on our accomplishments, or on the love that we have to share,” Remes said. “It's not that we need other people's good words to keep going in life, but if we don't do something with someone else in mind, then we're at much higher risk for poor mental health.”
Remes suggested volunteering, sharing knowledge with others and keeping someone important to you in mind throughout the day as ways to uphold this third coping resource in your life. Being generous with your thoughts and actions promotes better mental standing and can help you with your own internal struggles.
Even having plants or a pet to take care of can give you a sense of indispensability. Taking care of something other than yourself can give you something to look forward to each day.
Murphy also recommended seeking exercise and mindfulness practices as ways to decrease stress, making it easier to approach anxiety-inducing tasks. Murphy recommended participating in therapy or counseling for a general increase in positive behavior.
“Anxiety robs us of the present because it thrives on worry about an uncertain future,” Murphy said. “If someone is really struggling with motivation or completing tasks, working through some of the obstacles with a counselor or therapist can be helpful.”
One positive aspect from COVID-19 is the availability for services to be offered through alternative means. There are many different telecounseling services available to help people struggling with their mental health.
If you are feeling hopeless and are struggling with completing simple tasks, it might be time for you to contact your doctor or look into some telehealth counseling services.
Keep in mind the coping resources described above: complete tasks badly, forgive yourself and keep your inspiration in mind. These mechanisms can help lower your stress and by reducing your initial anxiety, you can focus on the quality of your work and slowly build more confidence in yourself through time.