Ask the Experts

ADD and Phone Anxiety

Do you hate talking on the phone because there are no visual cues to keep you engaged in the conversation? Do you avoid voicemail? Find yourself spacing out during conversations? If so, try these two strategies to conquer phone anxiety with ADHD.

Q: I am anxious about everything related to the phone. I hate talking on the phone and playing back voice messages. I think it’s because I’m fearful of what they might say. It’s hard to talk on the phone because there are no visual cues to keep me engaged in the conversation. I’m also afraid of spacing out during a conversation, or taking the other person’s words the wrong way. How do I manage my phone anxiety?

Many people diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) feel the same way about the phone. I often say (jokingly) that not listening to voicemail should be one of the diagnostic criteria of ADD.

Let’s break down your phone challenges into skill factors and anxiety factors. Each requires different interventions. On the skills side, talking on the phone is harder for you than talking in person because your attention wanders and you don’t have visual feedback. Talking on the phone (and texting even more so) is a “narrower” form of communication than talking in person, so your concerns make sense.

[Free Download: How to Get Better at Small Talk]

Reduce Background Noise to Hear What Is Being Said

It is easier to focus on a conversation if you reduce distractions (noise and activity) — by going to a quiet place to talk, not making or answering calls under noisy or distracting conditions, or asking your phone mate to go to a quieter place during the call. You can also reduce noise by wearing earphones when taking or making a call. You mention that not seeing the other person is a problem for you. Perhaps you can switch to video chat (FaceTime, Zoom, or Skype) if the other person is comfortable with that.

To keep track of the conversation, ask for clarification from time to time: “OK, so I will bring the drinks and you will bring the dessert?” or “I want to make sure I got this right….” The worst that can happen is that the person will think you’re super-diligent. Another idea is to make notes about what you want to say during the call, along with language you’d like to use. Check off the points as you address them. Also, make notes from the call, so it is easier to remember what was discussed.

Don’t Avoid What Makes You Anxious

On the anxiety side, I say that competence breeds confidence. If you have faith in your ability to manage calls, you will have less reason to be anxious. Anxiety tempts us to avoid things that make us uncomfortable, which creates even more anxiety. Biting the bullet and answering or returning a call is much better. Most people get angry over their calls or voicemails going unanswered, not over your misinterpreting something they said. People are more forgiving about what they see as honest mistakes than they are about choices you make — namely, choosing to avoid them.

Remember that the more anxious you are in a phone conversation, the more likely you are to misinterpret or not hear what someone says. Anxiety eats up mental bandwidth that is better used processing what is being said and how to respond. Doing some relaxation exercises before making a call will make it easier for you to bring your best to the conversation.

[Read This: 6 Ways to a Worry-Free Mind]

Ari Tuckman, Psy.D., MBA, is a member of the ADDitude ADHD Medical Review Panel.