Is It Normal to Get Email Anxiety?
Do you feel unreasonably anxious when replying to emails? You aren’t alone.
Anxiety over our inboxes is a real issue, and the sending of emails is a widespread trigger for people who suffer from stress-related to social or productivity pressures.
With email, there’s no way to predict how the recipient will respond, and unlike in face-to-face conversations, it may be several days before you receive an answer.
It’s no wonder that email communication, especially for marketing or other business purposes, causes some people stress.
While there is not yet any substantial scientific evidence as to the “normalcy” of inbox anxiety, it does appear to be a widespread phenomenon that causes many people to struggle.
In her book, Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions, and Get Real, author Jocelyn K. Glei works to get to the root of this issue.
The book’s early chapters examine the science surrounding society’s email addiction, as well as explaining what gives our inboxes the control to make us so nervous.
Among the facts that Ms. Glei’s book shares, the following struck us the most:
Why Do We Get Email Anxiety?
We’re Hooked on Doing
In the 1930s, psychologist B.F. Skinner’s experiments on conditioning found that rats get more motivation from random rewards (push a lever, get a big treat, a small gift, or nothing at random) than from fixed ones (push a lever, get a treat every time).
In the same way, every time we visit our inboxes, we may get an exciting email (the reward) or something the complete opposite—but we can never know which, and the possibility keeps us hooked.
Says Glei, “Most of the time when you ‘press the lever’ to check your email messages, you get something…bothersome—a communication from a frustrated client or a boss with an urgent request.
But every once in a while, you press the lever, and you get something exciting…It’s those random rewards…that we find so addictive.”
Emails Never Get ‘Done’
Whenever we finish a task, our brain gives us a shot of dopamine—one of the “feel-good chemicals” responsible for human happiness. Naturally, this makes us want to finish our tasks.
But, explains Glei, because handling email can never really be “finished,” it leaves us frustrated, chasing a goalpost that doesn’t exist.
“While you attend to it,” she says, “you have the false sensation of advancing toward a goal, but…the target shifts further into the distance as more messages roll in.”
We Seek Security from Social Cues
It’s well known that a lot of human communication is done not with words, but through our facial expressions, body language, and tone. However, online discussion doesn’t come with these cues, and it can make interactions more difficult.
Psychologists have found that our brains interpret written messages as more negative than they really are. “Every message you send gets automatically downgraded a few positivity notches by the time someone else receives it,” says Glei.
“If the sender felt positive about an email, then the receiver usually just felt neutral. And if the sender felt neutral about the message, then the receiver typically felt negative about it.”
The result? You’re unlikely to feel great about the emails you get, ever.
We Aim to Please
There have been many studies done that show humans tend to follow the “rule of reciprocity.” Ms. Glei explains that “At its most basic level, this means that we want to respond to a positive action with another positive action.”
For example, if your mother sends you a quick “Good morning!” message, you feel inclined to send her a “Thanks Mom!”
Likewise, if your manager sends out a notice about Tuesday’s meeting that doesn’t need a reply, you still feel pressure to send one.
To be honest, the majority of this stress is all in our heads—rooted in our brains’ perceptions of the world. But the consequences reach further than our psyches. They affect the way we do our work, experience our creativity (or don’t), and can also affect our health.
“Email is killing our productivity,” said Glei, when asked what led her to write about the subject. “The average person checks their email 11 times an hour…and spends 28% of their total workweek on email.” In other words, we check our inboxes once every 5.4 minutes on average!
So how can we start to throw off old habits and address the email conundrum?
Pay Attention to Our Email Anxiety Triggers
When Someone Takes a Long Time to Reply
When you’re expecting a quick response to an email, and it doesn’t come, you may end up spinning explanatory stories in your head. Usually, these explanations will involve social rejection.
The human brain, especially an anxious one, tends to go for contrary reasoning over positive. You may worry that you said something hurtful without knowing it, and now your recipient is angry or hates you.
When an Email Lacks Enthusiasm
When people communicate in person, a large part of that communication comes from our facial expressions, body language, and other unspoken cues.
Because email lacks this extra context, some people use various emojis or exclamation points to make their messages feel friendlier.
One downside of the practice is that anxious people when faced with an email that doesn’t include these positive signals, may read into it a level of cold neutrality or even negativity that isn’t there.
This negative bias is a common problem for anxiety sufferers.
The Number of Emails in Your Inbox and the Stress of Being Constantly Connected
It’s an unfortunate fact of modern life that email takes up a considerable amount of our time and energy. This is especially true when it comes to our work, but it can often encroach on personal time as well.
It’s frustrating and stressful when you don’t have time for essential tasks because you’re continually knee-deep in your inbox.
Managing Email Anxiety
Managing your anxiety over emails is the same as managing stress caused by anything else.
You’ll have to learn ways to keep the fear in check, such as tracking its various triggers and finding ways to handle them in turn. Once you know your triggers, you can start brainstorming ways to stop the anxiety before it gets out of control.
Changing your habits can be anxiety-inducing in its own way, but these solutions don’t need to turn your whole work routine upside down. Some of them are surprisingly simple, and others will become easy with practice.
The main thing is to keep at it and be proactive. You may never love sending emails, but there’s no need to live in fear of them. It’s time to overcome your anxiety with the tips and tricks we’ve gathered below.
Illustrations courtesy of Shutterstock.
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Tips to Conquer Your Fear of Email
Regardless of what’s causing your email anxiety, there are options available to lessen the dread.
Consider them as a nightlight in your dark childhood bedroom—they may not eradicate the fear, but they can ease it enough for you to relax and hit send without spiraling into nightmares.
Consider the Reasons Behind Each Message You Send Out
When you compose a new email, whether it’s one quick note or part of a full-on ad campaign, take time to consider why you’re sending it.
What is its purpose? Are you trying to sell a product, get more traffic to your website, or educate your recipients?
Having a specific goal in mind will help to streamline your message, reduce nervous rambling, and prevent mistakes.
Make a Checklist
It’s harder to lose track of things when you’re marking them off as you go. Write yourself a list of what to do before you press send.
This might include things like double-checking your hyperlinks, writing a subject line, CCing the right people, or anything else your situation might require.
Get Yourself a Second Set of Eyes
Unless your email is a very informal one, you don’t want it loaded with typos and grammatical errors. This is doubly true in a professional setting. It’s pretty tricky to catch your typos.
Since you’re used to the way you spell and speak, your eyes will frequently just pass over them. Having another person to proofread your emails before sending can be an invaluable asset.
When in doubt, assume that others’ message etiquette is related to them and their schedule rather than to you. When someone takes four days to reply to your email, it can be easy to panic, wondering if you said something wrong, mistyped the address, or are due for an unfavorable response.
But how often has such a delay really been your fault? Can you think of a previous incident when a reply came late, and things still turned out fine?
Maybe the other party had a lot of work on their plate that week, or their kids were sick, and they weren’t checking their emails. These are far more likely scenarios than the catastrophes that often come to mind.
Don’t Take Silence Personally
If a friend or colleague doesn’t reply to your message, it may not mean as much as you think it does.
Keep in mind that you aren’t the only one drowning in emails—there are a lot of people who can’t reply to every message they get, even though they want to.
Other times, emails simply get lost in the deluge, and sometimes your recipient feels guilty for not replying but just can’t get around to it.
From now on, keep notes on times when you get anxious over a slow reply, and there turns out to be nothing negative behind it.
Collecting these examples, and referring back to them the next time you get anxious, is an excellent way of keeping your brain’s catastrophizing in check—or at least calming yourself down while you wait for a reply.
If your time is being eaten up by email, try using the free version of RescueTime’s computer time management software to track how much time you devote to it each day.
Once you have a concrete number, you can brainstorm ideas to help streamline your habits and reduce the time you’re wasting. One great way to begin is by shortening your emails.
Many require only a sentence or two in reply and can be edited way down. While some people are naturally concise in their writing, for most of us, this will require practice.
Make sure you aren’t harder on yourself than is realistic or necessary. Do you really need to reply to work emails on weekends or late at night? Is that something that your job requires, or is it pressure you’re putting on yourself?
When you’re worried about not getting back to someone right away, remember that people have a wide variety of work schedules and lifestyles.
The person who sent you an email at 2 A.M. may simply have done so at their convenience, not expecting you to get back to them until the next business day.
Do Some Research Into How Other Professionals Handle Their Emails
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg keeps her inbox set up so that time-sensitive after-hours emails are flagged one way, and less urgent ones are flagged for later.
Remember, too, that email overload is a widespread problem, and many of your coworkers may be struggling with the same things. It may be helpful to put your heads together and find a solution that will help your whole office or team.
If an email you’ve received makes you anxious, reread it with an eye for what it says. Better yet, try rereading on the premise that the tone is positive.
Maybe your anxiety about emails in general, combined with your brain’s tendency toward negative bias, made you miss the email’s true meaning.
In many cases, this bias blinds us to the positive signals that are present, causing us to obsess over the tiniest evidence that might back up our fears.
Pay attention to your negative assumptions and be ready to challenge them with positive ones. Consider all the possibilities, not just the ones your anxiety tries to press on you.
The reality is that you may never know what the sender of a particular email was thinking or feeling when they wrote it. They may have been upset with you, or they may not.
That’s just how email works—and why it so often leaves us worried. By learning your own biases and how to challenge them, you can and will break free of the constant worry.
Along these same lines, try reducing the effusive frills in emails you send. This doesn’t mean you should never use a smiley face or exclamation point, but scaling back their presence can help normalize their absence for yourself and others.
Then, when you meet someone who only uses commas and periods, their messages won’t feel quite so jarring and unfriendly.
Lastly, if you’ve genuinely made a mistake in grammar, spelling, or any other element of your email, remember that you’re only human.
The recipients of your email are not likely to hold it against you, and if it needs fixing, you can always follow up with a quick apology and a corrected version.
Email can quickly feel like it’s taking over your life, but it can only do this if you allow it. Practice ways to stop obsessing over it, and you’ll open yourself up to more critical tasks. Only then, as Glei says, will you be able to focus on meaningful things that will make you feel more accomplished.
Glei’s book provides some helpful tips to win this fight. To satisfy your inner completionist, you can set small goals for yourself and track them on paper or in a digital planner, tallying up these little victories at the end of each day.
Perhaps today your goal is to reply to your five oldest emails or to delete all the junk mail from last week. To shrug off the “rule of reciprocity,” it may help to start looking at your emails like you would a pile of paper letters.
Would you really expect yourself to reply to every notecard and bill you receive? (If the answer is yes, you might want to rethink that too.) Instituting a schedule for checking your inbox can keep you from doing it so often: maybe first thing in the morning and once in the afternoon, or whatever equivalent works for you.
Glei also suggests taking shortcuts, like setting up templates to make replying to common subjects quick and easy, rather than having to work on a new reply every time. She includes a variety of possible templates in the book.
For example, to extract yourself from an ongoing email conversation that no longer concerns you, you might say something like:
It sounds like you two can handle this from here! Let me know if you need my input again, but for now, could you move me to BCC?
Dave—Could you move me to BCC when you reply to this? I’m trying to fight through my cluttered inbox 🙂
By using these tips, you’ll be able to alleviate your fears and feel confident each time you hit send.
At Never the Right Word, our aim is to give you practical examples of how to handle life’s difficult conversations. If you have an awkward situation that you’d like example templates for, request a topic here.
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Lastly, if you found this content helpful or want to share your own examples, let us know in the comments. We’d also be delighted if you shared this article and joined us on social media too!
Never the Right Word
Hi there! I’m Amy, and I’m the person behind Never the Right Word. I’m a designer-by-day who’s fascinated by human psychology; you’ll find me learning about what makes others tick through all types of media and good old-fashioned conversation. Learn more about me here.
In 2019 Never the Right Word was born to fill the gap of ‘how-to’ websites with copy and paste examples showing you EXACTLY what you need to say to steer difficult conversations into positive outcomes.
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