While email communications can trigger feelings of anxiety and fear, there are steps you can take to overcome them
Since Hotmail and Yahoo! launched in the mid-90s, email has grown to become one of our main forms of communication — particularly in the world of work.
While it’s certainly convenient, emailing has its downsides. For instance, it’s harder to disengage from something constantly pinging on our phones, while not having a conversation face-to-face means things can more easily get lost in translation.
So it’s no wonder many of us feel anxious about sending and receiving emails. But what can be done?
For those who experience email-related anxiety, the prospect of opening your inbox or replying to emails can create an overload of emotional and physiological reactions.
So what are some signs of email anxiety? According to Dannielle Haig, principal business psychologist at DH Consulting in London, they can include:
Surely, harmless little messages flying through cyberspace shouldn’t be able to cause our blood pressure to rise and tummy butterflies to flutter?
Yet emailing causes stress and anxiety for two primary reasons.
The easy accessibility and open-all-hours approach of email means we can find ourselves swamped with messages — with market research from Europe estimating that the average office worker receives over 125 emails daily.
When you have a packed schedule, the prospect of also tackling an inbox of dozens of unread messages can feel insurmountable. And it can be even more disheartening when you respond to one email only to see two new messages take its place.
Needless to say, an overflowing inbox can impact your wider workplace mood. For example, 2018 research of over 500 European individuals found that receiving more emails was associated with:
- higher work stress
- reduced work commitment
- more negative emotions
Fear of content and reactions
“A famous psychologist, Dr. Albert Mehrabian, claimed that 93% of communication is non-verbal,” says Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Suzanne Sibilla, a life-business strategist and founder of Sibilla Training based in California.
Non-verbal communication can involve:
- body language
- tone of voice
- facial expressions
- eye contact
Yet, none of these are shared via email. As such, Sibilla continues, “people may find sending or receiving emails anxiety-inducing because they’re not able to judge” cues you can pick up on in face-to-face communication, such as:
- verbal utterances
- bodily nuances
A lack of cues puts messages at greater risk of being misconstrued — and one 2018 study found that frequently receiving brusque (incivil) work emails can cause a person to withdraw and impact their personal relationships.
Furthermore, not receiving an immediate response to an email or being able to see the recipient’s reaction can cause a person to start questioning themselves.
For example, Sibilla notes, you might wonder:
- Why didn’t they send a read receipt? “Am I good enough?”
- Why did they reply so briefly? “Am I smart enough?”
- They didn’t (or repeatedly) use my name. “What do they think of me?”
- Why haven’t they responded yet? “Are they judging me?”
If you panic at the prospect of emails now, it doesn’t have to be that way forever. Experts share tips that can make tackling your inbox less daunting.
Recognize the deeper problem
What is it about emails that causes your anxiety levels to rise? Taking the time to “increase your awareness of what is scaring you,” notes Haig, will allow you to recognize the issue. From there, you can “slowly start working on that.”
Take deep breaths
Before you start typing, pausing to compose yourself can aid in easing physiological symptoms, such as a racing heartbeat, and encourage better focus.
“Prior to sending an email, take a few deep breaths, inhaling and exhaling,” shares Sibilla. “Deep breathing techniques will reduce your anxiety and help you to feel centered.”
Haig adds: “Don’t respond to emails when you’re in a state of panic or catastrophizing. Wait until you’re calm.”
Don’t rush things
It can be tempting to fire off emails to make lighter work of your inbox. However, for important messages, Sibilla reveals it’s best to take your time. After all, it’s preferable to take a few extra minutes now than spend hours worrying about it later.
“Create a draft of the email prior to sending it and then take a break,” she suggests. Then “come back to your email and re-read it.” If you’re happy with the contents, hit send.
Still uncertain? Don’t be afraid to ask someone to read over your email — or consider taking the conversation to a phone call “to remove any ambiguity,” Haig says.
Smartphones enable us to constantly access emails — and lead to others thinking it’s OK to contact you anytime.
But to quell feelings of overwhelm and stop work-related email stress from seeping into your downtime, it’s vital to put boundaries in place.
Haig suggests these could involve:
- Having separate work and personal cell phones
- Leaving your work phone in your desk drawer overnight and on weekends
- Setting an out-of-office message at the end of the work day, letting people know you’ll reply in the morning
It’s also important to be strict with yourself and only check emails during work hours. You could even take it one step further and “schedule in time when you read and respond to emails, such as at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.,” notes Sibilla.
Checking in at designated times could help enhance your focus and prevent anxiety from persisting throughout the day.
An older 2012 McKinsey report indicated that we spend what amounts to one day of every working week managing our emails.
Nevertheless, a clear inbox equals a clear mind, right? So you can do what’s necessary to better organize and manage emails.
For example, you might want to create sub-folders to find things more easily or flag messages that require attention more urgently.
Aside from helping reduce anxiety levels,
If it’s good for those managing ADHD, it couldn’t hurt those with anxiety to try, too!
Putting off a task is not uncommon. But why do we procrastinate replying to messages?
“Procrastination is generally a behavior of someone with a fear of failure,” explains Haig. “An action, project, or conversation can appear overwhelming or insurmountable, and therefore ‘too much’ to even get started.”
You might perceive that avoiding sending or receiving a message will help ease your anxiety. But, in reality, it will likely only make things worse.
Sibilla suggests ripping off the band-aid sooner rather than later! She says it’s not wise to procrastinate sending an email because it prolongs:
With emails a considerable part of our daily lives, it’s not uncommon for them to contribute to feelings of anxiety and stress — particularly in the workplace.
Overflowing inboxes and ambiguity around messaging may cause individuals to experience symptoms ranging from fear and panic to a racing heartbeat and sweaty palms.
Straightforward and actionable steps include:
- setting boundaries
- practicing deep breathing
- avoiding procrastination
These approaches could aid in you making the mental shift from having an overall email woe to being an email pro.