The 1 Thing You Should Never, Ever Text Someone With Anxiety

Texts are inherently difficult to decipher. Unlike in-person interactions or phone calls, these brief, digital messages lack many nonverbal cues ― such as eye contact, gestures or a smile ― that provide important context for what a person’s trying to say. As a result, texts often go misunderstood and, in some cases, are relationship killers, research has found.

For people with anxiety, texting can be particularly tricky to navigate. Though communicating digitally may alleviate feelings of anxiety by helping people feel less self-conscious or inhibited, the ambiguity of some text messages can also cause people with anxiety to fill in the gaps and interpret vague messages more negatively than they were intended to be. This, in turn, can spike anxiety levels.

One of the worst texts to send with someone with anxiety: “Can we talk?”

If you have anxiety, this might have just sent a shiver down your spine. If you don’t, you may be wondering why the heck this even matters. Below, therapists break it all down.

Why This Can Be So Triggering For People With Anxiety

“The ambiguity and lack of tone or context in this type of message leaves a huge amount of room for interpretation and catastrophizing,” Alex Oliver-Gans, a licensed marriage and family therapist with a private practice in San Francisco, told HuffPost.

Because text messages lack certain nonverbal cues, we’re constantly assuming the sender’s tone and intention, Oliver-Gans said. For example, a study published in 2020 highlighted how responding “K” to an invitation to go see a movie could cause the recipient to assume their friend isn’t enthusiastic about the activity when, in actuality, the sender maybe didn’t have enough time to type out a full reply. If you talked over the phone, however, you might have heard the warmth in their voice and realized that they’re excited about the plans.

Assuming another’s intention can take a negative turn if anxiety trickles in. According to Arianna Galligher, the director of the Gabbe Well-Being Office and the Stress, Trauma and Resilience program at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, one of the major symptoms of anxiety is catastrophic thinking, or the tendency to believe that the worst outcome of a situation could very well happen.

“Can we talk?” already has a negative connotation. “Who ever said, ‘Can we talk?’ and had great news to share?” Oliver-Gans said.

Throw anxiety into the mix, and a person may wonder if their relationship is ending or they’re getting fired from their job. The ambiguity of “Can we talk?” can cause people to ruminate or assume the worst. The anxious brain then starts preparing for whatever terrible outcome it’s imagined.

“It can be really distressing and exhausting,” Galligher said.

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A slight rephrasing in text messages can help eliminate any stress or anxiety in the recipient.

What’s A Better Way To Phrase Your Text Message?

To avoid unnecessarily worrying someone with anxiety, it’s best to be specific and provide details about what you’d like to discuss. When crafting your message, be aware that it’s easy for texts to be misinterpreted.

For example, instead of “Can we talk?” or a similar question, ask if you can chat about your weekend plans or if you can meet up to prepare for that big presentation at work.

Another option is to use this template from Oliver-Gans: Say “I wanted to check in about [the topic you want to discuss]. Do you have 15 minutes later today?” This minimizes ambiguity, sets clear expectations, and gives people a better understanding of the scope of the conversation, rather than leaving them to wonder, he said.

If you need to bring up a sensitive topic, Galligher recommended being clear and direct.

“A few extra words in your message can save everyone some angst and give the other person an opportunity to prepare for the more expansive conversation you’d like to have with them,” she said.

You can also bake in some reassurance by including a positive thought so the message is not all negative, Oliver-Gans said. If there’s a particularly tough topic you need to address, it may be best to wait until you can mention it in person or over the phone.

“Anything that’s hard to interpret over text, or easy to misinterpret without body language or tone of voice, should just be avoided over text,” Oliver-Gans explained.

If you’re on the receiving end of a vague message, it’s perfectly OK to ask follow-up questions.

“I recommend looking for clarification rather than slipping into avoidance, rumination and catastrophizing,” Oliver-Gans said. It’s a two-way street: Asking for more information and getting the facts can stop a pattern of what-if thinking in its tracks.

Finally, if the off-putting text seems out of character for the person who sent it, consider your history with them. Ask yourself if there’s a chance they just sent a quick, carelessly written message. There may very well be a simple explanation — perhaps they were multitasking! — that doesn’t involve a doomsday scenario.

As Oliver-Gans noted, “We all make mistakes over text and write texts poorly from time to time.”