Why slow replies make us more anxious

Our constant ‘connectedness’ which means we are more likely to expect an instant response from someone. Photo: Getty
Our constant ‘connectedness’ which means we are more likely to expect an instant response from someone. Photo: Getty

If you’ve ever felt a strange twinge in your stomach while watching someone typing a response, you’re not alone. Sometimes, those three flashing dots can be more than just frustrating – they can trigger anxiety too.

Whether it’s a reply from a potential employer, a friend or a date, waiting for a response can be nerve-wracking. As you wait for them to get back to you, you may begin to worry about whether your initial message or email was OK, or if you came across as too forward or demanding.

Eventually, you receive a reply and all is fine. But then the next time you’re waiting for a response, the same anxiety strikes again.

“If we're not confident in ourselves or if we fear displeasing others, waiting for a response to a message – especially one in which we've pushed ourselves to say something that we anticipate the sendee might respond negatively to – can be excruciating,” says Hilda Burke, psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP).

“If we have a communication style that is built on responding immediately to the messages we receive – if that's our normal – then we may expect that from others,” she explains. “And we might assume that if we don't get an instant response the other person mustn't be happy with our message. It may of course be that the sendee just has more boundaries around their device or work.”

The anxiety may also stem from our need to feel in control of our interactions, says Counselling Directory member Phillip Karahassan. “This has been present more so during Covid but even without that, our anxiety is trying to gain a sense of control,” he says. “We want them to write a response otherwise there as a perceived threat hanging over us. Some unfinished business if you will, that we need to dispel so that we can relax.”

Another factor is our constant ‘connectedness’ which means we are more likely to expect an instant response from someone. The advancement of communication technology means we are accustomed to receiving an immediate response, reinforcing it as a norm.

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A common theory suggests we receive neurochemical ‘rewards’ from using messaging apps or social media. Specifically, some scientists believe that we become dependent on our devices because using them triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure.

“We have got used to instant gratification. Whenever we want to fill a void we can open up our phone, go on social media or play a game and feel our self worth, self esteem and happiness grow. We have a perceived level of control over our lives in those moments,” Karahassan says.

“This has been exacerbated with tech, where we expect that reward in seconds rather than minutes, hours or even days – think about waiting for a letter to come through the post.”

Reducing your anxiety in general with regular time off, exercise and stress-relieving strategies like meditation can help. But it’s important to focus on the relationship you have with technology if you feel anxious about emails and messages.

Rather than checking your inbox every five minutes, try to be more mindful about how often you look at your emails. Check your notifications every half an hour, placing your phone out of reach and closing desktop applications that might interrupt you and attract your attention. Sometimes, out of sight really does mean out of mind.

READ MORE: How to assert yourself at work when you have anxiety

Emails, instant messaging apps and social media can be stressful because there is no rule that governs when we should reply to a message or notification. For some people, taking a few days to respond is fine. For others, it’s rude.

And remember, there are probably a multitude of reasons why people may not respond instantly. People are busy. Mental health issues like anxiety or depression can make it hard to stay on top of messages and emails. Some simply don’t check their phones as often. But the good news is that once you begin to loosen the grip your inbox or WhatsApp has on you, waiting for a reply won’t feel so bad.

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