Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Telephone Phobia: Fear of making phone calls

I thought I'd have to call someone today to get some information, and I got that old familiar dread. I was relieved when the person emailed me before I had to pick up the phone, though my anxiety is a fraction of what it was even a few years ago. My phobia started in highschool. Calling someone meant an ache in my chest, tightness in my stomach, and delaying dialing as long as possible. It evolved into sitting staring at the phone, and doing nothing else in my life, while trying to work up the courage to call, and mentally rehearsing what I would say.

When I started ERP therapy, I realized that when making a call for information or to ask someone a question, I wanted to be certain that I would know how the conversation would proceed. My mental rehearsal could go on indefinitely, because I was attempting to predict the impossible. I couldn't know exactly what the other person would say, and the anxiety I felt about this put me into a suspended state. It wasn't so much that I expected the phone call to go badly, although at times this was the fear, but that not knowing the script in advance created a storm of anxiety.

I remember when an extraverted friend of mine told me she loved making phone calls and connecting with the person on the line, and delighting in having a phone interview for a job; I thought she was crazy! My mantra when calling was always, "don't answer. don't answer. don't answer." It was a revelation when I realized that I was not going to feel "just right" enough to call--that in fact setting it up as an exposure, dialing the number and letting the anxiety be there until it dissipated was the way to break the prison of dread that could engulf a day if I needed to make a call.

One time in session with my therapist, I told him I'd been avoiding calling my doctor about my elevated blood pressure numbers. He challenged me to call right there in his office. My adrenaline surged! But I recognized the opportunity to face the fear head-on. He also said it would be helpful to let myself stumble through what I had to ask, rather than trying to rehearse and talk with omniscient knowing. My heart was pounding. The receptionist freaked, and said I had to talk to the doctor on call, even though the numbers were not dangerous, just trending higher. But I survived it. And I glimpsed the possibility that lurching through a call could be less painful than spending weeks of avoidance and rumination about making a call.

My heart goes out to anyone who has difficulty making phone calls. It truly sucks to have this phobia. I didn't even call my friends or people who I really wanted to make contact with. People who loved me and didn't expect me to give an Oscar winning performance on the phone. I am grateful for the lessening of this anxiety as I practice tolerating the dread and calling anyway.

26 comments:

  1. I can't even tell you how powerful this post just was for me. I struggle with this anxiety about the phone as well. I actually wrote a post about it for my own blog but I have been too scared to share. I guess it's time. Thank you!

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  2. My phone phobia has always been very mild, and it's much more related to social anxiety than OCD. But I remember as a teenager thinking the stereotype of the teen on the phone was so funny, because I would have to summon my courage to make a call, even to good friends.

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  3. Angela--I would love to read whatever you have to write about telephone fears!

    BeatOCD--I also found the teen-on-the-phone stereotype to be alien!

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  4. I too have this exact problem. I think I developed it due to a number of angry / confrontational people that I dealt with when I had a business. At one point I had dealt with many computer users who were very frustrated and it was frequently very difficult to offer real, helpful assistance over the phone, so the calls often ended up with the caller / person I called back being upset and frustrated - and at times the calls ended with them demanding refunds.

    I did some sales / telemarketing in the past and that was always very uncomfortable, but I don't remember it being too horrible.

    Then, a number of years ago, I became quite ill and had no way to meet a number of obligations. I had to go on disability due to the extent of my illness. I remember dozens of confrontational phone calls from bill collectors that didn't care one bit if I was sick, dieing or whatever. Some where understanding, many were or were very close to being abusive.

    Now many years later, I have lots of trouble picking up the phone to call anyone that I don't know well. Calling a family member does not bother me. However something as simple as calling in response to a classified as bothers the heck out of me and I have a real hard time doing it.

    Calling for something like a doctors appointment isn't that bad, because it is a quite predictable interaction and I can't really think of when just making an appointment has been bad.

    I know that I also feel like I frequently make poor decisions if I am put on the spot, for example, I frequently end up allowing people to take advantage of me when I am put on the spot and asked something. This is a serious drawback and a real reason why I try to avoid the phone.

    Not wanting to call / return calls / answer unknown calls seriously interfears with my day to day function. Some people in this day and age are very comfortable with e-mail. I am much more comfortable with e-mail. Still nervous at times, but much more comfortable and I have time to think about what I need to say and make sure I am not being taken advantage of.

    However, unfortunately even on craigslist, where everyone who is posting / reading ads has a computer, people are insisting on using the telephone due to e-mail scams. It frustrates the heck out of me when I can't shoot someone an e-mail to ask a basic question. I know it is harder for me to sell things also since I don't want to post my phone number.

    Even though it has been many years now since I had bill collectors and problem clients calling, answering the phone when there is an unknown number is a wrenching experience for me.

    As I write this today, I have a number of people who are awaiting calls from me, we got to the point in our email conversation where they asked I call them. One of them has offered me gardening supplies that are worth a great deal of money to me (couple hundred dollars) for free. Others are additional offers of free items that I requested in an ad. They are clearly kind people that I have no reason to fear or avoid. But the obsession of avoidance lives on...

    With OCD it seems like some old experience haunt you almost the way things haunt a person with PTSD, they just come back again, over and over in your head.

    The worst thing is exposure never seems to make it any better. I don't know why, but making calls has not seemed to get any easier over the years.

    J

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  5. I'm sorry to hear that you too have this telephone fear. I think it's an important insight about the OCD and PTSD--there are things in my life that are a melding of the two--something traumatic happened, and my OCD kicked in as a way to cope, though in the long run it makes everything worse. For me exposures take a lot of practice and repetition, and it helps to have my therapist guiding me--the initial wave of anxiety will eventually dissipate, but only if I can hang in there long enough and that's where a therapist has been key. It sucks when you actually make a call, and the next time it's still hard--and ironically I had to make the calls "harder" in order to get better, ie. stop reassuring myself by figuring out what the other person might say.

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  6. HI;

    Thanks for your response. It is so weird that in person I am not bothered nearly as much. I had 3 times in this last week where I had a family member make calls to set things up with people. Then I went to the places. I really had no problem at all with any of the people and found the interactions to all be quite pleasant.

    Something I just though of, I've always had problems with reading social cues, in language and visually. So when I am on the phone, I am really limited, as all I have is what they saw, I can't watch them and see what I can tell they are saying with their body language. I've had so many times when people say something and I can't tell if they are serious or if it is a joke, sometimes that is extremely embarrassing.

    I think that talking to people that are more professional (vets, doctors, etc.) is easier, as there tend to be few conflicts with these type of people and if there is a difference of opinion on something, they tend to be easy to work with. Thought I've had some doctors that have been quite difficult to work with.
    I just had a phone call with my vet. He is excellent to work with and I really don't mind much at all talking to him on the phone.

    Some of the OCD stuff is so weird. I wanted to know how late a store was open the other night, but didn't want to call just to ask the hours. So I drove across town to check. Silly Hun?

    I've realized that talking to any kind of sales person is stressful for me, because if I decide not to buy something, I feel guilty for wasting their time. I know that is stupid, they are there to quote prices and answer product questions, but still I feel quite guilty when I don't buy from them. (e.g. call the local camera store to ask the price on a camera, just to see if it is reasonable enough to buy locally. They tell me a bit about it and tell me their price, but I look online and find the same camera is $100 cheaper if I order it. Then I feel quite guilty for calling and bothering the local store, because I am not going to buy it from them spending the extra $100).

    I still need to make some calls to get some quotes for a home improvement project that I need help with. I know the people will want to come to my house to do an estimate and am afraid the project will cost more than I can afford. So I put off the call and keep putting off the whole project. I guess not having enough money for the project is a legitimate fear, but I should be able to make the calls and get the quotes so I know the cost.

    J

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  7. Oh my gosh. I knew that there HAD to be more people out there with this problem, but I had never actually looked for it until now.

    This phone thing is screwing me up badly. Bills go unpaid, people get neglected, issues go unresolved all because the phone is the scariest thing in the house to me. I won't answer the phone unless the caller ID says it's my husband, my parents, or my daughter's school (only because they do automatic messages--thank goodness), and making a phone call is almost impossible. I have even started telling people that e-mail is preferred when I give them contact information.

    What if I say something stupid? What if they think I'm an idiot? What if I don't understand them? What if it's bad news? What if I'm in trouble? What if I do something wrong?

    I rehearse, too, but it's never enough to actually get me to pick up the phone and call. And then people leave messages, but I'm scared to check the messages because I might have let whatever it was about go on too long and now it will be a serious issue.

    So is the only way to deal with this therapy? I can't really afford to see a psychologist. :-(

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  8. Hi Christy,
    I'm glad you found my blog! I'm sorry you struggle with phone fears as well. Although exposure therapy with an experienced ocd therapist has been really important in my getting better, reading Jonathan Grayson's book Freedom from OCD really helped me a lot. You could start by reading it. I hope you keep reading and commenting, and also consider that therapy is expensive in the short run, but can save a lot of suffering and screwing up things in the long run.

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    1. Is it true that fear of making phone calls is ocd? I thought it was social anxiety.

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  9. My brother called me yesterday urging me to call my father, who's health appears to be going down hill and I'm sitting here fearing calling him after not seeing or talking to him in almost a year. The last time I spoke to him, he said some 'not so nice' things to me and that on top of this phone phobia makes me feel like I have a heavy burden on my back that's paralyzing me. We live about 100 miles away from each other and he doesn't understand how I came to have this extreme fear of making phone calls, even to family members. It's as if everthing has stopped for me today...I haven't even changed into daytime clothes yet and it's almost 2:00pm. If I could just get over this one hurdle for today so I can move on...

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    1. I think I posted this response. It's not just my father, even though I have the most difficult time with him because he's my father and I should be talking to him if not anyone else. And the 'not so nice' things he said were related to me not calling him. It's initiating phone calls to anyone, including family (and my brother) and anyone I know in person. I have less trouble calling businesses to make appointments. But if it's just calling family or acquaintances just to chat, I put it off, worried that I'm going to bother them or that I'll come across as 'stupid' for not having much to say. Anyway...just thinking about this again and looking things up on the web. I appreciate you starting this post and responses.

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    2. You are the first person I have found that, like me, you have more trouble with calling family and friends than strangers. My father is also ill and I can't call him. I have communicated with him via Facebook messenger because he does not text on phone but he has not answered in about a month. Now I think there is something really wrong but I still can't call. I am 51 years old and I have always had a dislike for talking on the phone but this phone anxiety started with menopause. I can't even pinpoint the feelings I have, I just can't make the call.

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  10. Anon--I'm sorry you are dealing with so much at once! Overcoming phone phobia is not the same thing as then having to call anyone and everyone, whether you want to or not. I choose not to call my father because I don't want to be subjected to him. I call other people, but not him. I urge you to find a therapist or someone to talk to--this is a lot to bear alone.

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  11. I am terrified of making phone calls mainly because I'm scared I am bothering the person. Hard thing is I have a calling at church that requires me to call from 9 or more people a month. I get stressed every time when I have to do it plus I'm supposed to visit three people each month and I've been way too scared to do it. I'm scared that they don't want me around yet they are kind to me. But I feel guilty and like a sinner. I was diagnosed with OCD and hospitalized with it 18 years ago. I have horrible thoughts and worry over many things. Back when I was on paxil I was a happier person and had many
    friends.I went off medication nine years ago when I moved and had no health insurance. I was lonely in my new state and
    became " friends" with two sociopaths who caused me a lot of pain and now I
    have panic attacks and stress. I am scared to be close to any one, I was
    scared of calling them back when they were my "friends" especially when they
    would get angry at me and torment and ignore me. So my fears of people
    and phone calls have gotten worse.
    I've been afraid of the phone my entire life. Just not as bad as I am now.

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  12. Anon--I know in my own life that trauma intertwined with my OCD, and intensified my fears and my avoidance. I encourage you to seek out a therapist who has experience with both trauma and exposure therapy for OCD. I know how fears can cause much suffering--and I hope you get the help you need.

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  13. This is anonymous who posted January 8. I have not been able to go to anyone for help since I have trust issues. The only people I can talk to are in my family. But I have been getting worse these past couple weeks.my dad is a doctor and had me start Prozac. I was afraid of medicine but know I could get worse if I don't take something. I kept a lot of this inside because I don't like the thought of people thinking I'm crazy and being scared of me.

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  14. It sounds like you are having a rough time of it. I encourage you to take the risk to see a therapist--it's like the medication--you were afraid of it, but you knew you could get worse if you didn't take something. The International OCD Foundation has a list of therapists:
    http://www.ocfoundation.info/treatment-providers-list.php

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  15. I have the exact same issues as the OP. I have no problem what so ever with answering the phone, but making a call, that's a completely different ball game.

    I think it may have something to do with a fear of rejection in my case, I've always been the outcast.

    But this does make me feel a lot better knowing that I'm not the only one with this fear.

    Thank you OP.

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  16. Mitch--I'm glad you found something resonated with you in my post! It's hard when you feel alone in this fear, since so many people make calls seemingly effortlessly!

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  17. Its a great feeling knowing that there are others out there that are experiencing the same type of problem.

    I have had anxiety for as long as I can remember and about a half a year ago I started developing a fear of the telephone. I think it all started when my parents got caller ID for the home phones. Every time I see a unknown caller or I hear the ringing of the telephone my anxiety spikes to a 10. I only pick up the phone if i see "moms cell,dads cell". It's very scary for me. If I'm put in a position that I must pick up the phone or place a call i have to rehearse what I'm going to say.( can take up to 10-30minutes) I begin to shake, chest pains, hyperventilating etc.. Our phone rings on average 10-15 times a day or more since our home phone number is also our family business number. I panic a lot during my day and it's affecting us alot.. My family may not be the most supportive because of my fear since they think i'm being a baby and I have to "get over it" but i'm trying very hard.

    thank you to everyone's posts. You all have helped me in a great way. I will speak to my mental health nurse and ask if my problem is in fact OCD. Thank you all!

    Christy from July 30, 2010 10:33 AM
    Thank you so much for your post I can really relate to you. I feel your pain! I've been seeing a mental health nurse for my anxiety for quite sometime now and we have been discussing my fear of the telephone I am now taking baby steps to overcome this fear. You are not alone speak to your doctor! Also in may I will be seeing a psychologist. Good luck to you!

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  18. Michelle D.--I hope your mental health nurse was able to help! I am moved by how many people have the same telephone fears that I have. It's not something you "just get over"--it takes support and practice, and people don't realize how hard it is.

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  19. I've had a strong tendency to avoid phone calls - even vital ones - due to fear and dread, but I have largely overcome it so that I now get the calls done in a fairly competent manner.

    The key has been to de-sensitise myself. The following strategies have helped - albeit they contradict your therapist:-) :

    1. "Know what to do" when making or getting calls: learn short scripts for what to say in different types of phone conversations.

    2. "Plan conversations" you have to make: plan its stages and a few ideas to what you can say in each stage. Every conversation has a beginning, a middle and an end.

    3. Detach yourself from the conversation - tell yourself that you are a robot or computer programme, and will carry through the call no matter how, because that is what you are programmed to do. Concentrate on optimising your pronunciation, volume and other technical aspects. The robot 'Gerty' in the science fiction 'Moon (2009)' is a great role model.

    And don't worry about sounding a bit mechanical. I doesn't matter what the person in the other end of the line thinks about you, as long as you follow the basic rules and get the call done.

    4. Notice that some phone professionals (receptionists, telemarketers e.t.c) have poor phone manners and don't care. They fail to listen and make lots of mistakes. Notice the things you do better. Just hang on to those things, and expand from there.

    Everybody do something right and something wrong. A situation working out well doesn't come from 'nobody making mistakes'. It comes from the diversity of people who do different things right and wrong, so in the bigger picture enough things are done right!

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  20. Thanks for sharing your experience mados. I'm glad you are finding ways to make your calls! I think where I would get stuck is with the planning and rehearsal, in trying to get that "perfect" before facing the dread and anxiety and actually calling, but I do agree that it's important to remind myself that everybody does something right and something wrong.

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  21. I have a very difficult time dealing with this problem too, especially because lately my Dad has been getting tired making calls for me and just doesn't understand how horrible this is for me and tells me to just get over it...but if it was that easy I obviously would! I just don't know what to do...I'm also afraid of email and even letters and packages in the mail! This is driving me mad because I also have a crippling social anxiety and I'm just constantly told to just get over it... I can't even go to a regular doctor due to lack of insurance much less a shrink and anyway I hate doctors more than I do anybody else... I just feel hopeless about so many of these things because as time goes on these things just get worse and seem to multiply to the point where I'm afraid of everything, even leaving my house...sigh.... and the same phone keeps ringing and I'm even afraid of listening to the messages especially because they've called twice now and though I know by the number that it's not for me I'm afraid that it might be important and the person who it's for might get mad at me for not answering it or even listening to the messages and now it's making me antsy thinking that I'll be anxious about it till the issue is resolved which cannot happen for at least another couple hours now....UGH!

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  22. for me the fear stems from fear of rejection and from bothering the person. Maybe I will make them uncomfortable in some way because maybe they will detect that I am not friendly. They dont know that i have social anxiety, which causes me to not be open, welcoming, and at ease, and happy while speaking to people. So I am afraid that my social anxiety will make them feel uncomfortable. Additionally, I was abused as a child, so I think Ive been programed to believe that everyone will treat me badly, even the nicest-seeming people on earth.

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