Why it’s so easy to fall into catastrophic thinking when we get phone calls at work


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Photo: Getty Images/Ezra Bailey

The last time my mom called me while I was at work—and really any and every time my mom’s ever called me while I’m at work—my heart basically stopped, and I fully expected the worst. “Someone died,” I thought. “Someone absolutely died—my brother is dead in a gutter right now.” It was a really cruel trip that she put me on, and by the way, she just wanted to ask which train time I was taking to meet her to see Cher that Friday.

This habit of mine to fall into catastrophic thinking over benign events is one of the many reasons I have a strict “DON’T CALL ME AT WORK, MOM” policy that she internalizes as, like, a fun suggestion. But after the catastrophic thinking comedown spawned by my inanimate vibrating box that’s no bigger than a few inches, I wonder why these miscommunications—or missed communications—make me jump with force to the absolute worst conclusion. And it’s not just ill-timed incoming calls; it’s any sort of nebulous mode of phone contact. Like if I get a text from my boyfriend asking, “What are you doing on Friday?” you better believe that within minutes, I’m four Google-results pages deep into “How to prepare for a breakup.”

Maybe some of you are laughing right now at my anxiety-ridden misery, but make like Bill Nye and consider the following: How many times have you expected a tragedy because a friend messaged “guess what” without the comforting faux-enthusiasm of an exclamation point, emoji, or any context whatsoever? DO YOU GET IT NOW?

“A lot of us tend to jump to catastrophic conclusions. Since most of our communication happens via technology now, it makes sense that it’s coming up when we text or receive calls.” —psychotherapist Alison Stone, LCSW

To understand why this catastrophic thinking happens, it’s key to understand that expecting the worst isn’t specifically the fault of our phones, but rather, how we’ve become accustomed to receiving information. “I think this is more about expecting the worst in general, not necessarily limited to technology,” says psychotherapist Alison Stone, LCSW. “A lot of us experience that tendency to jump to catastrophic conclusions; if you pay attention, you’ll probably notice it in other areas of your life. Since most of our communication happens via technology now, it makes sense that it’s coming up when we text or receive calls.”

And the effect of expecting the worst with incoming phone calls probably feels most pronounced because many—especially younger people—really hate answering the phone. In a recent survey of 1,200 millennials, 75 percent reported they ignore calls because they’re too “time consuming.” The group mentality seems to be that if you’re making a phone call and disrupting our time, it better be to communicate something important. So if you ever find yourself experiencing a midday panic attack upon getting a freaking phone call, it could just be you assuming someone is sharing something serious enough to warrant a call. (You know, things to consider when you’re reading this article later, mom.)

Why, exactly, text messages pique our anxiety is little trickier to pinpoint, but it makes sense that it ties to a cultural need for information to come immediately, in real time, and with the perkiness of an explanation point. Any sort of delay in response transforms an unassuming “guess what” into something dark, regardless of what’s on the other side of “What?”

The shared quality of it all? That without the reason for contact delivered upfront, we get scared. We don’t know what’s going on, and therefore the reason couldn’t possibly be anything but bad. “Fear of the unknown and anxiety go hand in hand,” says Stone. “Combine that with a tendency to jump to conclusions, and you can see how this is a perfect setup for ‘worst-case scenario’ thinking.”

There’s only so much we can do to stop making that long leap toward conclusions when our phones buzz, but for those on the receiving end: Do not call me during business hours on weekdays. Thanks.

Looking to decrypt your latest fling’s text frequency? We got a second opinion on whether texting too little is a relationship red flag. Oh, and how to check yourself (and deal!) if you think have phone separation anxiety issues.

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