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Expert Q&A

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Is my fear of my e-mail normal?

Asked by Ashton, Pennsylvania

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I'm a 22-year-old college student who suffers from anxiety disorder. Although I've come to terms with my anxiety, I've started to discover a new source of stress in my life. Last year I started to avoid checking my e-mail for a few days at a time, but what started out as simple avoidance as turned into an agonizing process for me. Lately I've avoided checking my e-mail for upwards of three weeks at a time, but when I recently tried to check my e-mail it resulted in a panic attack. Is this fear of my e-mail normal? What can I do in order to avoid feeling this anxious every time I check my e-mail?

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Mental Health Expert Dr. Charles Raison Psychiatrist,
Emory University Medical School

Expert answer

Dear Ashton,

No, your fear of e-mail is not normal. If it was, e-mail would be out of business. If it's any consolation I have the same problem with voice messages on my cell phone. Every time I fall behind on them I can't get myself to check them and they pile up until the mailbox gets full. I've actually taken to telling folks not to bother leaving a message.

We all know doctors don't always take their own advice, and this definitely applies in what I'm going to recommend to you. In fact, we know from many studies exactly what you should do to overcome your fear of e-mail, and that is to force yourself to meet the fear head on. Before we discuss how to do this, however, you need to ask yourself how crucial e-mails are to your existence. If you have a station in life in which you can give up e-mail you might think about this. Many of us would agree that e-mailing has become an almost unbearable burden that cuts into our ability to be productive in other ways.

But if you need to be on e-mail for either personal or professional reasons, then you've got to tackle the problem, and here the data are very clear. The only way to overcome your fear is to meet it head on and learn to master it. If you went to a therapist for help, the treatment would consist of finding ways to get you to check your e-mail first thing every morning so that you get this difficult part of the day over first. The more you master this, the more comfortable you will become. You would also need to devise some strategy for what to do when you fall behind, because that is also a key part of the problem. As the e-mails mount, the problem seems increasingly insurmountable, hence the panic.

Tackling the problem head-on doesn't mean you push yourself so hard that your anxiety gets worse and you get sick. You can share the load if you have people in your life willing to help. I do this with voice e-mails. Sometimes I ask my assistant to just listen to them all and clear the deck. We don't need to be heroes. We just need to find workable ways to overcome these types of problems. If you see a therapist you might think about asking him/her to devote serious time to helping you master the e-mail problem in ways you can tolerate.

You mentioned that you have had problems with anxiety and I am not surprised. Another very important component to solving your problem is to ensure that your anxiety problems are as well treated as they can possibly be. I don't know if you see a psychiatrist, or whether you are taking medicines that help treat anxiety disorders, but if you aren't this would also likely be of great help in coping with the e-mails.

I'll make you a deal. After reading this, make a commitment to take the next morning to just deal one way or the other with clearing up your back e-mails and then going through them first thing in the a.m. each day so that you don't get behind the eight-ball. If you can't cope with all the old e-mails and you know you'll never read them, take a deep breath, delete them all and start fresh. Starting tomorrow morning I'll listen to all my backed up cell phone voice messages and check them once a day in the a.m. from here on out!

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