Coping with email anxiety
April 20, 2015 8:12 AM   Subscribe

I have severe email anxiety and it is having repercussions for my work. I'm not sure what to do.

Background: I am not an anxious person in most respects. I am reasonably friendly, I enjoy talking to people, and I am a very good public speaker. I've never experienced stage fright. But I have severe email anxiety. When I try to check my email my heart rate goes up, I start breathing quickly, and go into something that either is or is very like a panic attack. If I force myself to check email, I work very hard to focus on just one at a time and not look at the rest in the inbox, so as not to be overwhelmed. I've noticed this to a smaller extent with texts and voicemails, but it's email that is seriously anxiety-inducing, and I don't know why. (For what it's worth, I was badly physically abused as as child and was extremely introverted as a result for a long time. I largely overcame that decades ago and thought I was in good shape, but now I'm dealing with this email thing. Perhaps somehow this is related to being an abuse survivor. I don't know.)

Here's the problem: my job, which I love, is incredibly email dependent. It's a non-stop flow. A lot of it is trivial or ignorable, but of course some of it is critical. And I miss the critical stuff or respond to it very late because it takes an enormous act of will just to read my email. I am a college professor, and I am very good in the classroom and have great relationships with my students, but I've missed department meetings that I didn't know were happening because I didn't see the email, or I've missed other kinds of requests.

1) Do I tell my department chair about my email anxiety? I have good reason to believe that she thinks I'm neglecting my job, because we work on different campuses and when I don't answer email from her perspective it's like I'm not there at all. I'm sure I would think the same thing. But I'm always in class, and always hold office hours. I just struggle to read the email. It's an embarrassing thing to mention, but probably less embarrassing than whatever she thinks is going on now.

2) Or is this the kind of thing one approaches HR with first?

3) Should I go to a doctor? It's possible I could get in to see some kind of mental health professional, but we don't have many in our town and they maintain a full roster of clients. I don't know if this is the kind of thing therapy can help, but I'm having a hard time conquering it myself.
posted by D+ to Work & Money (29 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
A couple points. One, if possible, can you schedule your email? i.e. check it twice a day, once in the morning and once mid afternoon? (and then keep Apple Mail or whatever closed outside of those time periods)

Two, don't go to your chair or HR first. Go see a physician. They can help you with this. Avoid HR.

Good luck!
posted by standardasparagus at 8:16 AM on April 20, 2015 [5 favorites]


I don't know if this is the kind of thing therapy can help

Sure it is. This sounds a lot like an anxiety problem, and that is treatable with both therapy and meds. Get help!
posted by rtha at 8:16 AM on April 20, 2015 [13 favorites]


Email is, clearly, a really important part of your job and this isn't any different than working in a warehouse and having forklift anxiety or working in a restaurant and having knife anxiety or something like that: there's a tool you need to do your a part of your job, and while you're good at other parts, you have an impediment to using this tool that has nothing to do with your ability to use it. So you gotta fix it, because "I have email anxiety" and "I continue to hold this job" are going to become mutually exclusive.

Definitely try to get an appointment with a mental health professional if you're having anxiety about anything so bad that it is endangering your career, regardless of how how trivial it seems.
posted by griphus at 8:18 AM on April 20, 2015 [3 favorites]


I've had a similar problem in the past. Mine was checking my bank account, not email, but it was a lot like what you're experiencing. The thing that actually helped me most was just fucking doing it, then recognizing that nothing bad happened as a result. And repeat. And repeat. I eventually got desensitized, and I no longer freak out about it.

This is definitely something a therapist could help you work through. Don't talk yourself out of that option just because it feels like there aren't very many in your town.

I'd also agree that you should see a doctor of some sort first before talking to HR or your employer. If you do decide to tell your employer, having documentation will help you, and will help encourage the employer to work with you to find a "reasonable accommodation" as you work through the problem.

Anxiety is crazy-making, but this is absolutely something you can work through. Hang in there!
posted by mudpuppie at 8:22 AM on April 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


Follow-up: A colleague told me this morning that the chair described me as "MIA" this morning. I know it's because I haven't responded to some emails. I have to communicate something to her. It seems to me that my best course is to explain the email anxiety. Otherwise I'm left with no explanation at all for her frustrations.
posted by D+ at 8:24 AM on April 20, 2015


I have to communicate something to her.

"I'm sorry I've been hard to reach; I'm working on it."
posted by jaguar at 8:27 AM on April 20, 2015 [8 favorites]


Something you can start today (with the Kindle version, or tomorrow if you have the paper version shipped one-day): The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook. Even if the workbook isn't enough and you need to find a behavioral therapist to work with one-on-one, you can take the workbook with you and probably streamline several hours' worth of introductory discussion.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:36 AM on April 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


(And yes, this is what therapy is for. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is generally the go-to for phobic-type treatment.)
posted by Lyn Never at 8:38 AM on April 20, 2015


In the meantime, as a triage, can your partner sit down with you TONIGHT and go through your inbox to help you get through the most critical emails? Your partner can delete the random announcements and listserv emails, and schedule meetings with you on your calendar and reply to a few important ones that require information. It's going to feel awful, you'll feel anxious and embarrassed and possibly sweaty and be crabby about it, but reward yourself with a good meal or glass of wine and know that you've been able to put out the immediate fires.

It's a crutch, but it'll help you get through the worst of it right now, until you can get the anxiety under control.
posted by barnone at 8:45 AM on April 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


If you aren't already doing it, I recommend you start aggressively filtering your e-mail. I've got about 15 different mailboxes that e-mail gets sorted into (mostly based on sender or mailing list), so that I can prioritize my responses better (lots of other side-benefits as well).
posted by adamrice at 8:47 AM on April 20, 2015 [5 favorites]


So that you can keep your job, please use Jaguar's phrase above. That's it. Do not elaborate unless asked for an extended explanation.

So that you can do better, I suggest something like this, when you have the time:

1) Open email client.
2) BREATHE.
3) No, seriously, take deep breaths.
4) Look at first email in the queue; I suggest starting with the oldest one first, so we can plow through them and get to the newer things that will need your attention.
5) Look around you. Please note that the world did not come to an end. Please note that you did not burst into flames. Nothing bad has happened.
6) Keep breathing.
7) Look around again. Still here? Still SAFE? Awesome!
8) Read first email.
9) Repeat Steps 6 and 7. You are doing MAHVELOUS, darling. Use that funny Billy Crystal voice when he does Fernando Lamas.
10) The email you just read should fall into one of these categories:
a) delete it? DO IT NOW.
b) respond back with a thank you or an okay, or got it or whatever? DO IT NOW.
c) something that requires you to take action now? DO IT NOW.
d) something that requires to to think or create or something later? PUT IT IN A FOLDER CALLED TO-DO
11) Go back and breathe and look around. Any alien invasion yet? EXCELLENT!
12) Repeat steps 1 through 11 for each email.
13) When you are caught up, then head over to the TO DO folder and take the most important one, or the oldest one, or the one that is easiest for you to do and then deleted it and move on to the next.

I want you to really focus on your breathing, on the lack of catastrophes when you read the email, and then just focusing on ONLY the email that is open, that you are reading and that you are going to take action on.

I hope this little exercise helps; I wanted to keep it as light and fun as possible, because it's just email. Your body seems to have forgotten this fact and we need to teach it to relax again.

Good on you for asking for help! You can do this, no worries!
posted by Major Matt Mason Dixon at 8:51 AM on April 20, 2015 [21 favorites]


I'm a person with anxiety whose anxiety badly affected my job. It was a desk job and I wasn't doing any work because I was obsessively googling imagined symptoms and having panic attacks in the toilet while checking myself for bumps and legions (it wasn't a great time in my life..) This anxiety was compounded by the fact I felt sure my bosses knew that a)I was using work computers for googling cancer and b) I wasn't giving my full attention to my job. It reached a head when I had to leave work to go to an emergency walk-in clinic for whatever disease I thought I had, and ended up having a private chat with my manager. I explained the anxiety and she was so much more understanding than I ever thought she would be. Just being able to tell her what was going on and explain myself reduced a lot of my anxiety. I would arrange a meeting with your superviser and tell her that you wanted to let her know you've fallen behind with emails as a result of stress and anxiety, but that you are seeking treatment for it. You can point out that you are doing all other parts of your job, but that this is the bit that has fallen by the way side. I'm sorry you're going through this. I know it sucks. but I also know you can get through it x
posted by Dorothea_in_Rome at 9:34 AM on April 20, 2015


Something else to try is to fiddle with the settings on your email so it doesn't look quite the same. For example, change where the preview pane appears. If you're using Outlook you can change between displaying "conversations" and date received. Change the colours on your display. Make the window smaller or bigger. This is to trick your brain a bit into thinking this is not the thing that was upsetting it before, so much.

Also, start updating your chair via phone now and then - just leave a voice mail. That will help address the sense that you're just ignoring her.

I have had some of these kinds of anxiety and it may be PTSD related and therapy can help.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:49 AM on April 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


Are you in academia?

One thing that saved me some of my own email anxiety in that situation was keeping boilerplate emails in an easily accessible spot. Whenever I answered a student question that wasn't terribly specific (the syllabus can be found on Blackboard in the "Course Materials" folder/class is in room 286A in the library this week/rough drafts will be due the Wednesday after Spring Break), I would save my response in a text file so that I could cut and paste if anyone else asked the same (or a similar) question later.

For questions from a supervisor, sometimes the problem is more about deciding on an answer in my case. A response along the lines of "I don't have my notes with me at the moment, but I'm looking into it and I'll get back to you by Friday" can buy you some time. It makes the person feel like their emails are not going into the void, and you get time to think about your answer without being eaten up with unanswered email guilt.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 9:56 AM on April 20, 2015 [4 favorites]


Have a student or assistant open your emails once a day and let you know what's in there.
posted by JimN2TAW at 10:06 AM on April 20, 2015 [3 favorites]


FWIW, I am a college professor. A few things:

1) Do not let a student review your email for you. Major privacy issues are involved here--with colleagues and other students.

2) I think saying "I'm sorry I've been hard to reach; I'm working on it" to the chair is also a bad idea. If your chair is even a semi-regular person, their mental reaction will probably be something like "Jesus Christ just answer my emails--this isn't rocket science". And if the behavior continues your chair will think you are being a non-responsive jerk.

3) I like the idea of having somebody close to you (partner, really close friend, sibling, parent, etc) review the emails...maybe once per day or every other day to sort and respond to the truly important ones and add meeting times to your calendar, etc.

4) Don't go to HR. Is your chair a reasonable person? If you can trust your chair, I would request a meeting and explain what is going on. I mean--your issue is rather unusual. If you can go to the meeting with a quick fix (like #3 above), and a longer term solution, then that should be OK. Your chair might even offer a way to make the situation a little easier for you....Like "I will call you to let you know about meetings"....or something like that.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 10:30 AM on April 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


If you feel you must talk to the chair then you could say that you have always valued face to face and verbal communication over email, but you hear that the chair feels there are issues so you are now going to work on the email, but that you also hope they will sometimes consider just giving you a call or stopping by if there is something they want to talk to you about, if they have the time of course, as you value being able to bounce things off of them in real time.

Going forward in the short term you could help yourself by setting up some email filters and some folders for projects and events like conferences. Setting up a filter to a folder for anything from the department chair and anything with the word meeting in the subject heading might help a bit. This should be a smaller and less intimidating subset of the great world of email and so opening a folder of just those emails to read will help with priorities.

I'm pretty ruthless about filtering and sorting emails into folders and priority lists, without necessarily even reading the whole email. Most relevant info. is in the first few sentences anyway. Just read enough to sort the email.

I've also always set aside some dedicated time to sort and deal with email (the same way you have office hours in other words).

Contrary to other advice, I would start with recent emails and work backwards, sorting stuff into folders (make logical ones as you go), and put any upcoming meetings on a calendar.

Possibilities would be a folder for communications from the chair and upcoming meetings, folder for department admin/policy, folder of student correspondence, and/or a folder for each class you are currently teaching. Spend some time sorting, prioritizing and foldering, and deleting (it is so nice to delete the irrelevant stuff) without stopping to read or respond.

If there is someone you trust like a partner to help you with this email sorting and prioritizing in the short term, then that would be great.
posted by gudrun at 10:44 AM on April 20, 2015


Is the problem with responding that you are overwhelmed or disorganized or both?

My super ADHD behind had a reminder system to respond to emails that consisted of emails from people waiting on me with messages like 2nd and 3rd request. I found a book about Getting Things Done and adapting it to email and it made life sooo much easier. Click the link below.

https://www.google.com/search?q=getting+things+done+email&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8
posted by Che boludo! at 11:12 AM on April 20, 2015


2) I think saying "I'm sorry I've been hard to reach; I'm working on it" to the chair is also a bad idea. If your chair is even a semi-regular person, their mental reaction will probably be something like "Jesus Christ just answer my emails--this isn't rocket science". And if the behavior continues your chair will think you are being a non-responsive jerk.

Oh, sorry, I didn't even think of that when I suggested that -- I actually meant to that if the OP wants to mention anything to the chair, to start a response to any of the chair's recent emails with "I'm sorry I've been hard to reach; I'm working on it" and then continue with an actual response to the email. I agree that an email apology with no other job-related content would be a poor idea. I should have been more explicit with that.
posted by jaguar at 11:15 AM on April 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


Yes, I think working with your chair would be a great idea here. I do not, unfortunately, think your partner or someone outside the university can help you with this - it would be awesome if they could, but there could be sensitive student information in there that should not be shared with people outside the university and unfortunately you just don't know. (Although perhaps you could have them help you with some high-level stuff that doesn't require actually opening up emails, like helping you work through setting up filters for listservs and stuff like that.)

If your chair is someone you can talk to, maybe they can help you figure out who you *can* temporarily share access with - a department admin, a temp, someone actually employed by the university - who can help you set up some filtering and auto-replies and get through the backlog.

I think this is very likely the kind of thing that therapy could help you with. Short-term - go see a doctor, tell your chair what you can but at the last tell her that you're working through a medical issue and hope to be on top of your e-mail soon, and try not to beat yourself up. Anxiety sucks and can feel so embarrassing and isolating, but this is a manageable problem and you don't have to deal with it alone and unsupported.
posted by Stacey at 11:22 AM on April 20, 2015


I am in academia too, and I have a similar problem. Maybe not quite as bad as you, but I definitely have a racing pulse and quickened breathing whenever I open my email, and I sometimes go several days without looking at it when I am especially anxious. My head of department has commented on my email unreachability, but I am lucky that he thinks it is a good thing, and says he wishes he, like me, could spend less time obsessively checking email and more time writing. (Ha, if only that were a given!)

But it makes me think that you could spread the word around that you have a rule that you only check email once a day, or twice a day, or only after lunch or something, so that you can work on your research or teaching uninterrupted by the urgent-but-unimportant trivia that fills our inboxes. If you can actually force yourself to check your email once a day (and I think right after lunch is actually quite good for this), and if everyone knows that you will do this, I think it could work quite well. But you need to tell people that this is your system. Maybe even have an auto-reply that says this is what you do, and that for more urgent matters, people should ring you instead.

I actually talked to a therapist about this (when I was expecting a referee report on a paper that I thought would be rejected, and it had been a whole week since I had been able to look at my email because of that anxiety.) She was very helpful. She said first of all that it was an extremely common problem. (She was the therapist appointed to our university, so all her clients were academics.) THat in itself was reassuring.

Then she said that the best thing to deal with phobias was exposure therapy, and that I should actually check my email MORE often, so that it becomes less of a Big Deal. (So kind of the opposite of the advice I gave above). If you have a pop-up on your computer that brings up the first few lines of an email as soon as it arrives, it is very disruptive for work, but brilliant for forcing you to not avoid email, because it naturally attracts your attention, and before you have even had time for an anxiety reaction, you have already read the first couple of lines, and it is too late for the fear of what might be.

She also made me actually spell out explicitly (and write down) the worst case scenario for what might be in an email, in every little detail. (I detailed one where my dean wrote to me to tell me how bad at my job I was, and how there had been lots of complaints about me from students and that they had decided my published work was terrible, and they had made a mistake hiring me, and I was fired.) Then she talked me through each point and made me see how ridiculous it was, and how unlikely. And then we did the same for potential emails from all the people I might hear from: from a student, from my parents, from a colleague, etc. I'm not sure how common a therapy strategy it is, but she also then suggested that maybe I was worrying about the wrong things, and what if the email from the Dean was actually to tell me he had run over my cat, or if the email from a student was because they were suing me for leaving a pen in the corridor that they tripped on and broke their arm? And how could I possibly worry about all the potential problems that email might bring me, so maybe I shouldn't bother to worry at all.

I was laughing pretty hard by the end, and now I have some mental shorthand to remind myself of the ridiculousness of my anxiety when I want to avoid email. (E.g. "Oh, you are avoiding email again? Are you scared it will be "you are worthless you are fired" email? Or the "student suing you for not smiling enough" email?)

I don't know if any of that is helpful, but feel free to memail me if you want to chat about it more with someone who understands.
posted by lollusc at 11:37 AM on April 20, 2015 [5 favorites]


Also, if part of the problem is that you have a huge backlog of email that you can't bear to deal with, you can take the nuclear approach: delete everything. Absolutely everything. Then send an email to your whole address book and all your students saying that you had an email disaster and lost everything on the server, and that if anyone is waiting for you to respond to an important email they should please resend it.

I have done this twice in my life, and it is very freeing. But you have to be completely ready for that brand new day, and to respond punctually to anyone who does resend an email at that point.

Finally, as a model that I don't endorse, a colleague of mine stopped using email back in 2007. He just decided it took too much time. At that point he had something like 8,000 unanswered emails. Now who knows how many he has. He sure doesn't. Everyone has come to know that he doesn't use email, and they call or drop by his office instead. But he could get away with this because he has tenure. I'm guessing you don't. But you could hold this incentive out to yourself for when you do get tenure, that you can choose to stop using email forever and ever then if you like: you just have to keep dealing with it now for a few more years.
posted by lollusc at 11:47 AM on April 20, 2015


Hey, guys:

First of all, this is really helpful to me, and I appreciate both the good ideas and the tone of the thread.

Okay, I contacted the office of the only decent therapist in town and I have an intake appointment on Friday with the first real appointment probably following in late May. I have a feeling that this is connected to other stuff I haven't really ever fully dealt with, and I'm probably overdue to have someone help me sift through it anyway.

To be honest, I don't know my chair well at all. She's become chair since I was hired, and she's at another campus and was in a completely different department until a recent restructuring. But she seems like a reasonable person, and I feel like at this point I either let her know I have anxiety associated with email or she thinks something worse of me. Right now I really don't see a downside to a simple message that says I realize I have been hard to reach lately, I wanted to let her know that I have discovered that email communication produces anxiety for me, and that I am taking steps to deal with it. In the meantime, any suggestions she has for other ways to communicate while I improve my email responsiveness would be appreciated.

It seems like some of you think it's a bad idea to mention anxiety to my supervisor, but, honestly, it's either tell her that it makes me anxious or let her keep thinking I just neglect my work without reason.

(On preview: yeah, no tenure for me. Not for a couple of years, anyway.)
posted by D+ at 11:49 AM on April 20, 2015


Like lollusc, I had this problem too and I solved it the same way: by checking my email on my iPhone fairly obsessively for a few days. After those few days, I realized that nothing all that urgent was happening. I got over my anxiety pretty quickly. Any chance that you might be anxious about another aspect of your job, e.g., teaching, grading, or research/writing, and that you might be displacing that anxiety onto email? Like with checking email, I have found that the more time I spend writing, the less anxious I feel about it.
posted by quixotictic at 4:56 PM on April 20, 2015


As alluded to above, the most useful thing for me when in this situation was to have an Accountability Partner for the previously avoided task. This meant I had to buy into the idea of having someone ask me if I'd done $task, and also, to not take my anxiety about $task out on this person.

I commend you for writing this question, especially since I bet checking the responses may trigger anxiety of its own. Have you opened up your inbox yet? Have you contacted your supervisor? I don't recommend using Metafilter as an ongoing email accountability partner, but please come back and let us know.

If you haven't yet contacted your supervisor, I'd also counsel you avoid providing specifics. You're going to need to get this under control asap, so your email needs to be clear that you are working on changing your behavior, not explaining why you've been doing what you're doing. The latter, even with your suggested text, runs the risk of sounding like you're expecting her to change to accommodate you.
posted by deludingmyself at 8:38 PM on April 20, 2015


I felt compelled to answer this as I feel I am your doppleganger;) I, too, am an academic with an email phobia (and also a victim of childhood abuse although I suspect that's utterly unrelated). I also have ADD. I have been in almost your exact position. Here are some strategies I use to deal with this issue:

1. I try pre-emptively give people a heads up that email is not my forte/preferred mode of communication. I notify students by saying things like 'the best way to get hold of me is on the phone' or 'if you have a query that needs to be answered quickly, I'm much easier to get hold of via telephone than email'. I let students know I receive a lot of emails and if their concern is time sensitive or urgent they should call me. I gave my chair my cell number and said to her 'please do use this if you ever need to get hold of me quickly or if I have not responded to an email you need an answer to urgently. I am a phone person and I absolutely do not mind being contacted on my cell phone.' (This may or may not be appropriate for you depending on your chair and the degree of hierarchy/formality in your institution).

I finish important emails with a note 'Please feel free to ring me on [phone number] if you need any more information or talk about this more' so I can shift to my preferred communication mode. I also specifically tell people that I get a lot of emails and sometimes one can slip through the cracks and that I am more than happy to be reminded if I haven't answered within a couple of days. (Only do this if you think reminders won't add to your anxiety! I do this because I am absent minded and I would much rather be reminded that accidentally ignore someone).

The emails that you answer and then you receive a reply to and then you just have to reply to again were the *worst* for me. So I got into the habit of calling the person if I thought there was likely to be a heap of back and forth involved.

2. I flag or star important emails and I reply immediately to those I can easily reply to in a couple of minutes. I do not have filters or a complex email system or multiple folders because that strangely just makes my anxiety and sense of inadequacy worse.

3. I compensate for being poor on email by maintaining frequent and positive face to face relationships with colleagues and try to be excellent and going above and beyond in other parts of my job.

4. The more you avoid something that makes you anxious, the greater your anxiety grows. Giving in to the fear means increasing it. With email, especially, allowing it to build up can leave you feeling completely overwhelmed. The more frequently you force yourself to check email, the easier it will be both emotionally and practically. Try to remind yourself of this when you are feeling the racing heart and adrenaline of anxiety.

5. Instead of shaming yourself and having a horrible narrative running inside your mind of 'God, why am I like this, I am a disaster, how could I have let these emails build up for weeks?!' approach reading your email as if you are doing a really difficult, challenging, frightening thing (because you are!) Force yourself to do it and take your time - you'll notice the anxiety gradually abating.

6. When you do slip up, and fall behind, keep your focus on reading and replying to emails not on explaining your behaviour and apologising. You may need to do that too but people are much more receptive to an apology and an explanation when the issue that has emerged has been resolved.

7. Try to regularly (say, once a month) spend a full day deleting emails that are insignificant or unimportant so you aren't alarmed by the sheer number of unread emails in your in box. Treat this as an intensely challenging task. Schedule nothing else for that day. Treat yourself with lovely food and regular breaks.

I also find sometimes I avoid email because I assume I have to act on it/fulfil the request/resolve the problem immediately and that adds to a sense of overwhelm. It's fine (and sensible) to reply with further questions or an expected response time frame. 'Thanks for your email. I'll investigate [X] next week and get back to you' or 'Thanks for notifying me about [Y].' For areas where you need more information you can write things like 'Did you need me to complete those forms this week or would next be okay?'/ 'Can you explain how much detail you would like in this report?' or 'I'm not sure about the submission process for theses. I'll look into it and try to let you know by the end of the month' (or whatever!)

I would not go to your chair for help just yet. Therapy and gradual exposure can help, so try that first. If you do need to say something perhaps frame it with a solution or at least a suggestion so it doesn't sound as if you are just exempting yourself from responsibility. Maybe 'I can get quite inundated with email in my role and while it's to be expected, it can feel overwhelming. With so many other responsibilities, it's sometimes a bad habit I have to let email replies slip. I'm always happy for you to ring me, though, and I'm working on strategies to resolve this. What's your expectation for email turnaround and is it possible to contact me by phone for time sensitive queries? Do you have any other good suggestions for managing my emails?' (Or something like that, depending on your relationship/culture of the place).

I suspect your anxiety is leading to a disproportionate sense of shame. People may well be cranky that you have not replied and be commenting that you are missing in action but you are good at your role, present in your role, an effective teacher and a successful academic...just one with a particular weakness. We all have them. Some professors will be wonderful at email, admin and meetings but rotten in the classroom. Things probably aren't as dire as you imagine. Email is not the only way to be present in your job. Your colleagues may be surprised or slightly annoyed or miffed but they probably aren't thinking about you in the way you imagine they are. Don't let your shame convince you that you are hopeless. You are just a person who is currently very behind on his/her email! That isn't a get out of jail free card but it is a reminder not to catastrophise this.

For what it's worth, my email phobia is now mostly under control, sans therapy because the more I forced myself to 'do' email, the better it got, until it felt unpleasant but ordinary. I'm still well below average in how often I check email, and how often I utilise it but I'm now in the realm of okay-adequate. I got here by freaking out and then getting over the worst of it (hundreds of emails to look at and address) and now I do use the strategy of checking email once or twice a day for one or two hours only as a way to avoid ever facing such a freakout again.

But three years ago, I didn't check emails for ten days when I was in a newish role and my sense of panic and shame was similar to yours. I missed important information and even key *events* (ugh). Colleagues thought I had vanished. People were miffed. I was very embarrassed. I had to work like a demon for a week catching up and facing the legacy of my phobia, which was awkward and anxiety-inducing but in the course of my role overall, kind of unimportant and rapidly forgotten in the end. I did not go down in everyone's mind as a terrible person and awful professor but as someone who could be irritatingly flaky on email for a patch there.

I really wish the best for you. Phone phobias are so much more common that I think there can be a real lack of understanding that, for some of us, email induces the same fear.

Be kind to yourself. Academics are really overworked and expected to perform across so many wildly divergent and different areas/spheres at once.

And sorry for the mini-thesis;)
posted by JayAlfred at 4:06 AM on April 21, 2015


Sorry, one more comment. When dealing with your chair:

The first thing I would do is read your emails most recent to least recent (a day is a long time in academic and things will have changed rapidly since the first emails went out) and make a list of things you need to do or reply to in regards to your chair/department.

Then do these things.

Then either email or call your chair with updates on all of them. I would only discuss your anxieties *after* addressing the specific requests. Some chairs will be very sympathetic, some will be indifferent or tone deaf or even irritated to hear about this issue. Since you don't know your chair too well yet, resolve the aspects that need action now first, and deal with the global problem when you have time to think about the best way to communicate about it.

Good luck!!
posted by JayAlfred at 4:15 AM on April 21, 2015


Hey D+,

This sounds awful.

Speak to your local I.T. department and see if they help you filter or organise your email better. You can do smart things like automatically filter out junk or look for certain keywords and assign a higher priority.

Make your email help you!

Good luck,

DZ
posted by DZ-015 at 5:53 AM on April 21, 2015


I know the feeling and just wanted to echo suggestions that you look at the format of your email system, sorting and filtering, to see if you can more easily recognize what is important or time sensitive. Also, is there any way you can enlist the co-workers who are complaining about this to put certain wording in subject heads to make sure you know if it's time sensitive, and maybe find some way you can get pinged about this stuff?

This may not just be all you. I deal with people who send me mail from different accounts and who do other things that result in my not noticing, "Oh, here is a message from so-and-so that requires my response soon." As a result of this, when I need someone's attention my subject lines are very very spelled out. That's how I want emails to come to me, and after a while people generally return the favor.
posted by BibiRose at 6:31 AM on April 21, 2015


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