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How Anxiety Can Impair Communication

Micah Abraham, BSc

Written by

Micah Abraham, BSc

Last updated October 10, 2020

How Anxiety Can Impair Communication

Communication between two or more people involves a lot of different mental mechanisms. One part of your brain is controlling your listening ability. Another part of your brain is deciphering what the other person is saying. Another part is formulating what to respond with, and another part of your brain is used to share the response.

It takes a lot of mental energy to hold a conversation, even if it doesn't seem like it. So it should come as little surprise that when your mind is overwhelmed with anxiety it can impair your ability to communicate.

Ways Anxiety Impairs Communication

Every type of anxiety has the potential to impair communication. Some may find their anxiety only affects them in social situations while others may find it affects them all the time.

There is no single issue that impairs communication when you have anxiety. Rather, there is a host of potential issues that can make it difficult to communicate. Some examples include:

  • Distracted Thinking One of the main issues caused by anxiety may be distracted thinking. You may find yourself anxiously thinking about numerous things, find yourself overly focused on the way you feel, or find yourself stuck on a particular thought. Regardless of what the issue is, distracted thinking makes it very hard to listen and hold a conversation, and your ability to communicate is impaired as a result.
  • Overthinking From Nervousness Being nervous can create problems with overthinking. When you're nervous while talking to someone else, it's not uncommon to overthink each and every word you're about to say in an effort to make sure that you say the right thing. But when you are rethinking everything you are about to say, it disrupts the natural flow of conversation.
  • Tongue Stumbling Anxiety can make natural movements feel unnatural or bizarre. A great example is stumbling over your tongue. Generally, your tongue moves exactly as it needs to in order to make the sounds and letters you want to make. But when you have anxiety, it's not uncommon for some automatic body movements to become less automatic because your brain focuses on that action. This can make it harder to move your tongue correctly, leading you to stumble over your words.
  • Lightheadedness/Trouble Thinking/Loss of Reality In some cases of extreme anxiety – most notably with panic attacks – there are several issues that can impair thinking. Anxiety can essentially overload your brain. It can cause a loss of reality which makes it nearly impossible to hear or think coherent thoughts. It can also cause lightheadedness and trouble thinking. In these cases, the impaired thinking often doesn't resolve itself until the panic attack has subsided and disrupted breathing gets back under your control.
  • Trouble Listening Finally, when you are focused on your anxiety it can cause trouble with listening and understanding what the other person is saying. This is often due to the distracted thinking, as mentioned above. Becoming anxiously focused on the person’s facial expressions or nonverbal communication can impact your ability to listen and pay attention to what they are saying. Anxiety about the content of the person's message may lead you to focus too much on any one particular word or phrase which can cause you to miss out on the other content that is necessary to respond correctly.

While all types of anxiety can impair communication, different issues may come up based on the type of anxiety you experience.

Quick Treatment for Trouble Communicating

Because different issues are at play, there are also different methods that you can use to help ensure that you communicate a bit better, and to ensure that you don't allow your communication issues to cause further anxiety. Consider the following:

  • Tell the Other Person When something is keeping you from focusing, be open about it with the person you're communicating with. While most people don't like their anxiety to be known, the truth is that people can tell when you're anxious, and when you try to hide it you'll often find that you experience more anxiety. It may be better to tell the other person "I've been tripping over my tongue a lot recently" or "I'm sorry, I’m feeling a bit lightheaded" rather than trying to pretend that you're okay and struggle through the conversation.
  • Ask them to Repeat Themselves If you are struggling to focus on the conversation, take a moment and ask them to repeat themselves. Rather than becoming more anxious because you missed what they said, simply requesting them to repeat it gives you another opportunity to listen.
  • Don't Overthink Of course, telling someone not to overthink is easier said than done. It makes sense that you want to make sure you don't say anything silly or embarrassing, but if overthinking is causing you to say things in an odd way, then what value did overthinking have? Try to talk as you think, and if you say something embarrassing so be it.
  • Practice Conversing The more often you engage in conversation with people, the easier you may find it to be. Try practicing conversing with someone you feel comfortable with. You can also try to practice holding a conversation when you are alone. Make sure to speak aloud, not just in your mind, since this is what you will have to do when speaking with another person.

If you're in the middle of a panic attack or you're experiencing a loss of reality, you'll need to address those issues first. Hyperventilation can be reduced by controlled, slow breathing, and some people find that putting their hands under cool water can help bring them back to the present.

If your anxiety is interfering with your ability to communicate with others then the above tips may help but they won’t completely fix the problem. Only by addressing the reason for your anxiety will you find relief and become truly comfortable with communicating with others.

Questions? Comments?

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Where can I go to learn more about Jacobson’s relaxation technique and other similar methods?

– Anonymous patient


You can ask your doctor for a referral to a psychologist or other mental health professional who uses relaxation techniques to help patients. Not all psychologists or other mental health professionals are knowledgeable about these techniques, though. Therapists often add their own “twist” to the technqiues. Training varies by the type of technique that they use. Some people also buy CDs and DVDs on progressive muscle relaxation and allow the audio to guide them through the process.

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