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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.

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It's so hard to hold a conversation when you're overwhelmed with anxiety. That's why if anxiety impairs your communication, you need to get help. Learn more about how to control anxiety with my free anxiety test.

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Ways Anxiety Impairs Communication

Every type of anxiety has the potential to impair communication in similar ways. The interesting issue is when that impairment occurs. Some may find their anxiety only affects them in social situations. Others may find their anxiety affects them all the time. Learn more about my free 7-minute anxiety test.

There is no single issue that impairs communication with anxiety. Rather, there is a host of potential issues that can make it harder to communicate. A small sample includes:

  • Distracted Thinking The clearest issue caused by anxiety is distracted thinking. In order to suffer from anxiety, you must be suffering from anxious thoughts or sensations. You may find yourself thinking anxious things, or find yourself overly focused on the way you feel, or find yourself stuck on a thought you're trying to shake. Regardless of what the issue is, distracted thinking makes it very hard to hold onto a conversation, and your ability to communicate is impaired as a result.
  • Overthinking From Nervousness Nervousness, in general, can also 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 since communication has to be natural in order to work, trying to rethink everything you're about to say can actually make it harder to say what you mean.
  • Tongue Stumbling Anxiety can also make natural movements feel more unnatural. 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 in on the action. Eventually, this makes it harder to move your tongue correct to the point where you 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 that makes it nearly impossible to hear or think coherent thoughts. It can also cause lightheadedness and trouble thinking as a result of hyperventilation. In these cases, the impaired thinking often doesn't resolve itself until the panic attack has subsided and breathing gets back under your control.
  • Trouble Listening Finally, overthinking can also cause trouble listening and understanding what the other person says. This is often due to the distracted thinking, as mentioned above. But it may also be because of nervous thoughts about the content of the person's message to the point of focusing too much on any one particular word or phrase (or even facial expression) and missing out on the other content that is necessary to respond correctly.

While anxiety impairs communication, there are often very different issues at play depending on the type of anxiety you're experiencing.

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 issues out there, 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. Better to tell the other person "I've been tripping over my tongue a lot recently" or "I'm sorry, I actually started hyperventilating, and it's causing me to feel a bit lightheaded" than to try to pretend you're okay and still struggle in the conversation.
  • Brain Yelling A trick that works for some people is to purposely overload your thoughts by yelling at yourself in your mind for a moment. Yell "AHHH!!!" in your thoughts as loud as you can so that your thoughts are interrupted, then get back to focusing in on what the other person is saying and responding as a result.
  • Don't Overthink Of course, telling someone not to overthink is easier said than done, but speaking stream of conscious is something that people can practice. 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 silly or embarrassing, then what value did overthinking have? Try to talk as you think, and if you say something embarrassing so be it.

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 directly. 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.

You'll also want to take my free anxiety test. I developed the test to give you a better understanding of your anxiety, and ideas of how to control it and treat it based on your answers.

Start the test here.

Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Dec 07, 2017.

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