o other banal event floods my system with stress as quickly as a text that reads: “You available for a call?” Is Death calling or merely my mother, wondering what that chocolate mousse thing I made for a family gathering once eight years ago was? I’d consider the news of my own death to be quite serious, but honestly, I think I’d still prefer to receive it via text — perhaps as a single-frame New Yorker comic to sum up my passage through the veil, or even as a simple coffin emoji sent by the Grim Reaper’s bony finger, presumably adorned in tech-finger gloves. (Does bone work on a touchscreen?)
There are many reasons I prefer texting over phone calls. It’s less intrusive (the other party can answer at their leisure), there is a whole wealth of virtual material to pull from (memes! GIFs! inscrutable emojis!) and it provides an opportunity to be thoughtful in message crafting. Though there is also a more self-serving reason: comfort.
Written communication is the “taking off your bra” of conversational mediums for me. As someone who feels at home expressing herself through writing, the art of casual, vocalized conversation can often feel uncomfortable. For whatever reason, this type of social stress began to settle in post-college, and conjuring my ability to charm in real time seems to be slipping away with each passing year.
I always chalked this deterioration up to the introduction of bigger stakes: a job I want to get, an important connection I want to foster, a relationship I don’t want to damage. While those may be factors, I’ve started to wonder if a component of that anxiety is, more simply, a general decline in the number of unscripted exchanges I have on any given day. It’s practically standard practice at this point for my group of gal pals to juggle six different threads of conversation across three different platforms. We sometimes even chat through our phones when we’re in the same room together. What else are you going to do to avoid watching The Bachelor while gathering to watch The Bachelor?
Social technology, in all of its varying forms, seems similar to alcohol in a way. Both can be used as an effective lubricant for the socially skittish, but when used in excess, can also damage our ability to hold a coherent conversation without their aid.
Experts seem to agree that anxiety, stress and depression are all on the rise in younger generations, especially young women. It may correlate to the tight coupling of social media and advertisements, unsure financial futures or debt, or an evolutionary bias toward a level of stress that we no longer need. It may be a mixture of all of those plus my suspicion of a general atrophy of the casual conversation skills we developed pre-screen. According to Dr. Kirk Honda, PsyD, professor of psychology at Antioch University Seattle and host of the Psychology in Seattle podcast, all of these are “totally valid hypotheses, but nearly impossible to test given our current technologies and budgets.” (Thanks a lot, scientific method.)
“[I]t may just be that we’re doing a better job of identifying mental health issues,” suggests Honda. “There is also the matter of culture. Certain cultures express anxiety and depression in different ways, making it difficult to pin down the rise in anxiety and depression to a purely western phenomenon.”
Over the course of our conversation, Honda brought up the idea that as humans evolved, we shifted from a highly tribal species to one of increasing isolation. In many western societies, families no longer live in geographically close communities, and people move jobs and homes so often, they don’t get the opportunity to build confidence in their everyday relationships. This constant newness and mistrust of others can cause excess stress, says Dr. Honda.
Another theory, proposed in the 1990s by anthropologist Robin Dunbar, posits that humans can reasonably maintain only 150 close relationships. Anything larger than that, and rules have to be put in place to maintain peace. Then came the modern internet — a vast, lawless landscape that easily outpaced our ability to evolve our cliques from 150 to roughly 4 billion.
That seems to be where we are now: increasingly isolated in the physical realm, bombarded by a virtual global community and — given that it’s not often recognized on social media that humans are merely flesh suits stuffed firm with honest mistakes and the capacity for change — completely unsure of what may or may not cause us social pain. To cap it off, the view that issues that arise on the internet (think Gamergate) are inconsequential and separate from our somatic selves is patently false, though scarcely recognized. Somewhere in this convolution lies the source of our collective stress, inevitably leading us to the trough of self-care in the form of cancelled plans, infinite scrolling and the great and terrible cycle of trying all of Oreo’s limited edition flavors. Fortunately for all of us, Nabisco excluded, there’s a fix.
In all his years in the field, Honda has found anxiety to be “one of the most manageable afflictions for a therapist to effectively treat, sometimes taking only a few months of therapy. In fact, most people deal with anxiety at some point in their lives.” He encourages anyone suffering from the kind of anxiety that affects your ability to function to seek treatment from a licensed therapist.
It’s encouraging to know that anxiety and social stress are common struggles. Honda agrees that “for many, there’s likely a connection between social media and anxiety and a lack of social or coping skills. It’s just really difficult to measure the exact physical mechanism in the brain.” Regardless of possibility, I can’t help but theorize. As we inch closer to understanding the mind, will we one day be able to definitively tell if the internet is simultaneously encouraging us to eschew the physical for the virtual, all while atrophying our real-time conversation skills? Phase one of the synchronicity, perhaps. Or does it just require a restructuring of some age-old drinking wisdom: If wine before liquor makes you sicker, what do memes before water cooler chat do?
Illustrations by Irene Servillo.