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Image / Editorial

The Scientific Reasons We Suffer From Email Anxiety


by Jennifer McShane
21st Apr 2017

Does anyone else remember the very early days of email? Once the dodgy dial-up finally started working, my dad and I would begin our?back and fourth. They were personal emails filled with details of yet another country he was in or what I thought about a film that was really old but that I just watched for the first time ever?the night before. Each a snapshot of a happy memory, on occasion, some would easily go over 1000 words. That form of email is now dead. Emails still exist of course, but they are now sources (for many) of dread and anxiety. No longer a labour of love, emails now are shorter, snappier and demand your immediate attention.

Just looking at my unread emails causes me to feel slightly panicked. They silently rebuke me for not immediately responding to each one and even though I’ve only been in the office an hour, already I’m anxious. Not as anxious as I was until a colleague informed me she had over 5000 unread mails – then I started to sweat slightly. But why exactly do so many feel this way? The Muse attempted to get behind the science of this email addiction and came up with the following reasons:

We’re Chasing a Moving Target

When we complete a task, our brain releases a burst of dopamine, this feels good and causes us to want to satisfy our ?urge to completion.? Email is never ?complete?? we’re trying to chase a moving target: ?While you attend to it, you have the false sensation of advancing toward a goal, but the moment you look away, the target shifts further into the distance as more messages roll in,??according to author Jocelyn K. Glei.

?We’re Trying to Guage How People Really Feel

One psychologist discovered that we tend to read negatively into a message’s tone – meaning ?every message you send gets automatically downgraded a few positivity notches by the time someone else receives it,? said Glei. ?[I]f the sender felt positive about an email, then the receiver usually just felt neutral. And if the sender felt neutral about the message, then the receiver typically felt negative about it.? ?So all that means is that no email you receive will make you feel that great, but you’ll want to keep sending them anyway.

We Hate Leaving Requests Untouched

Numerous studies prove humans are inclined to the ?rule of reciprocity.?At its most basic level, this means that we want to respond to a positive action with another positive action.? So, if your manager sends a quick update to the team without intending to get a response, you still feel inclined to send something back.

Writer Nora Ephron, having gotten into the email game early on – remember You’ve Got Mail? – perfectly equated this dread in an Op-Ed for The New York Times, when it all reaches what she deems the “Death” stage, and there’s only one option: “Call me.”