It’s just three little words, but it’s a strong enough message to strike fear into the hearts of most mere mortals.

Ever received a text that made your heart stop and stomach drop? Yep, it’s not nice. Experts say sending these three little words are the worst for someone with anxiety.

Tone can be difficult to discern and easy to misconstrue in a text message and according to mental health professionals, three little words can trigger an onslaught of anxiety.

The top-tier text offender to send someone with anxiety? “Can we talk?”

Licensed marriage and family therapist Alex Oliver-Gans tells HuffPost, “The ambiguity and lack of tone or context in this type of message leaves a huge amount of room for interpretation and catastrophizing.”

Why is the question so disconcerting? Oliver-Gans sagely notes, “Who ever said, ‘Can we talk?’ and had great news to share?”

And posed to someone who suffers from anxiety, the simple inquiry can cause serious distress. The problem lies in the vagueness of the language, which can easily lead someone to assume the worst and prepare themselves for it.

According to Arianna Galligher, director of the Stress, Trauma and Resilience program at the Ohio State University, one of the primary symptoms of anxiety is catastrophic thinking, the belief that a terrible consequence is not only possible but probable.

In relation to a text like ‘Can we talk’ this thinking can manifest as the recipient believing they will lose their job or relationship. “It can be really distressing and exhausting,” Galligher noted.


body soul fear
“Says here those emojis mean she doesn’t like you, Sally.” Pic via Getty Images.


Modern communication is stressful

Modern communication is itself a stressful subject. Constant connectedness has been linked to diminished mental health, a condition known as ‘ringxiety,’ and between errant eggplant emojis, aversion to phone calls, the perceived hostility of a thumbs up, the cancellation of punctuation and the absence of in-person cues, sending appropriate messaging and in turn receiving the intended message can be difficult.

Even more so for those who suffer from anxiety.

While texting may initially alleviate feelings of anxiety, allowing the anxious person to feel freer in their expression, the indecipherable nature of some messages may cause them to interpret benign texts as negative, spiking anxiety.

Oliver-Gans said, “Because text messages lack certain nonverbal cues, we’re constantly assuming the sender’s tone and intention.”

And as previously noted, for those with anxiety, that assumption often veers toward a worst-case scenario.


body soul fear
“lol, skull emoji, eggplant, peach, skull emojij annnnnd send!” Pic via Getty Images.


Communicate with compassion 

Luckily, there are ways to avoid sending trigger texts or spiralling from them. The name of the game is sensitive specificity: clearly, and warmly if possible, detailing what you would like to discuss with the recipient.

Oliver-Gans offers the following text template, “Say ‘I wanted to check in about [the topic you want to discuss]. Do you have 15 minutes later today?’ This minimises ambiguity, sets clear expectations and gives people a better understanding of the scope of the conversation, rather than leaving them to wonder,” she explains.

Oliver-Gans also recommends that we all try a little tenderness when it comes to texting. “You can bake in some reassurance by including a positive thought so the message is not all negative.”

Oliver-Gans maintains, however, that delicate conversations warrant a different medium. “Anything that’s hard to interpret over text, or easy to misinterpret without body language or tone of voice, should just be avoided over text. If there’s a particularly tough topic you need to address, it may be best to wait until you can mention it in person or over the phone.”

If you are the uneasy recipient of an ambiguous text, Oliver-Gans imparts that you can and should follow up before you fall apart. “I recommend looking for clarification rather than slipping into avoidance, rumination, and catastrophising. It’s a two-way street: Asking for more information and getting the facts can stop a pattern of what-if thinking in its tracks.”


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