They call it Zoom-xiety. OK, no one calls it that. But should you experience a cold sweat and rising panic when clicking “Start Video” on your morning conference call, you know what we mean. With students, professionals, and friends and family relying on services like Zoom and Google Meet to stay in touch, those awkward, uncomfortable feelings toward video chat have become an inescapable plague for some. But with no end to WFH culture in sight, is there anything you can do to help combat your nerves?
What is this feeling?
Anxiety. Nerves. Dread. Nausea. All of the above.
Dr. Donna Pincus of the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University says it’s natural to feel nervous in this “new normal.” She explained there are degrees of social anxiety felt during professional, educational, and social video experiences that allow us to function on a sliding scale, depending on circumstance. For example, you might have no issues with FaceTime nights with friends but completely clam up during a presentation. Or vice versa.
“It’s natural that some people would feel some level of anxiety with . . . suddenly having to navigate a type of interaction that’s new,” she says, also noting “the setting of the global pandemic, which has added stress to our cognitive and emotional resources . . . [these calls] require a lot of extra energy. It’s common to feel awkward or tired afterward.”
Tired? Us too.
Part of the increase of anxiety around video conferencing falls on the exhaustion they can cause. “There is fatigue from the screen and not being able to take adequate breaks and get up and move around, or it can be that you’re cognitively required to focus on the screen,” Pincus says. She notes the lack of regular office experiences — chit-chat before a meeting begins or the non-verbal cues we spot when sharing the same room — can be even more distracting when adjusting to video communications. “Non-verbal cues help us figure out how to behave, but now we have to figure out a different way, causing us to expend more energy.”
Understand you’re not alone.
Kit Pang, founder of BostonSpeaks, a public-speaking training firm for professionals in downtown Boston, says he’s experienced an uptick in clients who are now faced with higher video conferencing expectations. “People who are nervous now often were not early adopters to that technology,'” he explains. “They’re uncomfortable with the medium. It’s like giving someone TikTok who has never used it before and saying, ‘Here you go.’ It’s weird, strange, new, but you have to use it.”
He says other issues might cloud the speaker’s self-perception. “They’ll think it’s high stakes, but it really is only high stakes for them. Usually, we [the viewers] don’t care what a person looks like or if they nail their message perfectly. Most of the time we just want it to be over.”
You’re not alone, but you’re not in the spotlight either.
A magnified focus on your colleague’s facial reactions might give you pause (or a full stop, depending on your fears), when your boss’s furrowed brow seems like epic disapproval of your presentation.
“We see someone making a face, and you get stuck in your head with ‘What can it be?’ ” says Pang. “But people who are listening aren’t usually stuck in their heads. Maybe they’re just making faces because they have to pee or they know they have another three-hour meeting. Maybe they’re hot.”
But then the internal whirlwind begins. “Just like any other anxiety problem, sometimes we think maladaptive thoughts that might be untrue,” adds Pincus. “We have to remember just because we think to ourselves ‘people judging me,’ it doesn’t mean they’re judging you. We may make judgments that people are critical or focused on us when they really aren’t paying attention. All those thoughts can be very tiring.”
How to cope?
Try to be present. “There’s a saying in meditation that your thoughts are not you and you are not your thoughts,” Pang says. “When people are nervous or have anxiety, they think reality is what they’re thinking. And when you’re stuck in your head, you’re not present.” Breathing techniques and meditation can help you re-center, whether you practice before a meeting or throughout the day.
Incorporate breaks. Purposefully taking breaks from screen time can help with the sinking feeling surrounding an upcoming video meeting. “But this is a time not to surf your phone,” Pincus says. “Take a walk, get exercise, or have a snack.” A healthy diet and regular water intake help, too.
Turn off the view. It might seem like a given, but if you zone in on yourself while you’re speaking, minimize the self-view video window.
And practice, even if you don’t want to. For the extra nervous, Pincus recommends instituting a “baby steps” routine, reciting a speech about something you love in front of family or taping yourself giving a presentation. Pang similarly suggests choosing a focus area to improve on each month, whether it’s getting to know the video platform software better or gaining confidence in your presence and body language.
Check on your kids. Children and teens who are remote-learning aren’t exempt from feeling anxious when on long stretches of Zoom every day. Pincus recommends keeping an eye out for signals — sadness, irritability, or prone to distraction — and incorporating breaks and healthy habits into their schedules. “Kids don’t naturally know how to create breaks for themselves,” she says. “So predictability and consistency are extremely important for kids.”