This Mental Health Matters was written by Vicki Clark, LPCC-S, President and Chief Executive Officer of Ravenwood Health.
Many of us are feeling the impact of this year-long pandemic in unexpected ways. Virtual fatigue, reduced social interaction, and decreased touch are all playing a part. You may find yourself, as I have, feeling like you are in a fog, irritable, anxious, or unmotivated. You may find you are overeating, drinking alcohol more than usual, or struggling to exercise. Television Anchor Lester Holt ends his broadcast with, “remember to take care of yourself and each other.” This reminder is even more critical as we continue to find our way through the pandemic.
Communication is a complex interplay of talk, gestures, movement, and timing between people. Virtual or Zoom meetings impact that interplay and can end up leaving us exhausted. Virtual or Zoom Fatigue is very real. While Zoom and other virtual platforms help us work and interact with family and friends and have kept us safe during the pandemic, they also have a downside.
In a Zoom session, you miss out on many of the social cues on which we rely. To show you are attending to the discussion, you must stare directly at the screen for minutes at a time. In a face-to-face meeting, you look around at the room at the other participants, and then bring your eyes back to the speaker. This intense looking is tiring. We also do not have the subtle cues available to us in a Zoom call that are apparent during an in-person meeting. We don’t see someone’s body language that tells us if they are uncomfortable, about to speak, distracted, etc. And we miss those little side comments, looks, or communications that help bring us together. Also, we, for the most part, are seeing ourselves on the screen. We tend to focus on presenting in the best possible way, something we do not have to constantly be aware of in a face-to-face meeting.
With the pandemic, social interactions have significantly changed. Standing six feet—or more—apart is not the norm in the United States (US). Social distance in the US is typically about an arm’s length. With social distancing under COVID-19, it is at least double that. We now interact at a social distance that in the past indicated we were meeting a stranger. This increased distance registers very differently with our brains and impact our body’s chemical reactions. It decreases the closeness we felt previously, leaving us feeling tenser. Furthermore, mask wearing hides large portions of our facial expressions, making us work harder to get social cues.
Touch is crucial to our wellbeing as humans and many of us are experiencing less touch than before. Research studies support the importance of touch. Hugs, handshakes, and even pats on the shoulder from a friend and coworkers are practically nonexistent. These touches are known to reduce heart rates and blood pressure and release hormones that make us feel calm.
Zoom meetings, social distancing, and decreased touch impact us greatly. Awareness is key to reducing some of the impacts. Taking time away from devices whenever possible, looking out the window, taking a few moments to connect socially at the beginning of the meeting, practicing deep breathing, taking a quick break to walk around your house or office, or stepping outside every hour for even a minute can help.
Make sure to have in-person interactions whenever it is safe; touch those in your bubble with a pat on the shoulder or a hug. Mostly, we need to remember we are all experiencing the impact of the pandemic and forced isolation and need to be patient, compassionate and kind to ourselves and each other.
A recent novel I thoroughly enjoyed is Daughters of Erietown, by Connie Shultz. It takes place in Northeast, Ohio and includes scenes from my alma mater, Kent State.