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Dealing With Zoom Anxiety

Not everyone wants to show up for virtual group hangouts.

Why does Zoom seem so stressful? Is it because I’m an introvert?

In real life, when we’re hanging out with friends, we don’t feel the same pressure to “perform socially” as we do on Zoom or FaceTime. For instance, when we are just hanging with a good friend, we can be more relaxed because our presence in the same space can be sufficient to provide companionship and support; whereas when we’re on a video conferencing type app, and it is two people just “hanging out” and not engaging in a conversation, the situation can feel a little weird. We also might feel like we “must” be witty, or entertaining, or compassionate, or engaging when all that is representing us is our profile pic or headshot.

There’s a saying that 15% of our communication is done verbally and the other 85% of our message is sent through body language. We miss a lot of that in many video communication modes, so we may have a harder time following conversations and staying on track when we’re possibly missing a significant chunk of the non-verbal communication that can give context and depth to verbal communication being shared.

Unfortunately, in some video gatherings, we can feel chained to a chair and the screen and that can be physically draining even though it seems like we’re not doing anything physical. As one colleague puts it, “Wearing that 'happy girl” mask wears me out during unit meetings!' In the real work world, we can find moments where we can let our mask drop, but during interminable work meetings, we feel like we have to keep on that mask as long as our video image is on the screen.

Help! I hate looking at myself on the screen during calls!

A lot of people feel it can be distracting to see themselves on the screen for hours at a time. For the more vain among us, they will take special care to make sure the lighting is right, the tilt of the screen just right, and they are wearing their best colors from the waist up. They can actually take a lot of pleasure in admiring their image on the screen. Others of us, though, have a hard time being “OK” with our cameras on and we can feel “exposed” in ways that we don’t normally feel in group situations.

Unfortunately, “showing up” is sometimes the most effective way to be seen as an active participant in a video meet-up—when you leave your profile pic or avatar up with your camera off, you can be seen as “absent” from the group, even if your microphone is on and you’re actively contributing to the conversation. It’s like being “halfway present,” and now that we’re all isolated from others, it’s important that we try and “visually show up 100%,” even if we aren’t crazy about the camera focused on our faces.

How can I get over my anxiety about too much “screen time?"

The best way to get over this anxiety is by “exposure therapy” of a sort. By that, I mean that sometimes we just have to jump into the deep end and turn on the camera and just smile and bear it. Remind yourself that most of us hate to hear our own voices on tape and we hate to see ourselves on video. It’s something we have in common, but we also know that we like it a whole lot better when others have their cameras on—and we should show others the same courtesy that they show us.

When we’re teenagers, we spend a lot of time agonizing over what people might think about us. Then we get to our twenties and realize no one is thinking about us or noticing us as much as we thought they might. The same thing goes now—we may worry about what other people are thinking, but chances are that if they’re thinking about camera shots at all, they’re thinking about their own images, not those of others.

Can I avoid video calls when I’m having a bad hair day?

Don’t avoid video calls because you’re stressed about your appearance—get more comfortable in small doses, if you must. Turn on your camera when you join a meeting so others can see you and “know” you’re there. Turn it off after that. A lot of people will turn their camera off when they’re not speaking, but turn it back on when they are.

If you’re shy about the camera with friends, open up and let them know what you’re feeling. They’ll probably validate that it’s your emotional presence that matters to them and appearance doesn’t matter at all—and listen to them and be willing to turn on your camera to offer a valued method of emotional support that facial expressions connote more fully than words, in many instances.

My friends love group hangouts, but I’m more of a one-on-one kind of person.

Digital hangouts give people a place to socialize with multiple people and to simulate the feeling of hanging out with a group. Everyone has different needs regarding socializing with others. Some love being in a group of friends and will set up virtual dance parties, Netflix parties, wine tastings, or gaming parties to get that “group vibe” humming. Other people prefer more solitude and quiet time to recharge.

Extroverts get energy from being around others; introverts typically need time alone to build energy to be in group situations. Neither preference is right or wrong—it’s all a matter of what helps one person function most effectively. The most important element, though, is for the extroverts among us to make sure that their introverted friends or colleagues are feeling supported and feel a sense of connection, even though their level of preferred interaction might be dialed down a few notches from that of the extroverts.

Do I really have to Zoom along with others or can I ignore the invitations?

No one should feel pushed to engage in social interactions that are nonessential and are geared more to the interests of extroverted or group-loving people. Work meetings, of course, are typically non-negotiable and everyone needs to show up if they are expected to be present.

If your family or friends are keen on a Zoom call, it’s OK if you alert folks going into the call that you are going to have to leave early. But while you’re on the call, be an active participant and be fully engaged. Most of us would prefer to have 10-15 minutes of positive engagement from even reticent family members or friends than see someone spend an hour on a call clearly disengaged, distracted, or uncomfortable.

Social gatherings should be optional, but in these days of isolation, it’s important that folks don’t completely disappear from their social scene. We need to check in with the people who might worry about us if we have our “away” message up too long. We’re all in need of support and connection, and even if the degree varies widely between family members, friends, or co-workers, it’s important that we check in on those who are less visible or isolating alone—and it’s great if those who are more introverted and typically less likely to reach out push themselves to check in with those who might worry about their wellbeing if they stay “off the grid” too long.

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