Zoom is on the rise. Users of the video conferencing app increased from 10 million in 2019 to 200 million by April of 2020. That’s nearly a 2000% increase. And that was four months ago. By now, there are probably five more users on top of that—at least. Maybe ten, I don’t know. I’m not good at math. My point is, for many of us, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced Zoom meetings into our normal routine—whether we like it or not.
Around 7% of the U.S. population experiences social anxiety. Even if we eliminate undisclosed and subclinical cases, we can assume 7% of Zoom users experience problematic social phobia. Do the math on that. 7% of 200 million is like… 37 people, give or take. Fine, I’ll use the calculator app. Hang on. I will admit I was a bit off—the actual number is 14 million (I did say "give or take"). That means 14 million people in 2020 have experienced a new type of social anxiety called...
Zoom anxiety. I thought of that myself.
We’re talking about the anxious symptoms preceding, during, and following a social interaction on Zoom. Or any other video conference app, I guess. I don’t know what the Zune or Pepsi of video conferencing is, but I’m sure there’s one out there. Is it Microsoft Teams?
Zoom interactions create unique opportunities for social anxiety to slither a path into our brains. Social anxiety is essentially fear of judgment and embarrassment, and with Zoom, that can happen in novel ways. Something can go awry in the connection process, and we worry we will be judged as Luddites. Our webcam might accidentally show a television in the background playing our favorite Korean drama, Boys Over Flowers, and we might fear the mockery of closed-minded Americans who don’t appreciate the finest multimedia art since Citizen Kane.
And perhaps worst of all—Zoom forces us to look at our own faces the whole time. Since social anxiety causes us to be hypervigilant to our own behavior—ostensibly to make sure we don’t embarrass ourselves, even though it doesn’t actually help—seeing ourselves on the screen tends to increase anxiety.
So how do we manage this new incarnation of social phobia? With the same strategies as any other social phobia, essentially, but tweaked a little. Let’s discuss a technique for each phase of the Zoom anxiety lifecycle: the anticipatory phase, the active phase, and the morbidly named post-mortem.
1. Anticipatory phase: Self-soothing
Zoom anxiety often begins well before the actual interaction. If a Zoom meeting with your boss is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. on Friday, you may start to experience symptoms on Wednesday. Most commonly we worry and feel nervous in this phase. “I’m going to say something stupid.” Or, “My boss will think I’m so awkward.” Or, “Pornography of a questionable fetish is going to pop up onto my screen due to some cruel trojan horse and my boss will hear it.”
A great way to counteract worry in the anticipatory phase is by using supportive self-talk. Tell yourself it’s going to be OK. Make positive predictions. “This meeting will go well.” Normalize the anxiety and remind yourself it's OK to feel nervous. “My boss will be just as worried about porn mysteriously popping up onto her screen, probably.” How we talk to ourselves matters. This won’t eliminate the anxiety, but it will help.
2. Active phase: Mindfulness
When the meeting begins, physiological symptoms usually ramp up. You may experience shortness of breath, sweating, shaking or muscular tension in addition to the worry and nervousness you already had.
Mindfulness can help greatly here. Bring your awareness to the present moment, as much as you can, by focusing on sensory details on your screen (but focus on who you’re talking to, not your own face). Your brain will want to focus on you and your behavior, but intentionally focus on the colors, shapes, and textures of the other person’s area—get outside of your head.
Try to listen to what your boss is saying. Focus on the sound of the words. When the anxiety makes it hard to do that, focus on your breathing for a bit, then bring your attention back.
3. Post-mortem phase: Selective positive memory
When you exit the Zoom meeting, your mind will label certain things you said as “awkward,” dissect them and berate you. Why did you say koalas are your favorite marsupial? No one mentioned animals OR Australia … The mind has a selective negative memory when it comes to socially anxious interactions. It will replay the negative things, again and again, and beat you up for answering you too when your boss said I hope you get to see a koala in person one day, I guess?
This is a great opportunity to change the process. As your brain tries to fill itself with negative memories, counteract it by intentionally remembering the bits that went well. Replay the joke you told that got a laugh. Replay the conversation you were really into and the smiles and nods you got. Force your brain to have a selective positive memory. It won’t want to, but you have to keep doing it, every time. It becomes a habit after a while.
That’s all I have. Zoom well, my friend.
O'Flaherty, K. (2020). Zoom: Here's When to Use It, And When You Should Avoid It. https://www.forbes.com/sites/kateoflahertyuk/2020/04/15/zoom-during-cov…