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  • Writer's pictureSarah McDonald

Hi, I'm exhausted. How are you?

It's been 61 days since my last post on what was supposed to be my weekly blog. I've felt a lot of internalized guilt for neglecting this blog (one of many tasks not being accomplished right now) but the truth is: I'm exhausted. Sitting down in front of a computer screen during my personal time, which I tend to guard with ferocity these days, is not at the top of my list. Last week, I spent six hours in virtual meetings, gave two virtual presentations, led a three-hour virtual training session and hosted a virtual book club on Facebook. I have never felt so deflated and mentally exhausted. Screen fatigue is real y'all and women seem to be particularly affected.

Zoom Fatigue

Nancy Clanton wrote about new research coming out of Stanford University on this phenomenon in the Atlantic Journal-Constitution and why they found it might affect women more. In general, Stanford identified five non-verbal factors that might cause Zoom fatigue:

1. Mirror anxiety

Full disclosure: I got Botox earlier this year. Being in constant virtual meetings means that you have a reflection staring back at you all the time. For someone who is prone to hyper fixate on their flaws, this environment is prime for personal critique. Suddenly my blemishes were more prominent, my wrinkles were huge and any bad hair days were exaggerated. My decision to get Botox and soften the wrinkles on my forehead was absolutely influenced by this influx of virtual meetings. I don't regret my decision because it makes me feel better about myself, but I do have to acknowledge that I came to this decision through my own insecurities. Screen fatigue is particularly taxing on women because we have the daily task of living in a society that ranks our worth based on our appearance. Heightened awareness on appearance is the common thread for why these factors affect women more. Physical pressures also exist for men, but not to the same extent because their worth is historically more strongly tied to other factors.

2. Feeling trapped

In a virtual meeting, your world becomes pretty tiny and you're suddenly confined to a couple of square feet. Clanton writes about how this set up can make you feel physically trapped to stay within the confines of your virtual window. Personally I haven't experienced this trapped feeling. I actually find that I feel empowered by being able to turn my camera or microphone off anytime that I need to. Is this something that you experience? (tell me in the comments below)

3. Hyper gaze

Hyper gaze refers to the "perceptual experience of constantly having people’s eyes in your field of view". Depending on the type of meeting I'm attending there could be as few as one other pair of eyes, or as many as 50 pairs watching me during a virtual meeting. There is a real sense of constantly being watched, scrutinized and criticized. This can result in a lot of intrusive self-conscious thoughts that range from worry about being judged for the state of my kitchen in the background to negative thoughts about my appearance. These fears are likely irrational but also very real feelings to work through.

4. The production of nonverbal behaviours

Recently I watched myself back in one of our virtual Facebook Live book clubs (I don't recommend this). While watching myself, I realized that I was manically nodding at everything my co-worker was saying. Interacting with someone through a screen means that a lot of our nonverbal cues are lost and these nonverbal cues play a big role in communicating with someone. In order to convey these important nonverbal cues we tend to exaggerate them and this performance can be incredibly draining.

5. Interpreting other people

Clanton's last point talks about the mental effort it takes to pick up on nonverbal cues given by other people in your virtual meetings. There is a lot of communication that goes left unsaid when you are interacting with friends and co-workers. Whether it's a small nod, hand gesture, eye roll, or a sigh, you can convey a lot about how you are feeling with nonverbal cues. This point is especially true for me as a woman because I often find that I lead with my empathy and I put a lot of value on these non-verbal cues. Non-verbal cues, even something as innocent as talking to someone off screen or glancing down at your phone, are easily misinterpreted in the virtual environment which can lead to self-doubt, self-criticism and potential conflicts. Alternatively, you can exhaust yourself by hyper fixating on trying to identify and interpret these cues.

Lockdowns On Lockdowns

Friday afternoon the Premier of Ontario announced the third set of restrictions for the province in the last two weeks. After an exhausting week of virtual commitments, this announcement felt like the final blow to my spirit. This newest set of restrictions -- increasing police power, limiting access to outdoor recreation like parks* meanwhile allowing religious groups to continue to meet indoors -- are confusing and unfair and exhausting. I'm struggling right now and I know my friends are struggling. Last night I broke down while trying to order pizza with Taylor. I'm talking a full on ugly cry of a meltdown. This seemingly simple task was impossible because I had no more space mentally to problem solve and couldn't articulate myself. I have so much empathy for parents right now and truly commend you for everything you are doing to get you and your kids through this. These new restrictions also pose huge risks to members of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities who are already over-policed.

Virtual meetings aren't the sole cause of my heightened anxieties right now. There is uncertainty, constant fluctuations between coloured zones and lockdowns, social isolation, and fear for my personal and our collective health. This just scrapes the surface of triggers, but I find it helpful to be able to identify a tangible cause for some of my anxiety. In this case it's an increase in virtual meetings. By identifying it I can work on creating boundaries for myself, like blocking out no meeting time, saying no to meetings that I don't need to be at and setting time limits. It also helps me to recognize that I'm not just going "crazy" because these are real stressors being placed on us right now and my reaction, while uncomfortable, is natural. If you identify with any of these feelings please know that you are not alone.

Things I Miss

I miss traveling.

I miss dinners with friends.

I miss reading a book in a coffee shop.

I miss browsing at stores.

I miss going to the movies.

I miss day trips.

I miss seeing my coworkers.

I miss these faces.

It's hard to believe that this was one of the last times we were all together. At Canada's Wonderland in December 2019.

These are the ways that we refuel, find companionship and enrich our lives. Right now it's hard but it will get better. There's a lot that I am thankful for; I have a new fiancée, I have a job that I can safely do from home, my family is healthy, we have food in the fridge and I have the ability to physically walk outside every day. I try to remind myself of these things, but I also try to give myself time to feel the hard feelings too even though that's super uncomfortable. I started working with a psychotherapist in March and we are working on ways that I can better manage my anxiety and my responses to anxiety. I'm able to afford this because my employer increased our mental health benefits as a response to COVID, which is a pretty clear sign to me that this is a collective response we are having. I also want to remind myself to say yes more often. Our worlds are becoming smaller and smaller and it's easy to start to retreat into that safety net. I am always reminded after spending some time, even if it's just 15-minutes on a Friday night post-meltdown, laughing with friends is all you need to get to the next thing.

I bought this picture to hang up beside my makeshift work-from-home desk, which is my dining room table repurposed. It's a good reminder that any day we are here alive and breathing with people we love, whether that's physically or virtually, is a good day.

Let me know in the comments below, how are you doing right now? What you are doing to refill your cup?



(*UPDATE: On Saturday, less than 24 hours after the latest announcement, the provincial government has decided to allow playgrounds to remain open)

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