Strategies for Surviving and Thriving on Zoom

by | Mar 16, 2021


When the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign moved in-person classes online in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Margo Spencer initially liked being able to roll out of bed, turn on her computer, and go to class on Zoom.

But after weeks then months of all those video conferencing calls, the mental and physical exhaustion set in.

“Zoom fatigue is definitely real,” said Spencer, a senior clinical psychology major.

She added social-distancing mandates also moved her family get-togethers and staff meetings at the U of I Counseling Center where she works as a paraprofessional, online.

According to Zoom, its platform alone saw 300 million participants in April 2020 – up from 10 million in December 2019. The rise in videoconferencing prompted Standford researchers to examine the psychological consequences of spending so much time on calls.

In the first peer-reviewed article on the topic, “Nonverbal Overload: A Theoretical Argument for the Causes of Zoom Fatigue,” published in the journal Technology, Mind, and Behavior on Feb. 23, author Jeremy Bailenson offers four possible explanations:

  • Excessive amounts of close-up eye gaze
  • Cognitive load
  • Increased self-evaluation from staring at video of oneself
  • Constraints on physical mobility

Bailenson, a communications professor, notes that his findings are based on academic research and should be considered arguments and not yet scientific findings. He further states that he points out “these design flaws in Zoom with the goal of improving its interface” and generating more research on the topic.

Spencer and Lucy Kovacevic, a graduate assistant with the Counseling Center, also studied the psychology behind Zoom fatigue and created “Zoom Ahead: Surviving and Thriving in Online Classes” for the center’s Tuesday @7 Workshops, aimed at helping students enhance their mental health, well-being, and success. The workshop, which they facilitated on Feb. 9, 2021, is available on the Counseling Center’s YouTube channel.

“Zoom has fundamentally changed the way that our brains process communication,” Spencer said, explaining that for every in-person interaction, people receive a reward for that interaction in their brain.

“It could be a sense of connection, closeness, or intimacy,” she said. “So when you have this biological-psychological-social change that kind of offsets the cost-and-reward system of communication in your brain … there’s less activity in brain regions that generate that rewarding feeling.

“We see this when we talk about extroverts and introverts,” Spencer continued. “For some people, you actually feel more motivated and get more satisfaction from social interaction. That’s taken away on Zoom.”

Spencer said Zoom takes away simple things like eye contact, which deteriorates the ability to connect with others and respond to things the way we would during in-person interactions. And since we can’t see each other’s entire bodies, it’s hard to pick up nonverbal cues. So we have to rely more on reading facial expressions and hand gestures, which can be missed.

“And if someone has muted themselves, you don’t hear them sighing or laughing. It requires our brain to put in a lot more effort to understand those social interactions,” she said.

Spencer said research also shows that watching yourself interact with people can increase fatigue.

“We were never meant to see ourselves,” she said. “It can be really difficult to stay engaged if we’re wondering, ‘Am I making the right facial expressions? Does my hair look weird?’ We’re more self-aware, and that takes more energy.”

While there’s no end to the endless Zoom meetings in sight yet, Spencer said there are strategies students can take to reduce fatigue. She and Kovacevic recommend taking these steps before, during, and after calls:

  • Before you join your class on Zoom, do the things you would normally do before an in-person class.

“Get dressed. Eat something. Fill your water bottle,” Spencer said, adding that allows students to engage in something that was important to them and create a routine for themselves. “The more important part is they’re creating a mental barrier between the place they sleep and relax … and move into their academic zone, which helps them be more engaged when they’re there.”

  • Turn your phone off or keep it out of arm’s reach.
  • During the call, stay in a location that’s designated specifically for class and homework.

“We specify that you try not to let it be your bed,” Spencer said, adding most people have a desk. “But if (a bed) is your only space, the best thing you can do is sit on the other end (of where you relax). It sounds silly, but knowing that one end is where you relax and the other is for you to get work done can hopefully help you feel a little more motivated and attentive.”

  • Participate when you can to make sure you’re mentally engaged.
  • Turn your camera on if it helps you be attentive. Turn it off if it causes you stress.
  • If your professor requires that you turn your camera on, turn off the gallery view and self-view so that you can only see the speaker.

“It’s a little more mimicking of what real life would be as you’re just paying attention to who’s talking, so you’re not looking at everybody and feeling like everyone’s looking at you.”

  • After the call, step away from the computer to reset your mental barrier.

    “If you need to, you can spend a couple of minutes organizing your notes,” Spencer said. “But it’s important to separate your academic time from your recreational time. Maybe do a short guided self-meditation or get up and stretch or do something to mentally destress.”

  • Prioritize self-care – and be realistic.

“Some people think of taking a bubble bath or a spa night, but you can’t do that every day,” Spencer said. “We want you to do something sustainable. Practice kinder self-talk. That’s something you can do every day. Prioritize emotional reconnection. Nurture your physical health in whatever way that means to you – eating healthy, exercising, getting enough sleep.

“Detract from stressor but only for a while,” she continued. “If you allow that to keep going, you can kind of numb yourself to your stressors, and that can be an unhealthy coping mechanism, too … I think the big takeaway is to be kind to yourself. Our brains are doing the best they can now.”

 Have you experienced Zoom fatigue? Do you have any advice for dealing with it?

 For tips on how to be successful online, visit CITL’s Student Resources page.