Thoughts from a clinical psychologist on ‘Zoom fatigue’ and learning

Stephen Noonoo, an editor at EdSurge, spoke with clinical psychologist Brenda Wiederhold to discuss the phenomenon of “Zoom fatigue” and what can be done about it. 

Wiederhold said part of why virtual meetings produce more stress is the slight lag in interaction.

“No matter how good your internet is … we have this millisecond—maybe a few milliseconds—delay. So the communication isn’t in real time, even though it seems like it is. Our brains subconsciously pick up on the fact that things aren’t quite right. And the fact that things are out of sync and we’re accustomed to them being in sync when it’s face-to-face communication, our brains try to look for ways to overcome that lack of synchrony. After a few calls a day, it starts to become exhausting.”

As social beings, we also suffer from a lack of more subtle forms of communication and the internal responses that come with them.

“Face to face, we have synchronous communication. We also have other things that help us feel good when we’re face to face in conversations. We have releases of dopamine. We have the hormone oxytocin being secreted. […] Then we have all the body language and the cues. You see a person just barely move their eyes, do a micro-expression, things like that. We can pick this up very easily in person, but we don’t always pick up those little nuances when we’re on a Zoom call.”

Wiederhold had a few general recommendations, such as avoiding multitasking during Zoom calls. For instructors, to maintain connection and authority, she recommends placing the camera at eye-level, making sure you’re visible from your head to your shoulders, having good lighting, and speaking louder than normal. Breathing exercises can also help, but it may take some deliberate planning before these become habits.

“With time, most of these things will become easier. […] One of the skills I teach all of my patients […] is how to do diaphragmatic breathing. So teaching them just to slow down their physiology, by doing that nice, slow, controlled breathing, and then having that carry over and make them appear calmer. Once their brains start feeling calmer and their body’s following, or their bodies feel calmer and their brains follow, they exude that calm to the rest of the people on the call. So teachers can learn that and start to feel more comfortable.”

This is still a new and challenging learning environment for all of us. CNDLS has assembled resources to help, including a tipsheet on avoiding Zoom and Screen Fatigue and a link to mental health resources for students. As Wiederhold suggests, we’ll need to take care of ourselves and our students to make the most of the situation we’re in.