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Why video calls can leave you anxious and exhausted

With many of us working from home under the coronavirus lockdown, face-to-face meetings have been replaced with video chats and conference calls on Zoom, Skype and other apps. And in lieu of meeting up with friends, the online 'virtual pub' has become the default social activity - allowing us to chat, play games and pass the time at home.

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Video chatting is helping us stay employed and connected with friends and family. So why are so many people finding it stressful and tiring?

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we've spent far more time on video calls - and this can take its toll on our well-being. Firstly, there are sound issues, glitches and screen freezes to contend with, as well as the urge to fill any silences when you're staring at people on a screen.

And when we are physically distancing ourselves from others, we might feel pressured to accept every video call invitation. You might want to turn off your laptop, but it’s hard to find an excuse not to join a Zoom party when you technically have nowhere else to be.

"Zoom calls are making me exhausted and are doing nothing for my anxiety," says Hayley Smith, who works in PR. "At first, I found them really productive, as I wasn't spending time travelling to meetings and felt like it was streamlining my workload. But people are starting to want calls for everything."

A new way of communication

Until recently, many of us only took part in video calls very occasionally. But we are now using them every day - and it is challenging to navigate a form of communication that is unfamiliar, says Emma Russell, a senior lecturer in occupational and organisational psychology at the University of Sussex.

"Negotiating a new medium for communicating with people - as per video calls – is effortful and can be resource depleting," she explains. "We are working out the new social etiquette, how to be effectively heard, how to ensure we stay on top of the meeting, how to speak up without being rude."

We also need to regulate ourselves in a different way when video calling, Russell says. This might mean thinking twice about actions we normally do at home - for example, scratching ourselves - because other people can now see us.

"We are attending to a number of faces staring right at us, and our face is also on screen for all to see," Russell adds. "It can be very draining to be paying attention to how people see us and how they view our reactions."

Reading body language

A significant proportion of how we communicate is non-verbal. The way we move, hold ourselves and our expressions convey a lot of information - and these cues can be harder to read via video, which can be tiring and stressful.

"In the online domain, we can no longer rely on our innate, instinctive abilities to assess the situation via non-verbal language such as body language and social cues," says psychologist Charlotte Armitage, a member of the British Psychological Society.

"As a consequence, we have to adapt our style of communicating," she adds. "This process requires the use of additional psychological resources to accurately convey our own message as well as to interpret and understand the messages from the other individual."

The psychology of being watched

If we are physically on camera, we are very aware of being watched. "Seeing ourselves on screen can make us self-conscious. It can trigger anxiety from two facets: the judgement of ourselves, and the social judgement of others, whether it be how we look, or how we perform," says Lee Chambers, an environmental psychologist.

And for those who already struggle with anxiety over social situations, taking part in a video call can be even more intimidating. "Social phobia is also incredibly common. What this tells us is that any form of social or public display, especially in an unfamiliar situation, is likely to lead to some anxiety," says Professor Thomas Hills from the department of psychology at the University of Warwick.

"For many of us video calls are a new form of communication, a bit like standing up in front of the classroom. It's just going to feel uncomfortable for that reason alone."

Anxious times

Finally, the current situation is already causing a lot of anxiety for people. In just a few weeks, we have had to change the way we work and live, with many of us separated from friends and family who we would normally rely on for support. For many, having to work from home has blurred the boundaries between our professional and personal lives, which can make it harder to switch off from work and relax.

"Being anxious is a fundamentally tiring process," Armitage says. "When we have a baseline level of anxiety, it requires extra psychological processing and makes functioning in normal daily activities much more demanding. This in itself may be making us feel anxious at the idea of engaging in video calling."

That being said, video calls can be a good way to keep in touch with others at a time when loneliness is a key risk to our well-being.

So what can you do to reduce anxiety when connecting virtually?

Avoid back-to-back calls

Firstly, it’s important to avoid doing video calls back-to-back, if possible. "This is draining because we tend to be stationary on these calls, and give ourselves less chance to recover from each exchange," says Russell.

"The constant switch of attention from topic to topic, from meeting to meeting, with fewer breaks, fewer chances to get up and walk about can be tiring."

Spend time away from your computer

If you don't have the energy to video call your friends every other day, then don't. It's also important to take breaks from your computer, as too much screen time can negatively affect your sleep too.

If you are able to go outside, going for a walk or getting fresh air can help reduce feelings of anxiety. If you have to stay indoors, closing your laptop and doing something else - stretches or a workout video - can be a good break.

“Practise deep breathing and ensure that you have enough time away from your computer screen by going outdoors for your daily exercise or into your garden if that is an option," Armitage says.

Set rules

It can also help to set rules and codes of social etiquette for a work video call, so people don't have to worry about how to act.

"Managers or hosts could give people permission to turn off camera-sharing for periods within the meetings, so attendees can have a rest from constant self-regulation and have a chance to stand up, stretch out and move about," Russell says.

If you're not presenting or speaking, try turning off your video and microphone. "Passive social monitoring is much less fatiguing than active social engagement," Hill adds.

Reduce awkwardness

"It helps to take the perspective of the people on the other side of the camera. Greet them, smile, say something nice like you normally would," Hill says. "To make video calls more familiar, we have to make them more human, and we might be just at the verge of figuring out how to do that."

If you are struggling with your mental health, you should contact your GP for advice for the best course of action for you. If you think you might be struggling with social anxiety, talking therapy might be able to help. You can book private video counselling sessions via Patient Access. The mental health charity Mind also has some very useful advice.

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