“This doesn’t make any sense,” I think to myself, staring at my day planner. As a result of COVID-19, I'm seeing considerably less people yet am feeling more exhausted than ever. Something isn't adding up…
But my supervisor tells me she’s been feeling similarly. My fellow therapist friend with whom I have monthly visits says he, too, is feeling more exhausted despite seeing less people. And then out of nowhere, my dad who alerts me to what is going on: “Man, these video sessions are tiring,” he says. An OB/GYN who is used to doing around 20+ in-person consults per day, he, too, has had to make the switch to virtual sessions for the first time.
In today’s post, I'll discuss why virtual meetings, conference, calls, and more are so exhausting—and what we can do to cope.
First Thing’s First: The Richness of In-Person Communication
So many different processes occur on a subconscious level during in-person communication. In fact, what you say has much less of an impact than how you say it. Non-verbal communication—including tone of voice, body language, and more—are much more influential than we realize.
Consider the example of going out for dinner with a friend: they ask how you’re doing and what you're up to, yet immediately start scrolling through Instagram and checking out what other people are eating as you start talking. Without saying a word, they’ve communicated, “I’m not interested in your story” through non-verbal cues alone.
Additionally, a group of Italian neuroscientists in the nineties discovered that primates possess something called mirror neurons, defined as a group of neurons that activate when we perform an action or see an action being performed (source). For example, seeing someone get a paper cut would cause the same neurons to fire in your brain that would fire if you got a paper cut yourself (albeit to a lesser extent). It’s mirror neurons that allow us to reflect body language, facial expressions, and emotions, making them an important part of social interactions.
Further, microexpressions are very brief, involuntary facial expressions that show up whenever we experience an emotion. Unable to be faked, they last only 0.5 - 4.0 seconds (source). Research has shown that there are seven universal microexpressions: disgust, anger, fear, sadness, happiness, surprise, and contempt. Now that you know about mirror neurons, it might not come as a surprise to learn that seeing fearful facial expressions in another person causes increased activity in the part of our brains that feel fear as well.
Finally, the vagus nerve plays an important role in social interactions. Extending from the brain to other organs in the body, the front branch of this nerve is known as the social engagement system since it affects facial expressivity and receptivity, tone of voice, and our middle ear muscles. This explains the physiological responses that occur should we we perceive that there’s a threat in our environment: our face may become expressionless, and changes in our ear muscles cause us to become hyper-focused on background, environmental noises and “tune out” what people are saying (source).
So, what does this have to do with virtual communication?
Collectively, our mirror neurons, vagus nerve, and ability to subconsciously notice microexpressions and non-verbal cues influence how we experience the world. Ultimately, they allow us to give and receive important data.
For example, if we’re sitting on the subway and the person across from us has their arms crossed and is looking outside with a frown on their face, we’d receive the signal of, ‘Please don't talk to me.’ Conversely, if someone at the bus stop adopts an open, approachable stance with a micro-expression of happiness, we might feel more inclined to start up a conversation with them. Even throughout the conversation, we will be unconsciously taking in even more data about how interested they seem, how the conversation is “flowing,” and more.
This unconscious yet highly helpful process becomes much more difficult in online communication. It’s harder to see coworkers’ microexpressions. You might only see others’ faces rather than their entire body. We can’t ever make eye contact because we have to look at a camera to make someone feel like we’re looking into their eyes rather than, well, actually looking into their eyes.
And let’s not forget about the impact of poor wifi signals that cause lags in conversations, “freezes,” and more. If I had a nickel for every time I said, “Oh I’m sorry, go ahead!” in an online session, I’d be a freakin’ millionaire by now.
Here are changes I’ve personally experienced during online sessions these days:
Without being able to notice subtle visual cues, it’s way harder to know when someone is done talking. I feel like I’m either constantly interrupting someone or creating this drawn out, awkward, pause that causes them to stay, “Are you still there or…?”
Because in-person therapy automatically gives someone a safe space to talk, some people are finding it disruptive to chat from home. Is that my sister in the next room? Is she eavesdropping?
I can’t read body language since I usually only see someone’s face. Are they slouching? Are they sitting upright? Are they fidgeting? This is all extremely useful data for me as a therapist.
For online courses that I’ve been offering, people are mainly communicating via chat. None of us no have access to information like tone of voice, facial expression, and more. (This has seriously sucked since the in-person group therapy component of my courses and seminars is one of the most rewarding parts for everyone involved.)
In online courses, people are much less likely to be candid and vulnerable with each other because they don’t even know who they’re talking to. Gone are the days of in-person group sessions I did as recently as January, where participants left feeling like they’d just bonded with like-minded people.
Lecturing during my online course is honestly just me sitting in a room talking to a laptop. This means I have zero idea on how the content is being received. Are people tuning out? Are they engaged? How is this landing? Am I talking too quickly? I have no way of knowing unless I directly ask, "How is this going so far?" (And even then, I have no idea how honest they're being!)
I’m finding it harder to stay present during virtual sessions myself. With less “data” to work with, content becomes more of a focus and there are way less interesting, non-verbal components that I'm able to work with.
Self-Care in a Digital Time
I realize now how critical I have been towards myself recently. I saw my exhaustion as some sign of weakness or personal failing, when in reality, virtual meetings/sessions are just inherently exhausting. Strangely, we have to do so much more work to stay present, focused, and attuned and there is so much less bang for your buck. You sit there feeling like you’re working overtime to make people feel heard and understood but have no way of truly knowing if you accomplished this task. Feeling like you're working harder yet feeling less rewarded is exhausting in and of itself.
So, how do we practice self-compassion? The three components are: self-kindness (versus self-judgment), common humanity (versus isolation), and mindfulness (versus over-identification).
While the Inner Critic tells me “I’m the only therapist who is struggling and should get my act together,” the more compassionate voice tells me, “Like everyone else right now, you’re noticing that you're feeling more tired right now as a result of doing so many online sessions.” When your Inner Critic shows up, ask yourself:
Are other people going through this right now, too? And if so, does it make sense that I'm feeling this way?
How can I take care of myself right now?
How can I notice this happening without becoming fused with the emotions and thoughts?
Self-compassion is a huge part of what I help people practice in session so this process can become more habitual.
2. Change your expectations.
As hard as this can be to do, it’s important to really look at how you're feeling and act accordingly. I’ve realized that this will not be the time when I’m able to see six people a day if they're all online sessions. I just can’t. I’ve had to accept that I’m going to be doing less during this time and that there will be some sessions where I have to take a bit more of a witnessing stance rather than leading the way.
Ask yourself: (1) What expectations can I set for myself that are more realistic given the circumstances? (2) What am I going to do on a practical note to honour these new expectations?
3. Set limits.
This can take many forms. Perhaps this means doing less online calls during the day. Maybe you don’t turn on your camera for some of them so you can just lie on the couch for the meeting rather than sitting upright.
For me, I’ve noticed that alternating between video sessions and audio-only sessions is really helpful (if the person is comfortable with phone sessions themselves, of course). Having this variety gives me a much-needed break from video communication.
4. Ground yourself during the meeting.
This is an amazing piece of advice that my supervisor gave me: if you're feeling exhausted about having to maintain eye contact for long periods of time (whatever ‘eye contact’ even means right now), try grounding yourself by looking at their surroundings instead. What does the background look like? Where are they sitting? What does the chair look like? It gives your brain a bit of a break from scanning for every social-related visual cue it can find.
5. Get comfortable.
The setting from which you are doing these online calls can be extremely important. If it’s going to be a long video call, consider how you can make your physical space as comfortable as possible. This might involve sitting on a cushion with a cozy blanket wrapped around your legs, putting a hot water bottle compress on your lap, and a pillow behind your back to help you feel physically supported and comfortable. I recently did a phone meeting from my couch whilst petting my cat who was curled up beside me and it made a humongous difference. Feeling completely physically calm during the call allowed me to feel more emotionally grounded and present.
6. Set boundaries with friends/family outside of work.
Given that video calls are the only way we can communicate with everyone nowadays, many of us are also connecting with friends and family through video chat outside of work.
A couple of pointers here:
You do not always have to pick up the phone! If you are really not in an emotional place to do another video call, just don’t pick up.
Schedule the calls yourself and initiate them each week. So, rather than wondering when your mum will call, tell her you have quite a few video calls happening with work and that you’d love to call her every Tuesday afternoon if that works for her schedule.
Pick the form of communication that feels the least effortful. If you’d rather talk to someone on the phone without video, do that. If video is fine so long as you can do it while you’re curled up in bed, do that.
Purchase devices that make the calls easier. Given that I've been partnering with a lot of companies and organizations right now for Instagram lives or online talks about mental health recently, I purchased a tripod with a ring light so it can hold my phone. As silly as it might seem, not having to worry about holding up my phone throughout the call or if the lighting is good enough takes a significant layer of stress out of these calls. Anything I can do to decrease the amount of effort I'm putting into things is needed right now to be honest.
Remember, it's just family and friends! You don't have to look nice, get changed, put on makeup, or “perform.” Just allow yourself to be. That’s what friends and family are for :)
Send your friends and family voice notes instead. My best friend in Hong Kong and I do this all the time due to the 13-hour time difference and I’ve come to really love communicating in this way since you can listen and respond on your own schedule yet still feel really connected to the person.
Book-end the conversations. If you only have a half-hour call with friends in you, tell them that. Set an alarm if you need to. Have an 'exit strategy' of having to check on dinner, take the dog out, etc.
The Bottom Line
Given the serious disruptions that our unconscious, automatic processes have been experiencing, it's no wonder we’re feeling exhausted. Additionally, though online interactions are a useful option right now, we're realizing how much they lack as well and are getting way less "bang for our buck" emotionally.
Rather than beating yourself up right now, understand that any exhaustion, irritability, or frustration you’re experiencing as a result of this surge in online communication makes sense. You are 100% not a “bad” employee, child, friend, partner, etc. for wanting to watch Too Hot to Handle rather than picking up your twentieth FaceTime call that day.
From there, find other ways to honour and accommodate the emotional byproducts of these online calls. Reduce the number of meetings you do by video. Create a comfortable physical space while you take the calls. Say ‘no’ to online get togethers if you've run out of steam. As I always say: nothing is worth your mental health.
If you have any tips on how you've been coping with online communication these days, please share in the comments below. I love hearing from you and learning from you as well!
Be well, everyone.
If you or someone you know needs some extra support right now, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org to book a psychotherapy or nutritional counselling appointment. We work with individuals, couples, and families to help them cope with a wide variety of struggles, including: anxiety, depression, OCD, eating disorders, infertility, stress management, self esteem, trauma, communication, and more.