If your brain gets bleary and nerves feel frayed after a day of Zoom meetings, you’re not alone.
Neuropsychologist Robert M. Bilder even coined a tongue-in-cheek term for the condition: “Zoom-Associated Delirium.”
Though you won’t find this emerging psychiatric ailment in any diagnostic manual, there is real scientific evidence that the narrowing of attention — as required when focusing on the tiny image of a talking head amid a Zoom gallery of colleagues — leads to increased anxiety levels.
“There’s obviously a panoply of factors playing into this. It’s not just the engagement with Zoom. We’re also in the midst of a life-threatening global pandemic, so that’s got its own problems,” says Dr. Bilder, PhD, chief of psychology at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.
Endless Zoom meetings aren’t helping to ease anyone’s stress levels, and most work-from-home scenarios involve some form of video meetings. Decades of studies have shown that narrowing attention in this way increases anxiety, Dr. Bilder says, while broadening attentional focus diminishes anxious feelings.
“That’s the fundamental premise behind most of the widely used meditation practices throughout Western civilization today,” he says. “These practices involve a broadening of attention, which has been reliably demonstrated in hundreds of studies to yield decreases in anxiety and promote relaxation. The brain systems that govern attention and anxiety are really shared systems, so these findings all hang together and make sense from a neuropsychological perspective.”
What makes group video meetings so anxiety-provoking, he says, are the small spaces your coworkers’ faces occupy, the absence of peripheral perspective and making sense of non-verbal cues – such as facial expressions – from so many tiny images at once.
“A real human is not a pin head,” Dr. Bilder says. “An actual head would occupy most of a computer screen — and is bigger than an iPad. That alone is presenting you with a broader target to focus on and relate to, relative to what you see on a Zoom screen.”
Compounding the “delirium” caused by multiple video meetings is the lack of ordinary workday rhythms — the commute, the walk from the parking lot to the building, the small talk with coworkers.
“All of these things provide cues to your brain that you’re moving through your day and shifting from one opportunity to another,” Dr. Bilder says. “It gives you a much richer spectrum of stimuli across multiple sensory inputs than you get when you’re just sitting in the same room, day in and day out, for 12 to 16 hours a day.”
So what’s a remote worker to do, given a surging pandemic that’s sure to extend the need for Zoom meetings and work-from-home scenarios well into 2021?
Shorten the Zoom calls, for one, Dr. Bilder suggests. Instead of hourlong meetings, “make it 45 to 50 minutes at most,” he says. “Then take the time in between those meetings to get away from the screen — preferably moving actively outside, if you have access to nature — and really let your vision broaden. Let your attention wander and intentionally immerse yourself in and interact with all the diversity around you.”
It’s not a complete remedy for “Zoom-Associated Delirium,” he says, but it can help restore a feeling of balance to regularly switch from a tight focus to a broad gaze.
Video chat can be beneficial, Dr. Bilder says, when it’s used to maintain social connections during this isolating, physically distant time. His tip? “Use full-screen mode and attend to the person, not the picture.”