It might seem funny, but looking at a screen with dozens of other people on it for most of the day makes me feel terribly alone – and I’m not the only one. In the second part of our series on the intersection of Covid-19 and Mental Health we’ll be discussing what it means to be alone, the value of human touch, and how we can begin to address those feelings on our own.
As first and foremost social creatures it was only a matter of time until humans devised a method of communicating with one another at distances greater than face to face. Whether cave drawings, letters, Morse code, and eventually calls, we have always found a way to connect with our fellow man and it seemed as if we had reached a new zenith in various integrated communication programs like Zoom which facilitate everything from office work to even hosting birthday parties. But the rise of Covid-19 with its limitations on movement and need for social distancing made this the era of Zoom and we are only now beginning to understand the full consequences of that.
Zoom Fatigue, a clever catchall term originally coined by Manyu Jiang of the BBC in April, is a cluster of physical and mental symptoms associated with the use of digital communications software like its eponymous program that manifests differently in each person. Whether irritability, depressed mood, increased sensitivity to light and sound, or like in my own experience, pervasive feelings of isolation. The last of these is being increasingly reported in high enough volumes for governmental agencies such as the CDC and nonprofit groups such as the American Mental Health Foundation and it’s British counterpart to launch formal academic studies into this area and how our styles of communication may play a role in our feelings of isolation. Some, including Jiang, speculate that this phenomenon stems from both differential physiological exposures such as changes in screen time, differing audio quality, and increased sedentary practices, that are impacting our neurochemistry, as well as, changing emotional communication patterns and even relationships such as major changes in perceived nonverbal cues due to video quality distortions, reductions in workplace socialization, limited ability to choose association type or duration, and what is being hailed as the death of small talk. And with no foreseeable end to Covid in the US, Zoom Fatigue may be here to stay. But is this new way of life just the cost of staying connected as the world seemingly burns around us?
Jiang, and others, notably Laura Entis of Vox and Molly Callahan of Northeastern University, posit that it is not. Although given enough time and exposure, it is believed we would better settle into a pattern of understanding and exchange that would lessen these effects we need not merely exist in the meantime. In fact, both Entis and the British Mental Health Foundation suggests a core component of the current epidemic of loneliness is the lack of human touch. Paradoxically, in an epoch categorized by continual hand washing and protective barriers touch may be the best medicine for our minds. Locked in our own homes with only the people we immediately cohabitate with for months has left many of us without the tender touches of our family, friends, and lovers. As major scientists and political pundits suggest an end to even shaking hands many people find themselves without any form of human touch – a phenomenon dubbed Touch Starvation by many psychologists – that is detrimental to not only mental health but full-body well-being. Thus, as in previous entries, I scoured the literature and talked to experts to see what tips and tricks I could uncover to help diminish the struggles of this unprecedented time.
- Limit Screen Time – The seeming consensus among sources was to reduce your time utilizing integrated video software where possible, or at least space it out, if you were using it for regular work multiple hours a day or felt as if you were suffering from the above symptoms. Instead, more analog methods such as phone calls, emails, and even written letters were encouraged as a means of flexing different emotional cues and reinforcing your relationships.
- Move Your Body – Integrating a regular movement practice whether in the form of exercise or meditation like Tai Chi or Yoga, may help you feel more grounded within your own body and help provide a modicum of artificial “self-touch” that may reduce your touch starvation and fight off the increased sitting of all-day Zoom calls. Similar effects can be generated by using calming practices like combing your hair or even wrapping your arms around yourself tightly.
- Cuddle a Fluffy Friend – Having a pet can save your life. Or at least as far as we are concerned help save your mental health. While not a substitute for a great big bear hug, cuddling or playing with a loved furball can help address the gaps in touch and communication you may be experiencing and provide you a unique outlet. Baby talk never sounded so good.
- Deep Talk – Sometimes the depth of communication can help address shortfalls in the method. Whether to a close friend, a family member, a therapist, or anyone else in your life, cultivate those deep and meaningful relationships that allow you to communicate in ways that make you feel seen and heard to stave off loneliness. Mix up topics from the profound to the mundane and even include the silly as changes in tone and substance are just as likely to help you connect with others.
- Remember You Aren’t Really Alone – It may feel like it and as we’ve discussed technology may itself be a barrier but we live in a more connected time than ever before in human history. You are not a singular ship sailing in the dark of the night but instead one upon a sea of hundreds. Whether it be your family, your friends, your peers, your professors, or even someone you haven’t met yet, you can find someone to share your struggles with. We are all in this together.
I haven’t found a magic bullet to this myself. But I can say that some of these suggestions have lessened my own feelings of isolation and I believe they may work for you. If you find something that works for you, share it here and stay safe out there. We’re all in this together.
For the third article in this series we’ll be talking about Why Everyone is Getting Tired of Everyone Else’s Quarantine Fatigue.
Note: References were added as in-text hyperlinks, the rest of the information are from the articles below.
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