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This is Your Brain on Zoom

Jan. 5, 2021

By Iris Song, Psy.D., Licensed Psychologist, UWCC

Fall 2020… Well, that was something…

Whether you were a new student in fall or continuing your education from the previous year, it seems that many of us were taken by surprise by how our minds and bodies reacted to the changes that have been happening in our world this past year. For those of us who were new to the UW, our hopes and expectations for our educational experience may have left us wanting more. For those of us who were continuing our education, perhaps we were also left wanting more, but in a different way. Maybe we thought we would do better given the practice we had in the prior spring and summer terms.

At this point, many of us understand the concept of Zoom Fatigue, and why virtual learning is particularly difficult. Meeting with cameras on means we are acutely aware of the projected image of ourselves in a way that is different from meeting in person. This is an energy drain not unlike the performative pressures of having a curated social media presence. Additionally, our brains work harder to process verbal and nonverbal cues in the virtual format, which can also be a strain. The disconnect between our mind’s experience and our body’s experience in virtual meetings creates a dissonance in our lived experience that can be taxing for the body. On the other hand, meeting with cameras off means there is even less social interaction than what the pandemic is allowing at this time. Taken together, all of these strains can increase the likelihood of social isolation. We know very well the negative impacts of social isolation on the body and mind: symptoms of depression, cloudier cognitive functioning, and decreased immune system functioning to name a few.

Despite the effects of virtual learning, many of us continue to push ourselves to function in a way that is similar to pre-pandemic times. Our sense of expectation, perfectionism, achievement, and maybe even competition continue to thrive despite the major environmental changes in how we are ingesting and digesting knowledge. And this is just speaking to the potential effects of virtual learning on our academic functioning. If we are to consider the effects of the pandemic on our personal lives, our loved ones, and our communities, we introduce a whole new set of variables that affect our bodies and minds. The rising death toll and ambiguous losses felt are incredibly intense even with a vaccine in the picture. Add to this, the ongoing murders of Black men and women, and America’s newfound attunement to implicit and explicit racism; as well as a very dynamic and tense election year experience, and there is excellent reason to be feeling mentally and physically stressed out.

This stress is why it is important to take a second look at our expectations, perfectionism, achievement-orientation, and competitiveness. Our bodies CANNOT function to the best of their abilities when experiencing all of the aforementioned stressors. Stress has a direct effect on the body, namely an increase in particular hormones. If we were in a life-threatening situation, the increase in adrenaline and cortisol gives us that extra bump to flee or fight. However, ongoing stress can lead to chronic elevations in the stress hormones. This can interfere with normal processes in our bodies and brains: symptoms of anxiety or depression, disruptions in sleep or appetite, chronic headaches or gastro-intestinal issues, and social withdrawal.

Intellectually, many of us have a logical understanding of the above, but it can still feel surprising, shocking, and disorienting when we live the experience of a disappointing fall quarter. It can feel deflating and frustrating to not get the grades or not make the friends or not land the internship that we were hoping for. However, self-rejection or self-judgment will further complicate this reaction and is actually a formula for an increase in stress and anxiety.

This is where I make a plea for compassion. It is appropriate to feel shame, sadness, anger, disappointment, and maybe even fear in moments of perceived failure. These emotions are difficult and painful to feel but are human and valid. Instead of running away or avoiding the emotional reactions, what would it be like to have an attitude of openness to them? Shame and sadness, like joy and all other emotions, are impermanent and will pass if you can make space for them. Instead of asking “What’s wrong with me?” which holds attitudes of rejection and judgment, try “What emotions am I feeling?” which holds an attitude of curiosity and compassion.

While there are vaccines coming and a new presidential administration on the horizon, the positive effects of these will take time to affect our personal lives. Antiracism work in this nation will be a continuous and lifelong process, and of course, Winter Quarter of 2021 is still on Zoom. With hardships and stressors continuing to be felt for some time into the future, maybe it is even more important that we hold space and compassion for our painful emotional experiences.

Compassion creates a more authentically positive relationship with our emotional selves, versus one of self-rejection. If individually, we felt more accepting of ourselves, perhaps there would be more space to have compassion for others – maybe even those others that really really irk us. I wonder what our society would look like if we as individuals were able to hold compassion for ourselves, our loved ones, and the ones we don’t prefer to be around? More immediately however, I wonder if compassion could shift our experience of ourselves and our academics in this new Winter Quarter of 2021?

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