The Ultimate Worrier - Wrestling With Zoom Anxiety - The Mind Map
By Phil Bridges

The Ultimate Worrier – Wrestling With Zoom Anxiety

My inner monologue pleads as the Zoom approaches its conclusion: ‘Don’t do the wave’.

Published 15/11/2020
Photography By Tom White
My inner monologue pleads as the Zoom approaches its conclusion: ‘Don’t do the wave’.

But, fatigued by talks of unprecedented times and Corona-confusion, my right hand begins to flap involuntarily. Like a committed mother on a porch, I have waved.

It’s thought 15% of our daily communications are verbal and 85% are through body language. Liaising in person, we blend words, tone and body language to express an overall message. Sometimes we’ll purely use body language — from crossed arms and headshakes, to middle fingers and wanker signs.

With video chat, our postures, quirks and gestures are often reduced to stuttering apologies as we talk over one another.

Perhaps our waves — the mother-on-the-porch-re-enactment — are last ditch attempts to claw back all that lost communication?

Whilst video has undoubtedly helped us to stay in touch with friends and colleagues during the pandemic (thanks to Zoom, I was able to interview 20 counsellors for The Mind Map) it’s also hindered our communication — obviously — and that’s without the screen freezes and sound issues. Is ‘you’re on mute’ the most used phrase of 2020?

Sans subtle cues, there’s a certain blindness to online chatting. You never quite reach that across the table level of connection.

I’m not blind to my own face of course. My nose shining like a star under the office strip lights.

With in-person interaction, companions tend not to hold up a mirror, reflecting the visual equivalent of hearing your recorded voice back. No one likes that.

Social anxiety makes you pay more attention to yourself when in social situations.

If I was a wrestler I’d be the Ultimate Worrier — mentally rehearsing my responses and scanning the room for signs of impending doom.

God help my anxiety should be visible to others. In anxious moments, you see yourself through the prism of other people’s reactions. The trouble is — you’re the one judging the reactions. And you’re not always the most reliable magistrate — prejudicing your own trial with past experiences and ingrained insecurities.

Focused on your racing heart and red face, you sit in a hyper aware state of vigilance. For the anxious, the risk of being judged is anxiety inducing in itself, cue the cycle.

It’s typical for someone with social anxiety to monitor themselves with the dedication of a CCTV camera in Selfridges: the aforementioned mirror — or your reflected screen face — becomes trying.  Not only are just your zoom-mates judging you — you’ve joined the imaginary panel. It’s Louis, Simon, Sharon. And you.

In short, video conferencing can be a recipe for anxiety.

We all have mental health – it’s just one big continuum. The same can be said about anxiety disorders. Some people have an extreme version of anxiety. This may point to a disorder. For most, feeling a bit uncomfortable on a video call is felt at a lower intensity.

By lower-intensity, I mean the not knowing when to stop saying ‘thanks’, ‘nice one’ and ‘cheers’ after people hold endless corridors of doors open for you. Or the cut off point for holding a door open for someone else, distance wise.

Or general confusions over whether or not to inform the person whose just said ‘see you tomorrow’’ you’re actually just popping out for a butty. ‘I’ll just front it out when I return, maybe they’ll be gone’, I usually conclude.

Another favourite, the walk of shame down the supermarket queue when you’re told it’s two for one on Aquafresh. Then there’s the crippling occurrence of someone’s waving — and you waving back — and they weren’t actually waving, at you. And you want to emigrate.

Or when you don’t quite hear something — it’d be so easy to say ‘sorry, I didn’t catch that’. But you nod like a benevolent dog, hoping they don’t realise you’re clueless about what’s been said.

We could also file here the dreadful moment you mention a song and someone asks ‘how does it go?’. ‘Sing to me’, they infer.

Thinking about my most awkward moments, I once remember my friends Laura and James telling me they were keeping their baby’s name on the downlow. Fair enough. So I guessed — Ivy? Bizarrely, thinking it a good idea to mention I didn’t like the name Ivy. When their baby girl — Ivy — was born, I considered hitting up Elon Musk about his space exploration plans.

And we’ve all tried another customer’s coat on as they’re trying a coat on in TK Maxx, haven’t we? Just me?

So, back to online communications, what can we do to stay chilled in the videosphere?

Firstly, remember, you don’t have to be there. We’re at an awkward point in time with video etiquette.

You might feel because people assume you’ve increased availability to chat, you need to.

And you don’t. You can either tell a white lie about your schedule, or, with closer pals, tell them the truth, that you’re tired, or have other plans.

Also, try to remember that people are definitely thinking about their own perception, more than yours. We’re all actually fairly self obsessed.

It’s also important to avoid back-to-back calls, I chatted to a friend who did ten in a day at the height of lockdown — a sure fire way to become drained. Darting from topic to topic, without walking is inevitably going to burn you out.

I’ve also found it helpful, to humanise video calls by talking a little about the space you’re in (physically — let’s not get too deep too early in the call) as the small talk surrounding the posters on your wall, can warm up a cold interaction, instantly.

Also, if you want to wave, wave. Maybe it’s the new handshake?

And if you want to turn off your screen mid call, do it. No one will think any less of you. It actually shows confidence to say — without explanation — ‘I’m just turning my screen off for a bit.’

Fortunately, as you exhale deeply to leave your teens and twenties, you don’t agonise quite as intensely over what people might think of you. I’m only ever a few CBT techniques away from reminding myself that if my zoom-mates are thinking about camera shots, at all, they’re most certainly thinking about their own faces.

(In spirit with this piece, I’m now obsessing over whether this ending sounds a bit like Alan Partridge — telling anxiety confidently — ‘Needless to say, I had the last laugh’. But it’s staying in. Aha!)

Image — @thomaswhitedraws