How to stay zippy with Zoom

A guide to dealing with the psychological effects of online school and social distancing

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Arya Maheshwari

Extended periods of screen time can exacerbate the psychological challenges brought by the physical limitations of sheltering-in-place. “Making sure that we get away from that two-dimensional and [move] into that three-dimensional [is important],” counselor Lori Kohan said.

By Sara Yen, The Harker Upper School

An entire day’s worth of staring at your laptop screen weighs on your slumped back, cramped neck and moistureless eyes. The 10-minute passing periods, which you spend fixated on your phone screen, do not aid your afflictions.

The conditions of social distancing amid COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders can evidently cause physical discomfort and aches, results of the limitations imposed by spatial confinement. But the stress of staying indoors all day may also be psychological in nature as distancing from friends and classmates takes its toll.

“We’re creating all of the conditions for poorer well being,” upper school psychology teacher Dr. Julie Turchin said. “We’ve disrupted routine, it’s a highly uncertain situation, we don’t have control over what’s happening [and] we’re reducing our social support and contact. We’ve taken things that usually give us good self-esteem, like sports games and performances, and canceled [them], so it’s a perfect storm for people to feel down.”

Whether you were robbed of your last season as an athlete, your robotics competitions or just time to hang out with friends and classmates, it’s normal to feel miserable during these times. But who said you needed to stay locked up in your room all day or completely disconnected from your friends?

“Just look at the word ‘social distancing.’ I think that’s misleading, because right now what we’re really doing is physical distancing,” Medical Club and Psychology Club president Simar Bajaj (12) said. “It doesn’t have to be social distancing — we can still talk to our friends and still have that social connection.”

Right now what we’re really doing is physical distancing. It doesn’t have to be social distancing — we can still talk to our friends and still have that social connection.”

— Simar Bajaj

Humans thrive on social interactions. Now that we don’t have those moments to catch up with friends in the hallway between classes or in the cafeteria at lunch anymore, this lack of check-ins means we have less support throughout the day, potentially lowering our self-esteem. To help combat negative thoughts, consider writing kind notes to yourself.

“Writing yourself a sticky note that says ‘You rock’ [might feel] silly and weird, but there’s all kinds of studies that have been done all the way from the 1970s about positive verbs,” counselor Lori Kohan said. “If you say these encouraging phrases out loud or read them to yourself, it can limit those distracting negative thoughts in our heads.”

Beyond feeling less self-confident than normal, it’s also easy to feel more deflated and despondent when we’re online all day. Taking a break to reorient yourself can help you become more engaged.

“Making sure that we get away from that two-dimensional and [move] into that three-dimensional [is important],” Kohan said. “Being aware of the clothes that you have on, of your feet on the ground, your breath in and out and moving your eyes from the closeness of the screen and looking at least 20 or 30 feet away [intermittently] can help with that feeling of [being] two-dimensional all the time. Get outside so that you recognize that the world really is still flowing.”

Using technology all day also affects your body physiologically and can impair your sleep cycle. Maintaining good sleep hygiene and structure every day can help with restlessness.

“If we’re looking at a screen, it triggers the same biochemicals in our brains to think it’s still daylight and it’s still time to work,” Kohan said. “What you need to do for good sleep hygiene is an hour before you’re planning [to sleep], turn off all your devices so that there’s no blue light, there’s no yellow light and there’s no light of any kind coming at your eyeballs.”

In addition to dimming the lights around you, experiment with different background music. Soothing music without distracting words or beats can help signal your body to fall asleep. Five minutes of gentle stretching can also help your mind run through the day and relax.

More than just a consistent sleep regimen, taking steps to maintain a routine every day is crucial to creating a sense of normalcy and adapting to the current situation. Since it’s easy to procrastinate given the extra time on our hands, sticking to a schedule can also help foster better time management skills.

“We all have that natural tendency towards procrastination — it’s part of our human nature. That’s why putting those schedules in place can really be beneficial, but you have to have the discipline to hold yourself to it,” Kohan said. “Just like [adjusting to] a new exercise regime, habits take about two to three weeks to implement.”

While it is natural to sink into low spirits given the seemingly indefinite nature of quarantine, remembering the things to be thankful for can also help with staying positive.

“There’s all these terrible stories of hoarders and lying politicians, but there’s amazing stories of people singing opera from their balcony and helping out,” Dr. Turchin said. “It sounds cheesy, but writing down three things that happened today that you’re grateful for could change [your perspective].”

Adapting is a gradual process for everyone. The bottom line in all of the current chaos is to be kind and accepting of yourself and the people around you.

“Always being mindful or being gentle with ourselves [is crucial]. Being gentle with our processes and being gentle with each other [is important because] there’s lots of ways that misunderstandings can happen,” Kohan said. “[It’s harder] to hear or see body inflections or tone of voice [virtually], and it can really impact how we communicate.”

We all are isolated in our own homes individually, but we all are in this together as a community. Anything you do to brighten your surroundings, even literally, could bring a smile to someone else.

“My childrens’ art teacher suggested writing in sidewalk chalk some positive things outside of our doors. Some people are putting their Christmas lights back up,” Kohan said. “Anything that we do that feels like we’re standing up, we’re saying, ‘Yes, we’re scared. Yes, we’re uncertain, but we still can do these little things that can make all of us feel more of a community.’”

This story was originally published on Harker Aquila on April 29, 2020.