Too much tech? Time to get outside to truly connect again? .. and other ways to reduce Zoom fatigue and screen-related stress
You open your email in the morning to find yet another Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Google Hangouts meeting and shudder. You can already picture your eyes getting dry and sore; your mind wandering while you try desperately to focus in what might be your third or fourth online meeting of the day.
You’re not alone, and you’re not to blame for dreading endless virtual gatherings - recent research from Stanford suggests that current implementations of videoconferencing technologies are exhausting in more ways than one.
Canadian optometrists have also cited signs of increased eye fatigue not just among the adult population but in kids, too. A recent Chinese study found alarming rates of myopia in children due to lockdowns and online-only learning. Since learning, meetings and connecting with friends and family may remain virtual for the foreseeable future, none of this news bodes well.
Toronto physician Dr. Tripler Pell cautions us about four hazards of tech overload and blue-lit screens: vision, obesity, posture and sleep disruption. To minimize potential impacts on our vision she recommends the ’20/20’ rule: “Every 20 minutes, look 20 feet away for 20 seconds. The blue light also inhibits the body's production of melatonin which induces sleep. Screentime should be avoided at night, or at the very least, in the hour before sleep onset.”
Another reason why you may be feeling more drained than ever? Slumping for hours in front of a small screen creates low oxygen levels and poor circulation of the blood in the body. This stagnated energy also overwhelms our psyche.
Psychiatrist and screen time expert Dr. Victoria Dunckley says, “Screen media is unnaturally intense in sensory, cognitive and psychological input. Designed to keep the user engaged, it tends to overstimulate the nervous system. Overstimulation, in turn, negatively impacts sleep, mood, focus, and social behavior.“
Drs. Pell and Dunckley are on the board of a Canadian nonprofit targeting environmental wellness in this digital age. Global Health Alliance For Brain & Heart Health was founded by public health educator Kerry Crofton. Their team of medical experts and environmental educators offers The Mindful Tech Plan™, set out in their book Less Screen, More Green. (www.LessScreenMoreGreen.org)
Crofton suggests simple ways to manage stress and fatigue in this digital age: ”Zoom and other videoconferencing seem essential these days - for work, study and personal connections. As with most technology, there are benefits and drawbacks.
To counterbalance these sedentary and mostly mental online activities, try these tips:
Shift your awareness down from your head to feel more grounded in your body, during the call when possible. Remember to blink, and Dr. Pell's vision health 20/20 rule.
Take rest breaks, even while seated and paying attention. Place the palms of the hands on your abdomen (this is centring and keeps your distracting hands off screen).
Disable your camera now and then if you can. Ask the host to schedule a five-minute break every hour.
Step outside or look out the window. Stretch your arms to loosen tension in your neck, shoulders and lower back. Take a few deep breaths. Gently exhale the stale air. Get the oxygen and energy flowing.
Tune into your sense perceptions. Refocus your gaze.
Check out the ergonomics of your work station, and why wired connectivity is more stable and secure than WiFi, and a safer way to be online.”
I have been practicing these Mindful Tech techniques and changing my tech habits while doing some editorial and consulting for Crofton’s nonprofit. The first step in their program? Recognizing your symptoms - including increased fatigue, neck tension, eye strain, a sore back from hunching and sitting in front of the computer all day, less ability to focus.
I find one easy way to calm the mind, ease tech overload and reset our equilibrium is with their Five-Minute Mindfulness Meditation:
“First, unplug. Power off all the electronics you can. Then, sit quietly in a comfortable upright position with your eyes relaxed - open or closed. Tune into your breath. Slow down - feel your body, your breath, and just being here. Let your thoughts and emotions come and go. When you realize you've wandered away, come back without commentary. Bring your attention back to your breath. You are not trying to stop your thoughts, or make your mind go blank. Most of all, be patient with yourself - it’s a practice.”
That bit about “not trying to stop your thoughts” is a good reminder for any mindfulness practice. It's about bringing balance, calm and focus to the scattered and speedy mind.
I've also found the practice of palming eases eye strain. It’s easy to do: rest your elbows on your desk and cup your hands over your eyes. They can be gently closed or open. Breathe and relax for a few refreshing minutes, without glancing at your tablet or phone.
The other overarching antidote is green time – the nature remedy. Reconnecting with the natural world can do wonders for our mental, physical and social health - so much so that one physician even writes her patients prescriptions for nature time.
Vancouver-based Dr. Melissa Lem, director of Parks Prescriptions for the BC Parks Foundation, wrote her first nature prescription over a decade ago for a teen with attention deficit disorder.
Now, Dr. Lem prescribes 20-plus-minute sessions - with a minimum of two hours a week - to treat depression, stress, and attention disorders, among other physical and mental health conditions.
Dr. Lem reminds us: “We all know that when we go out into nature, we feel calmer, less stressed, and happier, but now we have numbers to back these feelings up. The science of getting a daily dose of nature time increasingly points to positives like improved respiratory health, better immune function and reduced stress - which are essential during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
For those of us, like myself, who live in big cities with limited close access to forested areas and green space, we face the challenge of trying to spend time in nature and feeling guilty when it’s a rare occasion that we do.
The good news is that when we can't get outdoors we can enjoy green time by bringing nature inside.
During a recent virtual gathering hosted by Canada's Jane Goodall Institute, Kerry Crofton asked Dr. Goodall about connecting with nature during the pandemic. Dr. Goodall replied with an easy-to-manage suggestion, “When we can't be out in nature, bring a bulb or seed into the house and watch it grow.”
Breaking away from tech dependency wasn't easy before the pandemic; now, it's even more of a challenge. If you are finding it tough to put down your phone and unplug from social media, even when you want to cut back, it might make you feel better to hear from Dr. Shimi K. Kang, a Vancouver-based psychiatrist specializing in addiction.
In her recent book The Tech Solution: Creating Healthy Habits For Kids Growing Up in a Digital World, Dr. Kang explains one of the reasons users get hooked.
“Most tech use gives us an immediate rush of pleasure. This hit of dopamine is the key neurochemical behind addiction. Our brains begin associating some of our tech use: video gaming, social media likes etc. with a reward; we keep going to get the next dopamine hit.”
Dr. Kang also advises tech-free downtime: “Our brains need a break - a bit of space and quiet.”
Another psychiatrist specializing in addiction issues is Dr. Judson Brewer, author of The Craving Mind - a useful guide in freeing oneself from the trigger, behaviour and reward loop of digital dependency.
Dr. Brewer explains, “Each time a user has the urge to post another photo on Facebook or Instagram (trigger), posts the photo (behavior), and receives a bunch of likes (reward), they are reinforcing this dependency.” Dr. Brewer also offers mindfulness practice as a way to tame “the craving mind”.
What I learned from The Mindful Tech Plan™ and the Less Screen, More Green approach is that you don't have to hurl yourself into a cold-turkey media fast, or leave town for an immersive forest bathing retreat. Just unplugging from my devices every now and then and going for a short stroll around my neighbourhood, or looking out the window for a few minutes while doing relaxation breathing, is a refreshing mental health break.
That's all for now - I’m headed out for a walk with the dog. Nature is calling us both.
Toronto-based Kiki Cekota is a graduate of the Ryerson School of Journalism and freelance journalist with experience in political communications. Her work has appeared in the Toronto Star and North99. Her work can be found at kikicekota.ca.