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Zoom Performance Anxiety Is the New Stage Fright

Giving an important presentation in front of all your colleagues is one thing, but staring at your face the entire time you do it? That’s a whole new kind of pressure

Alice Li never thought of herself as an anxious person — that is, until COVID shut down her office. Like countless others, she started conducting her business via video chat at home, which made her inexplicably nervous. “Whenever I’m in a Zoom meeting, I feel like I’m doing alright for a minute, and then as soon as it’s my turn to speak, I start running out of breath,” she tells me. 

After talking to a therapist, Li concluded that she was experiencing a new type of performance anxiety stemming from Zoom itself. It’s something clinical psychologists like Carla Manly have seen a lot of over the past two years. “I’ve found that many of my clients experience Zoom anxiety to some degree,” Manly explains. “For some, the anxiety has faded or disappeared over time, whereas others continue to find Zoom-type interactions very challenging.”

There are a number of reasons why Zoom could trigger anxiety in those who may not consider themselves otherwise anxious people. First and foremost among them: As much as we thought Zoom interactions would help offset some of the isolation in quarantine, experts didn’t fully anticipate the toll looking at our own faces would take on our mental health.

Indeed, because it’s so easy to get distracted by your own perceived faults (has your head always been that big?), Zoom can trigger your inner critic. And that inner critic often starts yelling about how everyone else on the call is definitely judging your appearance, too. All of which “can create its own, often unconscious sense of discomfort that leads to anxiety,” Manly says.

But even when you’re not focusing on your face, or asking yourself how long you’ve had that zit, just the ambiguous nature of Zoom interactions can cause an anxiety all its own. That’s because in-person conversations provide you with real-life information and cues like body language and “subtle interpersonal shifts that are hard to capture or nonexistent in Zoom calls,” Manly explains. Consequently, “anxiety and stress often arise from the inability to truly read another person.”

To overcome such feelings, it’s good to remind yourself that most Zoom anxiety comes from a preference for face-to-face interactions, which is normal and healthy. For Li, it also helped to pinpoint what about Zoom made her feel so uneasy. “I believe that it has to do with the fact that presenting on Zoom is more like presenting on a stage,” she says. “Everyone is focused on only you, as compared to in-person meetings and presentations where it feels more natural and casual.”

And so, she’s done her best to make her Zoom calls feel as close to an IRL gathering as possible. “Focusing on only one person during a Zoom meeting has made it easier to feel more connected to my team and helped me calm myself,” she explains. 

It’s obviously not the same as the real thing, but for now, she’ll take it.