Coping With Virtual Fatigue

As we continue to live with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, VP Societies & Sport Lucy Brown goes through the meaning of virtual fatigue, and offers some amazing and useful tips that she uses as coping mechanisms to look after her mental health and wellbeing.

We are coming up to one year of the Covid-19 pandemic where our worlds, basically overnight, became entirely virtual. While there are pros to improving the quality of virtual learning and activities, it is no surprise that we are all facing virtual fatigue. 

I often find myself feeling guilty for being tired at the end of a day or week. Comments and questions like “I’m only online”, or, “what is so hard about looking at a screen?” come up frequently. 

But I have come to realise that this mindset is completely wrong, and I want to share this revelation with you!

What is virtual fatigue?

Virtual fatigue is the feeling of exhaustion felt after attending a series of online classes and/or activities.

Why do I get fatigued?

Online meetings, lectures, seminars, socials, etc. are both, physically and mentally draining. They are! And you shouldn’t feel guilty if you notice yourself getting tired from a day of lectures.

There are multiple reasons scientists are suggesting as the causes of virtual fatigue:

1. Audio

When you are online, there is the smallest millisecond of delays between the words being said and the video of the person speaking, whether you have the best internet connection or not. This can negatively affect your perception of the person speaking because your brain is not used to having to adjust this difference.

2. Underlying worry

Let’s face it, we are living through a pandemic. There are a lot of new concerns you are having to cope with, alongside those usually associated with being a student. Not only are you working to get a degree, but there is also the potential for increased financial concerns, health concerns, or worry over your family and friends, to mention a few at the very tip of the iceberg.

3. Multitasking

A virtual environment lends itself to multitasking. It is so easy to have a split-screen or flick to your emails or social media during a lecture. There is also a natural desire to look at all the other participants’ video screens or focus on your own appearance in the corner - it is all natural human tendency! But in doing so, you are forcing your brain to multitask more often than it would usually.

4. Decrease in physical activity

An increase in the virtual environment lessens the need for physical activity. You don’t need to walk to campus, or travel anywhere to get from lecture to lecture, but rather the day-to-day happenings are mostly sedentary. This can make our bodies feel more tired overall.

5. Social interaction

Not only is it harder to engage in social interactions in a virtual environment (you aren’t exactly bumping into a friend in Starbucks anymore - sad times), but there are parts of in-person interactions that are organically rewarding, scientists say. 

For example, eye contact. You cannot really make eye contact online because you would have to look directly into the camera and that would mean you couldn’t look at the screen. Also, as humans, we look to nonverbal cues as much, if not more, than we do verbal cues. Important social cues, such as body language and touch, cannot enter into a virtual setting. 

Our brains are therefore working harder to distinguish how everyone is responding and reacting, but are getting less out of the experience. 

My tips and tricks to combat virtual fatigue:

Now that we’ve got that explained, let’s have a look at some tips and tricks for coping with virtual fatigue!

Organise your space

Try to find a space separate from the one you would normally relax in. This can be difficult to do, and I have personally struggled with this because I don’t have a desk at home. 

But doing work from your bed can lower your focus since you associate where you are with rest. It can also have a negative effect on your sleep because your brain will struggle to switch off as it becomes more accustomed to being active in bed.

Try to chat with your family about using the kitchen table at certain times, or if you are able to share a study/workspace in the house.

If you do have a desk in your room, then make sure it is set up effectively and stays neat.

Try to keep your work organised on your computer by using folders. Also consider using a planner (physical or online) to help manage your time, map out all your upcoming deadlines, and schedule in different online social activities so you don’t forget anything!

Take breaks

Sitting in one spot for hours isn’t healthy for your mind or your body. Try to stand up and move around regularly throughout the day. 

Scheduling breaks into your day and knowing an exact time of when you are starting and finishing your work can help focus you to be more productive.

Screen breaks are also really important. Make sure you are looking away from your screen for a minute or so every 20-30 minutes - I know this can be difficult during online lectures so just do your best, but even just looking over the top of your screen into the distance for a few seconds is better than nothing! 

When you have a break during the day, and especially in the evening, close your laptop and try to engage in something that doesn’t use a screen for a bit, like reading a book, doing a workout, or chatting with someone you live with. I have recently got a few puzzles out the back of the cupboard as something a bit different!

Exercise

It may seem like it is too hard to fit into your schedule, but exercising is a great way to reduce stress and combat that eurgh-feeling. Even just a 10-minute walk at lunch can help boost endorphins! 

Getting active is a great way to help both your body and your mind. It can help ease low feelings by providing a way for you to feel productive outside of your day-to-day work and help stimulate the release of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, the chemicals that play an important part in regulating your mood and positively impacting how you feel.

Personally, I like to walk the dog every morning before work as a way to get myself up and awake before I sit down at my laptop. This way I feel productive before I have even begun! 

I have struggled to maintain my motivation levels during this third lockdown, but I try to also fit in either a lunchtime walk or an evening workout. If I don’t manage it, then I try not to beat myself up because I have still done something in the morning, but I know being active makes me feel happier so I try my best! 

If you download the Moves+ app, any running, walking, swimming, or cycling you do will be converted into points which you can then spend on a variety of rewards. This has really helped with my motivation levels! 

There is more information about Moves+ in my previous blog post.

Eat well

Eating well can help combat fatigue, and eating at regular intervals can help you to sustain energy levels. 

I start the day with one of my favourite breakfasts that I know will help keep my energy up. But, if you can’t face eating early in the morning, try having a piece of fruit or a breakfast bar to provide you with some energy until you feel like you can eat. I generally have a light lunch (either toast or a salad), I then also usually have a mid-afternoon coffee and a snack because I know I get tired around 3pm. I love cooking so my main meal is in the evenings when I have time to enjoy the process.

Check out some of my favourite breakfast recipes below:

I would also definitely recommend drinking more water! Just keeping a bottle with you throughout the day that you can sip on regularly and refill when necessary can keep you feeling more awake because dehydration can make you sleepy.

Sleep

While adjusting to the disruption of daily life, it is understandable that sleep schedules are disappearing quickly! Sleep is critical to physical health and effective functioning of the immune system. It is also key to supporting emotional wellness and mental health.

Try establishing a day/night routine and sticking to it to create a sense of normalcy. Keeping your bed reserved for sleep only, and exposing yourself to natural light by opening blinds/curtains/windows can also hugely benefit your sleep.

Most importantly, the routine you have needs to work for you. If your morning starts at 11am, and your night starts at 1am, that is fine! It is your routine, but try to make sure you are getting enough sleep. 

Read this article by Sleep Foundation for more information about sleep during the pandemic. 

Minimise distractions

Working from home means you are constantly surrounded by distractions that you would normally indulge in outside of work. Being aware of these distractions and rewarding yourself with access to them can help to reduce their hold over you! 

Personally, I try keeping my phone in another room and turning off social media notifications if I am trying to focus on something specific. 

Additionally, physically writing out to-do lists each morning and setting myself deadlines is good for keeping me focussed and giving me challenges that help me feel productive when I complete them.

It is also way too easy to look at multiple screens when you are in a lecture or seminar online. Try to minimise doing this as it is increasing the amount of time your brain is being made to multitask and this can make you more mentally exhausted!

Mental health check-ins

Let’s face it, things are tough right now. It’s therefore really important to check in with your mental health to see how you are coping and respond appropriately by reaching out for help or taking a break if you need to.

A few weeks ago, I noticed I was getting really tired and just wasn’t myself. 

I made myself switch my phone and laptop off for a whole weekend, and instead got loads of fresh air, went on a lot of walks with my dog, and spent time with my family. This was a great way to reset and I restarted on the Monday morning feeling really refreshed. You don’t have to do this all the time, but even just half a day to switch off can be great for your mental health.

I have started mindfulness check-ins once a week with my physio, which has been great! Mindfulness is the ability to be present, resting in the here and now, fully engaged with what we are doing at the moment. This has taught me various techniques, mainly focussing on breathing, that gets me out of my head, stops me overthinking, allows me to face the emotions I am feeling, and be more present for the positives. 

If you are interested in getting started with mindfulness, have a look at this article by Mindful.

Mental Health Awareness Traning

To learn more about mental health, why not come along to Mental Health Awareness Training? Led by myself and VP Wellbeing & Diversity Henn Warwick, these training sessions aim to reduce the stigma of mental health, empower students to understand their own mental health and encourage open discussions about mental health.

Sign up here

Hopefully, this has helped you to understand virtual fatigue a bit more and has provided you with some useful tips for coping with it during this time. Don’t do what I did and ignore it, because it is real and there are 100% things that you can do to help! 

Also, remember that there is a lot of support out there for you right now and to reach out for help if you need it. 

If you want to talk about any of these things with me personally, please feel free to drop me an email!