Zoom anxiety: We still can't escape video calls, but there are ways to make them better

We've got practical tips for lowering your stress levels, now that video calls appear to be here to stay.

Alison DeNisco Rayome Managing Editor
Managing Editor Alison DeNisco Rayome joined CNET in 2019, and is a member of the Home team. She is a co-lead of the CNET Tips and We Do the Math series, and manages the Home Tips series, testing out new hacks for cooking, cleaning and tinkering with all of the gadgets and appliances in your house. Alison was previously an editor at TechRepublic.
Expertise Home Tips, including cooking, cleaning and appliances hacks Credentials
  • National Silver Azbee Award for Impact/Investigative Journalism; National Gold Azbee Award for Online Single Topic Coverage by a Team; National Bronze Azbee Award for Web Feature Series
Alison DeNisco Rayome
4 min read

So. Many. Zooms.


This story is part of a series on life one year into the pandemic. Make sure to read part one: Zoom anxiety is still a major problem, one year into the pandemicWe've also got stories on why COVID may have changed our habits forever and how the pandemic gives health care workers a chance to shine on social media.

Video chat and conferencing services like Zoom exploded in use over the past year, due to lockdowns and work-from-home mandates during the pandemic. It's been a year of "You're on mute," "Looks like you froze," and, "Is that a cat?" But for many people, Zoom anxiety remains very real. 

While there is little research on Zoom anxiety, a November 2020 survey of 2,000 home workers found that it stems from several sources: having tech and audio problems that you can't fix; being unable to read people's body language; feeling like you aren't being heard; having to take a call without time to prepare your appearance; worrying about an unprofessional background; and being talked over. (To be clear, in this story I'm using Zoom as a stand-in for all video chat platforms, since it essentially became a verb for video calls in 2020.) 

Despite the vaccine rollout and talks of reopening in some areas, many companies won't make workers return to the office full-time in the foreseeable future, so it's likely that video conferencing is here to stay. But if you suffer from anxiety using these on-camera tools, hope isn't lost. We have some practical tips for how to combat Zoom anxiety and make your meetings run smoother. 

Read more: How to use Zoom Escaper, a sneaky tool for sabotaging your video calls

What you can do to fight Zoom anxiety 

Angela Lang/CNET

Even if video chat platforms are here to stay as part of our daily lives, anxiety over these calls doesn't have to come along with them. Here are a few things you can do right now to improve the situation and the toll on your mental health: 

Turn off self-view. Once you log onto a call and make sure you're in frame, right-click your video to display the menu. Choose Hide Myself. You'll still appear to others, but you won't have to stare at yourself the whole time. 

This could have a strong positive psychological effect. "For me, the self view is the most troubling," said Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, who recently published a study on Zoom fatigue. "Never before have people stared at themselves so long per day. This adds stress both consciously -- people worry about their appearance, grooming, etc. -- and unconsciously, as psychological research has demonstrated that even when people aren't actively thinking about their reflection, a mirror in their field of view causes them to increase self-evaluation." 

Invest in a camera shield (or some easy-to-remove tape). Even if you accidentally turn on your video, as long as the camera is physically blocked, no one can actually see you until you remove it.

Reevaluate the need for video on your calls. If you're hosting a meeting, consider whether it requires video to be on, or if, even better, it can be a phone call, so you can get up and walk around, Bailenson said. 

Watch this: 3 video calling alternatives to Zoom

Talk to your manager or the call leader. If you aren't the host of most of your video calls, but a participant, consider bringing up the issue to your coworkers, your manager or whoever the person is who's in charge. You might let them know that since you're not in a senior position, you don't want to talk on top of anyone but still want to participate. You might be able to suggest having an agenda, or someone who is facilitating the meeting and making sure every person gets a chance to speak, said Libby Sander, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Bond University in Queensland, Australia, who is studying the psychological effects of working from home. 

Feel free to say no to social engagements on Zoom. We're way past the time when virtual happy hours were all the rage. If you're burnt out on video calls, you don't have to go to that Zoom book club meeting or hangout. Be open about your feelings and needs, and your friends should hopefully understand, because who hasn't felt that way at some point this year? 

Give yourself a break. If you've had any feelings of stress or anxiety over video calling, just know that you're far from alone. Most people are worried on some level about their dog barking during an important call, the Wi-Fi dropping out or the way that they look on camera. At this point, people tend to be pretty understanding of the difficulties that have come with working from home and inviting your colleagues into your personal space in this way. 

For more, check out the first story in this series, about the real impact of Zoom anxiety on mental health and wellbeing. Plus, here are our tips for how to use Zoom like a pro, and the best gear for online meetings. If all else fails, you can try using Zoom Escaper to get out of your video meetings.