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Living with Virtual Fatigue

Virtual fatigue (vur-choo-uhl fuh-teeg) – feeling worn out with having to be “on” at all times during the various virtual interactions we endure each day

I don’t think I’ve ever worked harder in my life than I have since March. None of us knew how much our entire existence would be shaken because, like most things in life, the effects of this pandemic were nearly unforeseeable. Now I find that my calendars have no white spaces between blocks of lilac purple, my days filled with meetings and sessions and documentation and case management and trainings. The empath and supporter in me sees the mental health of the country collapsing and wants to put my skills to use; the logical side of me sees the need for disengagement in order to show up as the best version of myself. Although I encourage and reinforce balance in all facets of life to my clients, I can’t say that I’ve been able to find mine these last 6 months. I’m dry-eyed behind a screen for 8-12 hours a day, siphoning the contents of my mental reservoir to my clients and loved ones. Suddenly, there is no commute or coworkers to break up my time, no people to engage with or pat on the back or hug. There are few brain breaks, which are essential for peak functioning and reducing stress. Those brain breaks are being replaced by a machine that seemingly exists behind my skin and bones.

In a time of physical isolation, confusion, and an incredible variation of other stressors, communicating with our loved ones is especially important, but what to do when more time at home means using those modes of communication (phones, computers) for work? For school? Or to just relieve pure boredom? Or to keep up with the changes that our society and world faces each day? When “normalcy” is absent, new boundaries most likely have to be implemented, even with those we love most. Having boundaries doesn’t mean that you just cut connection and communication away — instead you learn to control what you give time and energy to, in turn putting you in better control of your emotional well-being. Below are a few tips on how to practice setting boundaries around communication via technology, and around technology in general. Hopefully, these will help you to navigate and honor your needs.

Beware of the scrolling loop!

Some of you may have your eyebrows raised in confusion, but you know what I mean! It’s like when you check Twitter to see what your friend just said in the group chat, and suddenly you’ve been scrolling for an hour and landed knee-deep in a debate about whether you should bite or lick your ice cream cone… Yes, that’s what I mean by a scrolling loop. When we tend to feel emotions like boredom, loneliness, and anxiety, most of us just pick up our phones. As a society, we have completely distanced ourselves from time for personal thought and reflection. When we engage in a scrolling loop, we are essentially keeping ourselves turned on when we really need a pause. The next time an uncomfortable feeling or even boredom strikes, I am going to challenge you to use that time to breathe and disconnect. This can be a reason to practice meditating, doing a quick workout, washing your dishes, playing with your pet, or simply closing your eyes and basking in the nothingness. Whatever it is, you want your mind to quiet and your awareness to be in the present moment.

If possible, communicate openly about your feelings surrounding the uptick of technology use.

In order for healthy communication to happen, safety has to be established, and this is true for any kind of a relationship. If you feel safe enough to share how you feel about technology use, the benefit is that the other person or people will now be aware of how you feel. Sometimes, and even I can be guilty of it, we forget that our loved ones aren’t mind readers because they know us so well. Clear communication can prevent any misunderstandings or assumptions. It answers the “whys” of our lives and helps us figure out the “hows.”

And be honest about your daily limitations.

If you’re going to be honest, I encourage you to go all the way. One huge takeaway from this pandemic so far is that we must become comfortable and familiar with the here and now. As our environment is less predictable, our needs follow suit. What we will need to get through any given day will vary. Therefore, it may be helpful to communicate that how much you can use your various technologies each day will be dependent upon factors like your schedule, responsibilities and obligations, and self-care. Maybe if you have Zoom meetings all day, you won’t be up for a family video chat that day but know that you’re less busy in 2 days. Keeping the communication clear, open, and honest will ensure that everybody is getting their needs met.

Find what gives you a sense of structure when everything feels unsteady.

I can’t emphasize enough how much I love using my calendar. Seeing what I have on my schedule each day keeps me organized and gives me a sense of order. Since the pandemic, I’ve found that I like to plan times that I’m going to Facetime with a friend or with my mom and put that on my calendar. Not only do I feel prepared for that interaction, but I now have something to look forward to after the work day. Sometimes schedules help people feel a sense of structure in unsteady times. This can mean even blocking off a time in your day where you’ll do quick check-ins with a number of people. 

Adjust screen and app limitations on your devices.

On most computers, tablets, and smartphones these days, there are ways to limit specific apps and screen time. Here’s the caveat: they say what goes up must come down, meaning here that if you can turn the limitations on then you can surely turn them off. This is where mind over matter becomes extremely important. If you decide that you need to use a specific app, but you have already reached your limit for the day, then you will need to consciously make the decision to stay off the app rather than ignoring the limit. Like any habit, it will take a blend of practice and motivation for you to ultimately accept whenever you have reached your virtual limit. 

Encourage the lazy side of yourself (in the best way).

Have you ever forced yourself to watch something on television because you were too lazy to find the remote and change the channel? I have. If you have, too, use this trait to your advantage. For example, I keep my laptop under my coffee table or under my TV stand. I do this because I know that I’m too lazy to get it while I’m actually chilling on the couch or laying in bed. When it’s not work hours, I try to protect myself from the temptation of doing anything work related by removing my work computer from my immediate space. By doing so, I’m also staring at a computer screen for less hours a day. Replace the work computer with another device. You can try putting your cell phone somewhere out of reach when it’s time to wind down — it will also force you to get out of bed when your alarm wakes up! 

Being sucked into the vortexes technology has to offer can be overwhelming and make you feel as if you were put under a spell — you come out into the real world with bloodshot eyes, social qualms, and an itch to keep going back. From the looks of things, this spell will remain heavy and engulfing for an unknown period of time. There is benefit to knowing that the burden does not have to consistently be so heavy. 

Take care of others, and also take care of yourself.