When our company gave us the go-ahead to safely head back into the office to pick up our belongings, I couldn’t jet there fast enough. There was one item I needed: my laptop stand. See, for months I’d tried to tinker with ways to elevate my computer to create a more flattering angle for video calls instead of the under-my-chin tilt that made it impossible for me to sit through one single meeting without thinking, “Botox. Fillers. Face lift—as soon as there’s a vaccine, I’m getting it all!!!” Back in the office days, I certainly thought about my appearance, but I wasn’t consumed by it, as in, I’d be thinking constructively about what I could contribute to the conversation, not obsessing about my disappearing cheekbones. So how does looking at your face on Zoom all the live-long day impact your brain? I spoke with two experts on self-image to help me understand.
We get emotionally exhausted
We might not realize how much in-person communication is non-verbal, and the real toll losing that can take on the brain. “With video, we must rely on our eye contact at all times. It takes much more emotional effort to stay engaged in video interactions,” says Dr. Adi Zief-Balteriski, psychologist and behavioral science specialist focused on the intersection of community, wellness and technology. Losing the subtle cues of body language channels all attention to the face—whether that’s our own face or someone else’s.
Our self-judgement increases
Per Dr. Zief-Balteriski, “One of the main issues with the fact that you see yourself all the time is your constant self-judgment has been magnified. It has a tremendous effect on self-confidence and how we view our physical appearance.” Think about it: In “normal” times, social media and the selfie already made us far more consistently aware of how we appear, but in regular conversation, Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., ABPP and Professor Emerita of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, points out that the mirror effect is unmatched. “With a video chat, the mirror is constantly there. If there’s anything you don’t like about your appearance, or perhaps what your mouth does while you’re talking, this will become glaringly apparent. People with social anxiety disorder could be particularly disturbed by the constant focus on their face,” she explains.
Our brains can become overwhelmed
With non-verbal cues out the window and our own image looking back us, engaging productively in meetings or gatherings can be far more difficult for folks are already self-critical. Dr. Zief-Balteriski explains that video chatting increases the cognitive load, and the result can be overwhelming—making it tough to juggle that all-hands brainstorm and the way your hair looks today.
We become more self-reserved
When a video call means that any time you speak, all eyes are directly on your face, it could make you more reticent to participate, says Dr. Zief-Balterisk. And while there’s the option to nix video display, in many office cultures or class environments, this is considered rude. The result? You make less risky choices for fear of being in the spotlight.
Unless…you really like what you see.
On the flip side, Whitbourne notes that if find your reflection more favorable than you previously thought, it could actually give your self-image a boost. When you’re working from home, you might feel more in control of how you appear on camera—say, full face, no pants—and some folks may really wind up embracing their Zoom appearances. This could have the reverse effect and make you braver in calls than you typically would be. At the same time, it’s still possible that you like how you look and your brain gets overwhelmed. Afterall, it’s hard to juggle TPS reports when your highlighter is working like that.
So how do we overcome “Zoom brain”?
“It may be beneficial for everyone to give themselves a bit of a break after appearing in a video chat,” writes Whitbourne for a Psychology Today piece on social anxiety disorder and video calls. Cut yourself some slack. Go for walk. Journal about things you love about yourself. Do something that you feel good about yourself. And if you’re feeling like your reflection is too overwhelming moving forward, have a one-on-one chat with your manager or teacher about calling in without video. Maybe not every meeting calls for opting out of video, but there could be a smart compromise that gives your brain the break it needs from itself. Or maybe, just lifting that camera angle up a bit—looking at you, laptop stand—can turn you from self-loathing to self-not-obsessively-contemplating plastic surgery.