Stress, COVID, and Why You Can’t Shed those Pounds (hint: it isn’t willpower!)

June, 2021 update: I realized I published this one in haste and it has links to blogs that I’m made sound like evidence. As we know, blogs are not good science, but are nice ways to disseminate what is being published. If we are staying true to the message in the peer reviewed article. My apologies for violating my own code of ethics on that one…

Anyone else wishing for a good, old-fashioned snow day? No videos to record, no Zoom calls, just some hot chocolate and a good book?

I am. Right now, I’m starting to feel like we need to re-visit maintaining the status quo. Let’s really take a look at the aftermath of some of it:

Earlier this summer, researchers coined the term COVID Stress Syndrome. In a study by Taylor and Colleagues (2020), time spent in isolation was positively correlated with increased stress symptoms and anxiety.

We have Zoom. We can carry on. Just move it all online.

Maybe not.

I’m sure you all have heard of Zoom Fatigue. That feeling you’re working twice as hard to communicate during video chats? It’s a thing. Some people suggest that we have to work harder to read emotions and body language, because we don’t have the whole person in front of us. I find it’s harder to communicate because there aren’t the subtle cues to determine when it’s your turn to talk and when another person has their turn. Do you butt in? Use the chat function? Or just shut up? Never can tell. Bailenson (2021) suggests that this overload is real, and that there are multiple contributing factors. When doing a Zoom call, we are attending to multiple faces close up. In a face-to-face meeting, we attend less to faces and even the speaker. Bailenson posits that is to conserve our energy for processing of information, which makes sense in light of the literature on joint attention. We can see our own reactions, and are continually self-monitoring our reactions. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’m counting the gray hairs, realizing my neck looks like something from a Nora Ephron novel, and that I really need better lighting. In order to stay in the frame or maintain our most flattering posture, we are more still. We’ve talked about the issues surrounding our bodies being made to move and what issues that causes. If what he is saying is true, well, that explains a lot.

Does anyone else feel like their prescription changed dramatically during COVID? Apparently that is also real. Many people suggest we weren’t meant to stare at blue light screens all day long. Whether blue light filters actually help is subject to debate – a recent Google Scholar search turned up many articles regarding blue-light filtering prosthetic lenses (the ones used for cataract repair), but I didn’t see much else. That said, my colleagues who work with people with visual impairment suggest taking vision breaks every 20 minutes or so.

So, there are lots of ideas on how to make sure we are taking care of ourselves during this time of Zoomstice. However, not all of these ideas are practical.

Take a 5m break every 20m? That would be great, but our faculty meetings are 90 minutes long. Some meetings are longer than that. Just like you can’t get up and leave a meeting (I mean, you can, but…), you can’t get up and take a break from Zoom.

Then, there are the “after Zoom” activities, like follow up emails, tasks, etc… and all of a sudden it’s 3 hours later.

And now we are also available 24/7/365. We are no longer “off” or “on,” we just are.

The truth of it is that our bodies were not made to be on 24/7/365. We were made to fight the tiger, eat the tiger, then rest and rejoice. When the tiger is constantly chasing us, at some point, we burn out.

The physiological effects of a constantly revving engine are great. Our bodies are conserving fuel for the fight, flight, or freeze as well as delivering targeted nutrients to organs. More glucose is released into the bloodstream. Digestion and other less than important things are stopped. This puts us at a higher risk of metabolic syndrome, heart disease, etc… If we are truly moving way less, using our energy to maintain unnatural social interactions, and spending an inordinate time judging ourselves in the Zoom mirror, it’s no wonder a lot of us put on weight.

Maybe we need to re-think what is truly productive and convenient.

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