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Being a Friend to Yourself and Not an Annoying Teacher

Alisa Plyaskina, psychologist from the Centre for Psychological Counselling (CPC) on how to deal with online learning challenges


The term ‘zoom fatigue’ has already been coined to describe the psychological state resulting from distance learning or work. A leading psychologist of the Centre for Psychological Counselling, Alisa Plyaskina, explains how to deal with this emotional exhaustion, lack of motivation, and reduced attention span.

Alisa Plyaskina

Leading Psychologist, Centre for Psychological Counselling

Remote work and learning are now a part of life for all of us. It’s great if it’s one’s own desire or choice to continue working or studying remotely, but for some people, it’s become a necessary measure to take and follow.

It seems that after last spring’s lockdown, during which it was necessary to suddenly and quickly switch to remote learning, students should already be ready for this form of learning, and therefore should feel good about it. In reality, for a long time now, we have all been in a continuous process of adapting to the often changing rules of our lives during the pandemic, and by the end of the ninth month we feel quite tired. This is because it’s important to have periods of time, when you don’t have to adapt, and you can live in peace.

It may be easier for some along the way, while for others it may be more difficult: it depends on our personalities and actual life situations. It also depends on the fact that distance learning has its pros and cons, which are also different for different people. So, not having to commute from home to school or get together and prepare to meet with colleagues, teachers, or classmates can be a plus and free up extra time and energy for some, but for others this can be a minus, resulting in decreased interest and desire to attend these meetings remotely at all.

Among the main difficulties that students may face in distance learning, I would highlight the following:

1. The reduction or complete disappearance of ‘live’ communication in educational activities.

2. The increased need to spend most of one’s time during the working day at the computer providing ‘presence’ at lectures/seminars, in possibly unsuitable and insufficiently comfortable conditions for study.

3. It may be more difficult to communicate with teachers and classmates while attending lessons remotely or from home, using only an electronic device and video-conferencing programme than it was during face-to-face meetings.

There has been a marked reduction or almost complete disappearance of nonverbal communication — something that helps us to communicate with other people and understand a general atmosphere, the mood of each individual. Gestures, facial expressions, some nods, and smirks stay beyond the frame both figuratively and literally when participants turn off their cameras and microphones, sit too close to the camera, sit in a room that is too dim or light, or when the quality of the communication leaves much to be desired, and instead of a familiar person, we see an abstract blur.

Yaroslava Surgay for STUDLIFE

In such circumstances, we have to do more to understand each other — what is being said, how, and why. We have to listen, watch, and catch subtle expressions and try to interpret them. And we have to express ourselves in a way that we will be understood: to take greater care when formulating phrases, think through exactly what we want to say, when we should say it, at what moment, and how to catch that right moment. On top of this, there are the possible computer or internet difficulties and users’ own anxieties about these potential problems, as well as worries about where it is best to connect with others remotely—whether a family member or pet will intrude on the meeting, etc.

It seems that, by the end of the school day, one can feel very tired, perhaps even exhausted, irritated, sometimes misunderstood and other times not having understood anything. After being in these circumstances for a long time you might feel what has already been dubbed ‘zoom fatigue’ (emotional exhaustion arising from the fact that everything has gone online). This can be accompanied by a decrease in motivation, interest, and desire for activities that have been moved online, a sense of physical and psychological fatigue, and a feeling of some emotional despondency.

How can you support yourself during the distance learning period?

It seems to me that, above all, it is important to stop making constant demands of yourself: to be active in seminars on zoom, to quickly complete all your homework, to enjoy meetings, to not to get tired. Allow yourself to learn and do your tasks to the best of your abilities while you adapt to this format. And make sure that this difficult period of life is as comfortable as you it can be.

For example, start with answering some basic questions:

• Arrange a comfortable study environment: set up a work space where you can attend online lectures and seminars. Allow yourself a chair/armchair that is comfortable and also allows you to change positions from time to time without disappearing from the video frame.

• Make sure you sort out the programmes that you need to use for course meetings in advance. Set up your camera, microphone, headphones or speaker, and connect from devices that are convenient for you, preferably with a large screen that you will see.  

• Consider possibilities such as: a good internet connection, minimal distractions, pauses and breaks after lectures, and adequate rest during those breaks. Try to relax and spend extracurricular time differently from the way you spend it during your studies —without a computer/phone and the Internet — go for a walk, play sports, listen to music or play musical instruments, draw. If there is such an opportunity, compensate the lack of ‘live’ communication during your studies by arranging it during your free time — chat, meet with friends, relatives, neighbours in your dorm, while, of course, observing all the recommendations for taking care of your health and the health of others.

Yaroslava Surgay for STUDLIFE

• Monitor your daily routine, work schedule, and relaxation time. If your life is too chaotic at the moment, the presence of order and some certainty at least in when and how you study, rest, sleep, and stay awake will significantly reduce stress, and if the distance learning format is too structured and forces your into too rigid of a routine—think about how you could diversify your schedule and plans now, what opportunities remain for spontaneity without compromising your physical and psychological well-being.

Don't expect the impossible from yourself. Lower your expectations. For example, do not expect that you will not become distracted during lectures and seminars, or when doing homework, that you will be able to do everything quickly and easily, even if it was like that before. Our attention is characterised by focus, degree and volume, as well as switchability, stability, and distribution. This means that your attention can be divided into several types of activities that you can switch between and on which you can focus. 

Someone will easily and quickly switch between tasks, while others will be slower; someone will be able to hold attention for 10 minutes without being distracted by anything, and someone will find themselves thinking about the next break after 3 minutes of the lecture. We are all different, we have different ‘initial data’. An important task is to find out our characteristics, abilities, and treat them with understanding. 

It is more effective to make note of every time that you are distracted, and at these moments to carefully return your attention to the lecture or task at hand by listening, reading and trying to understand what is happening at your choosing. Also try to plan for yourself a time in which you are concentrated, and time in which you can be distracted without reproach, alternate between these periods. 

Approaches to performing tasks such as the ‘pomodoro method’ are based precisely on the idea that if we give ourselves what we need, such as rest, our body and psyche will not have to ‘snatch’ it suddenly and at the wrong time. If you are still involuntarily distracted when you should be focused, try not to punish yourself, but to investigate what is happening: what are you being distracted by?

Perhaps there is something that is now subjectively more important than the specific task, and it is necessary to devote time to this, albeit unplanned. Or maybe you are distracted not by something, but from a specific task. In that case it is important to do something with it, somehow transform it. For example, you can think about how to make it more interesting, or less difficult: maybe come up with a solution together with someone, split the solution process into stages, or create a supportive atmosphere around you while you decide.

In general, in such periods of possible increased stress or uncomfortable conditions for working or studying, I think it is great (to try) to be a ‘friend’ to yourself, and not an annoying ‘teacher’ who demands something all the time, but at the same time does not contribute to the fulfillment of these requirements, or give you praise or support. Imagine what would happen if you shouted at someone for not understanding something. It is unlikely that they would understand better. Most likely, they would only begin to worry more about the fact that they are failing. The same happens to us when we punish and reproach ourselves instead of noticing what is happening to us, thinking about how to help and support ourselves, improving the circumstances in which we find ourselves, and beginning to educate ourselves. 

Distance learning, in my opinion, can be difficult to achieve not only because the nature of our communication with the participants in this process changes, but also because we have more time where we are alone with ourselves — with our thoughts, feelings, desires, trepidations, attitude towards ourselves and the ability to communicate with oneself. 

Maybe it will be easier to get through this difficult period if you treat it as an opportunity to find something good in your life. Ask yourself: what good in the future can be given to me by what is happening to me now? Maybe I can come out of distance learning with some cool skills and knowledge in computer programmes, or with a trained ability to hold attention for a long time or with some kind of renewed positive relationship with myself.

Author: Lena Vardanyan, December 15, 2020