After more than two years of the pandemic, I finally had to accept a hard truth: The rest of my working life will likely be spent on video calls. As an introvert and someone whose anxiety is set off by meetings, I also realized that I need new strategies to manage both my meeting anxiety and my energy.
You might find yourself in a similar position. For the introverted and socially anxious among us, video meetings zap our energy because, when we are on camera, we’re performing under a spotlight. We give out lots of energy but don’t get much back through those small squares, which can increase anxiety and magnify tensions.
How can we ensure that the years ahead don’t leave us depleted? It starts with admitting that all sorts of online meetings — big, high-stakes meetings, everyday conversations, check-ins, stand-ups, and one-on-ones — make us anxious, and understanding why. Then, we can build a toolkit for managing different types of on-camera interactions, tapping into the physiology of anxiety reduction.
The good news is that there are simple habits we can build to manage our minds and bodies for busy days on camera. We can start by asking the following questions, depending on the specific situation we’re in.
What Do I Have Control Over?
If you have meeting anxiety, it’s good to unpack what’s going on below the surface. Christina Blacken, founder of the new quo, a leadership development and inclusion consultancy, offered some common reasons when I interviewed her. You could be in a time crunch where you don’t feel like you have enough time to prepare. You might be experiencing imposter syndrome and feeling like you don’t know enough. Maybe you don’t like the way you sound or look on screen. Perhaps the last meeting with this group got tense and you’re nervous about the next one. Or maybe your internet has been spotty and you’re concerned about an outage.
Once you identify which applies to you, Blacken suggests asking yourself: “Are these things that I have some level of control over?” If they are, come up with a plan to address them. This might include blocking off your schedule so you have enough time to prepare, reading or referencing notes during the meeting, or counteracting any cognitive distortions so that you aren’t coming into the meeting feeling less than. (Clearly you have something of value to contribute or they wouldn’t have invited you.)
If the roots of your anxiety are things you don’t have control over, ask yourself, “What can I do to feel okay with letting go?” A lot of the time, anxiety is about wanting control in situations where you may not have it — and you can’t cancel every meeting even if you want to, or control spotty internet or a barking dog. But you can build in guardrails and plan ahead.
For example, if you know you have a particularly camera-filled week, take your time and energy seriously in the days and hours leading up to it. Review your schedule and make time for breaks or build in 30 minutes of “play” time in between performances. (I like to go weed in my garden!)
The more you practice being intentional about your time and energy, the more your muscles get strengthened for it — fear and anxiety starts to reduce because you’ve already proven to yourself that you can survive it.
Where Am I Putting My Attention?
Lee Bonvissuto helps leaders report. But, she says, our troubles with video meetings are not really about our communication skills. They’re about the pressure to perform, self-doubt, self-consciousness — and attention. “If my attention is focused on how I am being perceived or indexing others’ facial expressions or thinking, ‘Well, that wasn’t the right word. I’m sure I could have phrased that better,” that’s where my attention is. And that’s what’s being given the power.”
When our presence is diluted and we lose the ability to access our ideas, it’s easy to lose focus and become anxious: Our brain tells our sympathetic nervous system that there’s danger ahead. Our breath quickens, we speak more quickly, our muscles tighten; we prepare to flee or fight.
The good news is that our parasympathetic nervous system exists to calm this anxious response — and it helps us reroute our attention. The vagus nerve, which runs all through your body, helps activate it. You can recruit it to calm you down before, during, and after a meeting by splashing cold water on your face (well, maybe not during the meeting), humming, breathing deeply and producing a long exhale, or bringing mind to a dear friend or loved one. Props can help, too, such as a fidget toy or a stress ball.
Ultimately, if we can bring our focus to one of these things, we can become more conscious and our thoughts will come back into focus. “The danger with anxiety is the unconsciousness of it. It’s the feeling out of control. And so just by creating control, we can start to create more conscious thinking and speaking,” Lee says. “If you can anchor to one thing at a time, whether a physical prop, your breath, or your body leaning back in the chair, it becomes this strong foundation, almost like a place to return home to.”
How Am I Preparing?
Managing a remote day probably means you are constantly role switching. If I have two minutes between making my kids a snack and running downstairs for a meeting, for example, I’m most likely walking into that meeting super anxious. If you’re working from home, you also may have more time to putter around worrying about an upcoming meeting; in the past, some of that alone time might have been replaced by seeing people in the office and getting into the flow of collaboration. Then there’s the anxiety of not having enough transition time between meetings or getting called into meetings with no notice (something that can be particularly nerve-wracking if you get the invite right after returning home from walking the dog).
There are two ways to manage your anxiety around these situations. The first is to develop habits for how you prepare for your on-camera meetings. If you have advanced warning, you can set aside time to plan hours (or even days or hours) ahead of time. I now prep for the week’s big meetings on Sunday evenings, rehearsing my schedule and making sure I’m ready for each. I actually ask myself: “What meetings are going to make me anxious this week?” Then I structure or chunk my time around those meetings to reduce that pre-meeting anxiety. I also do a check-in every night during the week, just in case my schedule has changed or new meetings have been added.
A second strategy is to exemplify what good meeting hygiene looks like, particularly if your organization is prone to last-minute or disorganized gatherings. When you’re in charge of a meeting, this means sending out an invite in advance, setting agendas, being clear about what the intention of the meeting is, who’s owning what in those meetings, and making sure that the time that’s allotted for the meeting makes sense. You can even consider going further, discussing whether an on-camera meeting could actually be an email exchange, or offering to quickly hop on the phone instead of setting up a Zoom. On-camera meetings do not have to be the default form of communication!
How Am I Pacing My Day or Week?
I’m a big believer in pacing your workday and workweek. This means really understanding when you get energy for different activities, and how to allot that energy. If you’re introverted or have social anxiety, if on-camera meetings are hard for you or if you’re in hostile meetings, you need to be mindful about what your days consist of.
Pacing allows us to keep our energy high for the big things and to get breaks when we need them. It also allows us to use our anxiety and channel it into energy for that big meeting, while feeling more-calm during a block of quiet work. For example, you may prefer to have Zoom-free days, or you may want to parse out your on-camera meetings throughout the week where you can. To accomplish this, you first need to have a good sense of how, and when, you get different types of work done.
Creative Director Christine Koh has worked from home for almost two decades. She knows her “golden hours,” as she calls them — the hours when she’s super energized. She’s a morning person, and at 7 am she logs on and maps out a high-level view of her day. Koh also recognizes that, while she loathes back-to-back on-camera meetings, she doesn’t mind having a few of them scattered throughout the day.
In terms of uninterrupted work, Koh shoots for at least one two-hour block in the day “where I can just really focus in. It’s professional self-care…so I can actually dig into things and think.”
I like to schedule busy on-camera days and leave “camera free” days where I can relax a bit more and focus on the work. But I’ve learned what really drives my anxiety is worrying about meetings where I need to perform, or that I anticipate to be difficult or hostile. I will lose hours before these meetings, worrying and ruminating. So, I like to schedule this hard stuff early in the day whenever possible. That way, I won’t spend hours distracted, worrying about the meeting. And I can actually get work done once it’s over.
Do I Know How to Handle a Hostile Conversation?
Difficult conversations can be more difficult on camera. When you’re expecting a stressful experience or outcome, your anxiety is sent into overdrive. When you’re working remotely, you may have more time alone to ruminate and worry. And if you have this conversation on camera, it may be more difficult to read their body language and non verbal cues than if you were in the room together (phone might be easier here, because you won’t have the option of scanning for your counterpart’s reactions).
If you’re triggered with anxiety in a challenging meeting, or even triggered looking at the appointment on your calendar, try this: Think of someone who makes you feel completely safe and loved, like a good friend, partner, or even your child or pet. Then, link the face, voice, or touch of that loved and trusted one to the anxiety-producing situation.
This exercise, which I learned from Tom Bunn, LCSW, actually calms your nervous system. As you stop ruminating, your anxiety decreases. Christina Blacken uses this exercise, too. She suggests if the trigger is seeing the calendar invite on your schedule, you could re-associate that with a positive memory of getting lunch with a friend. If you’re stuck spiraling with anxiety, summon up someone who can “be with you” in spirit as you’re opening up that meeting or feeling panicked about how you appear on camera. That friend thinks you look and sound great.
Bringing in Gratitude
Even though on-camera meetings can be challenging and anxiety-provoking for me, the benefits of remote work outweigh the costs. When I’m stuck alone at home, dreading a difficult conversation and wishing I was in an office so I could go have coffee with a friend, I try to remember that remote work also allows me the time and agency to hang out with my cats and kids, break up the day with movement and being outdoors, and working in my sweats.
So, when virtual meeting anxiety hits you, ask yourself: What does remote work bring you? Summoning that gratitude when an on-camera day especially feels rough can make a big difference, too.