Erik Peper and Elyse Shafarman
After taking Alexander Technique lessons I felt lighter and stood taller and I have learned how to direct myself differently. I am much more aware of my body, so that while I am working at the computer, I notice when I am slouching and contracting. Even better, I know what to do so that I have no pain at the end of the day. It’s as though I’ve learned to allow my body to move freely.
The Alexander Technique is one of the somatic techniques that optimize health and performance (Murphy, 1993). Many people report that after taking Alexander lessons, many organic and functional disorders disappear. Others report that their music or dance performances improve. The Alexander Technique has been shown to improve back pain, neck pain, knee pain walking gait, and balance (Alexander technique, 2022; Hamel, et al, 2016; MacPherson et al., 2015; Preece, et al., 2016). Benefits are not just physical. Studying the technique decreases performance anxiety in musicians and reduces depression associated with Parkinson’s disease (Klein, et al, 2014; Stallibrass et al., 2002).
The Alexander Technique was developed in the late 19th century by the Australian actor, Frederick Matthias Alexander (Alexander, 2001). It is an educational method that teaches students to align, relax and free themselves from limiting tension habits (Alexander, 2001; Alexander technique, 2022). F.M Alexander developed this technique to resolve his own problem of becoming hoarse and losing his voice when speaking on stage.
Initially he went to doctors for treatment but nothing worked except rest. After resting, his voice was great again; however, it quickly became hoarse when speaking. He recognized that it must be how he was using himself while speaking that caused the hoarseness. He understood that “use” was not just a physical pattern, but a mental and emotional way of being. “Use” included beliefs, expectations and feelings. After working on himself, he developed the educational process known as the Alexander Technique that helps people improve the way they move, breathe and react to the situations of life.
The benefits of this approach has been documented in a large randomized controlled trial of one-on-one Alexander Technique lessons which showed that it significantly reduced chronic low back pain and the benefits persisted a year after treatment (Little, et al, 2008). Back pain as well as shoulder and neck pain often is often related to stress and how we misuse ourselves. When experiencing discomfort, we quickly tend to blame our physical structure and assume that the back pain is due to identifiable structural pathology identified by X-ray or MRI assessments. However, similar structural pathologies are often present in people who do not experience pain and the MRI findings correlate poorly with the experience of discomfort (Deyo & Weinstein, 2001; Svanbergsson et al., 2017). More likely, the causes and solutions involve how we use ourselves (e.g., how we stand, move, or respond to stress). A functional approach may include teaching awareness of the triggers that precede neck and back tension, skills to prevent the tensing of those muscles not needed for task performance, resolving psychosocial stress and improving the ergonomic factors that contribute to working in a stressed position (Peper, Harvey & Faass, 2020). Conceptually, how we are use ourselves (thoughts, emotions, and body) affects and transforms our physical structure and then our physical structure constrains how we use ourselves.
Watch the video with Alexander Teacher, Elyse Shafarman, who describes the Alexander Technique and guides you through practices that you can use immediately to optimize your health while sitting and moving.
See also the following posts:
Alexander, F.M. (2001). The Use of the Self. London: Orion Publishing. https://www.amazon.com/Use-Self-F-M-Alexander/dp/0752843915
Alexander technique. (2022). National Health Service. Retrieved 19 April, 2022/. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/alexander-technique/
Deyo, R.A. & Weinstein, J.N. (2001). Low back pain. N Engl J Med., 344(5),363-70. https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJM200102013440508
Hamel, K.A., Ross, C., Schultz, B., O’Neill, M., & Anderson, D.I. (2016). Older adult Alexander Technique practitioners walk differently than healthy age-matched controls. J Body Mov Ther. 20(4), 751-760. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbmt.2016.04.009
Klein, S. D., Bayard, C., & Wolf, U. (2014). The Alexander Technique and musicians: a systematic review of controlled trials. BMC complementary and alternative medicine, 14, 414. https://doi.org/10.1186/1472-6882-14-414
Little, P. Lewith, W G., Webley, F., Evans, M., …(2008). Randomised controlled trial of Alexander technique lessons, exercise, and massage (ATEAM) for chronic and recurrent back pain. BMJ, 337:a884. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.a884
MacPherson, H., Tilbrook, H., Richmond, S., Woodman, J., Ballard, K., Atkin, K., Bland, M., et al. (2015). Alexander Technique Lessons or Acupuncture Sessions for Persons With Chronic Neck Pain: A Randomized Trial. Ann Intern Med, 163(9), 653-62. https://doi.org/10.7326/M15-0667
Preece, S.J., Jones, R.K., Brown, C.A. et al. (2016). Reductions in co-contraction following neuromuscular re-education in people with knee osteoarthritis. BMC Musculoskelet Disord 17, 372. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12891-016-1209-2
Stallibrass, C., Sissons, P., & Chalmers. C. (2002). Randomized controlled trial of the Alexander technique for idiopathic Parkinson’s disease. Clin Rehabil, 16(7), 695-708. https://doi.org/10.1191/0269215502cr544oa
Svanbergsson, G., Ingvarsson, T., & Arnardóttir RH. (2017). [MRI for diagnosis of low back pain: Usability, association with symptoms and influence on treatment]. Laeknabladid, 103(1):17-22. Icelandic. https://doi.org/10.17992/lbl.2017.01.116
Tuomilehto, J., Lindström, J., Eriksson, J.G., Valle, T.T., Hämäläinen, H., Ilanne-Parikka, P., Keinänen-Kiukaanniemi, S., Laakso, M., Louheranta, A., Rastas, M., et al. (2001). Prevention of type 2 diabetes mellitus by changes in lifestyle among subjects with impaired glucose tolerance. N. Engl. J. Med., 344, 1343–1350. https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJM200105033441801
Uusitupa, Mm, Khan, T.A., Viguiliouk, E., Kahleova, H., Rivellese, A.A., Hermansen, K., Pfeiffer, A., Thanopoulou, A., Salas-Salvadó, J., Schwab, U., & Sievenpiper. J.L. (2019). Prevention of Type 2 Diabetes by Lifestyle Changes: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Nutrients, 11(11)2611. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11112611
The purpose of this blog is to describe how a university class that incorporated structured self-experience practices reduced self-reported anxiety symptoms. This approach is different from a clinical treatment approach as it focused on empowerment and mastery learning (Peper, Miceli, & Harvey, 2016).
As a result of my practice, I felt my anxiety and my menstrual cramps decrease. — College senior
When I changed back to slower diaphragmatic breathin, I was more aware of my negative emotions and I was able to reduce the stress and anxiety I was feeling with the deep diaphragmatic breathing.– College junior
More than half of college students now report anxiety (Coakley et al., 2021). In our recent survey during the first day of the spring semester class, 59% of the students reported feeling tired, dreading their day, being distracted, lacking mental clarity and had difficulty concentrating.
Before the COVID pandemic nearly one-third of students had or developed moderate or severe anxiety or depression while being at college (Adams et al., 2021. The pandemic accelerated a trend of increasing anxiety that was already occurring. “The prevalence of major depressive disorder among graduate and professional students is two times higher in 2020 compared to 2019 and the prevalence of generalized anxiety disorder is 1.5 times higher than in 2019” As reported by Chirikov et al (2020) from the UC Berkeley SERU Consortium Reports.
This increase in anxiety has both short and long term performance and health consequences. Severe anxiety reduces cognitive functioning and is a risk factor for early dementia (Bierman et al., 2005; Richmond-Rakerd et al, 2022). It also increases the risk for asthma, arthritis, back/neck problems, chronic headache, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, pain, obesity and ulcer (Bhattacharya et al., 2014; Kang et al, 2017).
The most commonly used treatment for anxiety are pharmaceutical and cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) (Kaczkurkin & Foa, 2015). The anti-anxiety drugs are usually benzodiazepines (e.g., alprazolam (Xanax), clonazepam (Klonopin), chlordiazepoxide (Librium), diazepam (Valium) and lorazepam (Ativan). Although these drugs they may reduce anxiety, they have numerous side effects such as drowsiness, irritability, dizziness, memory and attention problems, and physical dependence (Shri, 2012; Crane, 2013).
Cognitive behavior therapy techniques based upon the assumption that anxiety is primarily a disorder in thinking which then causes the symptoms and behaviors associated with anxiety. Thus, the primary treatment intervention focuses on changing thoughts.
Given the significant increase in anxiety and the potential long term negative health risks, there is need to provide educational strategies to empower students to prevent and reduce their anxiety. A holistic approach is one that assumes that body and mind are one and that soma/body, emotions and thoughts interchangeably affect the development of anxiety. Initially in our research, Peper, Lin, Harvey & Perez (2017) reported that it was easier to access hopeless, helpless, powerless and defeated memories in a slouched position than an upright position and it was easier to access empowering positive memories in an upright position than a slouched position. Our research on transforming hopeless, helpless, depressive thought to empowering thoughts, Peper, Harvey & Hamiel (2019) found that it was much more effective if the person first shifts to an upright posture, then begins slow diaphragmatic breathing and finally reframes their negative to empowering/positive thoughts. Participants were able to reframe stressful memories much more easily when in an upright posture compared to a slouched posture and reported a significant reduction in negative thoughts, anxiety (they also reported a significant decrease in negative thoughts, anxiety and tension as compared to those attempting to just change their thoughts).
The strategies to reduce anxiety focus on breathing and posture change. At the same time there are many other factors that may contribute the onset or maintenance of anxiety such as social isolation, economic insecurity, etc. In addition, low glucose levels can increase irritability and may lower the threshold of experiencing anxiety or impulsive behavior (Barr, Peper, & Swatzyna, 2019; Brad et al, 2014). This is often labeled as being “hangry” (MacCormack & Lindquist, 2019). Thus, by changing a high glycemic diet to a low glycemic diet may reduce the somatic discomfort (which can be interpreted as anxiety) triggered by low glucose levels. In addition, people are also sitting more and more in front of screens. In this position, they tend to breathe quicker and more shallowly in their chest.
Shallow rapid breathing tends to reduce pCO2 and contributes to subclinical hyperventilation which could be experienced as anxiety (Lum, 1981; Wilhelm et al., 2001; Du Pasquier et al, 2020). Experimentally, the feeling of anxiety can rapidly be evoked by instructing a person to sequentially exhale about 70 % of the inhaled air continuously for 30 seconds. After 30 seconds, most participants reported a significant increase in anxiety (Peper & MacHose, 1993). Thus, the combination of sitting, shallow breathing and increased stress from the pandemic are all cofactors that may contribute to the self-reported increase in anxiety.
To reduce anxiety and discomfort, McGrady and Moss (2013) suggested that self-regulation and stress management approaches be offered as the initial treatment/teaching strategy in health care instead of medication. One of the useful approaches to reduce sympathetic arousal and optimize health is breathing awareness and retraining (Gilbert, 2003).
Stress management as part of a university holistic health class
Every semester since 1976, up to 180 undergraduates have enrolled in a three-unit Holistic Health class on stress management and self-healing (Klein & Peper, 2013). Students in the class are assigned self-healing projects using techniques that focus on awareness of stress, dynamic regeneration, stress reduction imagery for healing, and other behavioral change techniques adapted from the book, Make Health Happen (Peper, Gibney & Holt, 2002).
82% of students self-reported that they were ‘mostly successful’ in achieving their self-healing goals. Students have consistently reported achieving positive benefits such as increasing physical fitness, changing diets, reducing depression, anxiety, and pain, eliminating eczema, and even reducing substance abuse (Peper et al., 2003; Bier et al., 2005; Peper et al., 2014).
This assessment reports how students’ anxiety decreased after five weeks of daily practice. The students filled out an anonymous survey in which they rated the change in their discomfort after practicing effortless diaphragmatic breathing. More than 70% of the students reported a decrease in anxiety. In addition, they reported decreases in symptoms of stress, neck and shoulder pain as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Self-report of decrease in symptoms after practice diaphragmatic breathing for a week.
Most students also reported an increase in mental clarity and concentration that improved their study habits. As one student noted: Now that I breathe properly, I have less mental fog and feel less overwhelmed and more relaxed. My shoulders don’t feel tense, and my muscles are not as achy at the end of the day.
The teaching components for the first five weeks included a focus on the psychobiology of stress, the role of posture, and psychophysiology of respiration. The class included didactic presentations and daily self-practice
- Diadactic presentation on the physiology of stress and how posture impacts health.
- Self-observation of stress reactions; energy drain/energy gain and learning dynamic relaxation.
- Short experiential practices so that the student can experience how slouched posture allows easier access to helpless, hopeless, powerless and defeated memories.
- Short experiential breathing practices to show how breathing holding occurs and how 70% exhalation within 30 seconds increases anxiety.
- Didactic presentation on the physiology of breathing and how a constricted waist tends to have the person breathe high in their chest (the cause of neurasthemia) and how the fight/flight response triggers chest breathing, breath holding and/or shallow breathing.
- Explanation and practice of diaphragmatic breathing.
Students were assigned weekly daily self-practices which included both skill mastery by practicing for 20 minutes as well and implementing the skill during their daily life. They then recorded their experiences after the practice. At the end of the week, they reviewed their own log of week and summarized their observations (benefits, difficulties) and then met in small groups to discuss their experiences and extract common themes. These daily practices consisted of:
- Awareness of stress. Monitoring how they reacted to daily stressor
- Practicing dynamic relaxation. Students practiced for 20 minutes a modified progressive relaxation exercise and observed and inhibit bracing pattern
- Changing energy drain and energy gains. Students observed what events reduced or increased their subjective energy and implemented changes in their behavior to decrease events that reduced their energy and increased behaviors that increase their enery
- Creating a memory of wholeness practice
- Practicing effortless breathing. Students practiced slowly diaphragmatic abdominal breathing for 20 minutes per day and each time they become aware of dysfunctional breathing (breath holding, shallow chest breathing, gasping) during the day, they would shift to slower diaphragmatic breathing.
Almost all students were surprised how beneficial these practices were to reduce their anxiety and symptoms. Generally, the more the students would interrupt their personal stress responses during the day by shifting to diaphragmatic breathing the more did they experience success. We hypothesize that some of the following factors contributed to the students’ improvement.
- Learning through self-mastery as an education approach versus clinical treatment.
- Generalizing the skills into daily life and activities. Practicing the skills during the day in which the cue of a stress reaction triggered the person to breathe slowly. The breathing would reduce the sympathetic activation.
- Interrupting escalating sympathetic arousal. Responding with an intervention reduced the sense of being overwhelmed and unable to cope by the participant by taking charge and performing an active task.
- Redirecting attention and thoughts away from the anxiety triggers to a positive task.
- Increasing heart rate variability. Through slow breathing heart rate variability increased which enhanced sympathetic parasympathetic balance.
- Reducing subclinical hyperventilation by breathing slower and thereby increasing pC02.
- Increasing social support by meeting in small groups. The class discussion group normalized the anxiety experiences.
- Providing hope. The class lectures, assigned readings and videos provide hope; since, it included reports how other students had reversed their chronic disorders such as irritable bowel disease, acid reflux, psoriasis with behavioral interventions.
Although the study lacked a control group and is only based upon self-report, it offers an economical non-pharmaceutical approach to reduce anxiety. These stress management strategies may not resolve anxiety for everyone. Nevertheless, we recommend that schools implement this approach as the first education intervention to improve health in which students are taught about stress management, learn and practice relaxation and diaphragmatic breathing and then practice these skills during the day whenever they experience stress or dysfunctional breathing.
I noticed that breathing helped tremendously with my anxiety. I was able to feel okay without having that dreadful feeling stay in my chest and I felt it escape in my exhales. I also felt that I was able to breathe deeper and relax better altogether. It was therapeutic, I felt more present, aware, and energized.
See the following blogs for detailed breathing instructions
Adams. K.L., Saunders KE, Keown-Stoneman CDG, et al. (2021). Mental health trajectories in undergraduate students over the first year of university: a longitudinal cohort study. BMJ Open 2021; 11:e047393. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2020-047393
Barr, E. A., Peper, E. & Swatzyna, R.J. (2019). Slouched Posture, Sleep Deprivation, and Mood Disorders: Interconnection and Modulation by Theta Brain Waves. Neuroregulation, 6(4), 181–189 https://doi.org/10.15540/nr.6.41.181
Bhattacharya, R., Shen, C. & Sambamoorthi, U. (2014). Excess risk of chronic physical conditions associated with depression and anxiety. BMC Psychiatry 14, 10 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-244X-14-10
Bier, M., Peper, E., & Burke, A. (2005). Integrated stress management with ‘Make Health Happen: Measuring the impact through a 5-month follow-up. Poster presentation at the 36th Annual Meeting of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. Abstract published in: Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 30(4), 400. https://biofeedbackhealth.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/2005-aapb-make-health-happen-bier-peper-burke-gibney3-12-05-rev.pdf
Bierman, E.J.M., Comijs, H.C. , Jonker, C. & Beekman, A.T.F. (2005). Effects of Anxiety Versus Depression on Cognition in Later Life. The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry,13(8), 686-693, https://doi.org/10.1097/00019442-200508000-00007.
Brad, J., Bushman, C., DeWall, N., Pond, R.S., &. Hanus, M.D. (2014).. Low glucose relates to greater aggression in married couples. PNAS, April 14, 2014. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1400619111
Chirikov, I., Soria, K. M, Horgos, B., & Jones-White, D. (2020). Undergraduate and Graduate Students’ Mental Health During the COVID-19 Pandemic. UC Berkeley: Center for Studies in Higher Education. Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/80k5d5hw
Coakley, K.E., Le, H., Silva, S.R. et al. Anxiety is associated with appetitive traits in university students during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nutr J 20, 45 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12937-021-00701-9
Crane,E.H. (2013).Highlights of the 2011 Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) Findings on Drug-Related Emergency Department Visits. 2013 Feb 22. In: The CBHSQ Report. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2013-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK384680/
Du Pasquier, D., Fellrath, J.M., & Sauty, A. (2020). Hyperventilation syndrome and dysfunctional breathing: update. Revue Medicale Suisse, 16(698), 1243-1249. https://europepmc.org/article/med/32558453
Gilbert C. Clinical Applications of Breathing Regulation: Beyond Anxiety Management. Behavior Modification. 2003;27(5):692-709. https://doi.org/10.1177/0145445503256322
Kaczkurkin, A.N. & Foa, E.B. (2015). Cognitive-behavioral therapy for anxiety disorders: an update on the empirical evidence. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 17(3):337-46. https://doi.org/10.31887/DCNS.2015.17.3/akaczkurkin
Kang, H. J., Bae, K. Y., Kim, S. W., Shin, H. Y., Shin, I. S., Yoon, J. S., & Kim, J. M. (2017). Impact of Anxiety and Depression on Physical Health Condition and Disability in an Elderly Korean Population. Psychiatry investigation, 14(3), 240–248. https://doi.org/10.4306/pi.2017.14.3.240
Klein, A. & Peper, W. (2013). There is Hope: Autogenic Biofeedback Training for the Treatment of Psoriasis. Biofeedback, 41(4), 194–201. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-41.4.01
Lum, L. C. (1981). Hyperventilation and anxiety state. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 74(1), 1-4. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/014107688107400101
MacCormack, J. K., & Lindquist, K. A. (2019). Feeling hangry? When hunger is conceptualized as emotion. Emotion, 19(2), 301–319. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000422
McGrady, A. & Moss, D. (2013). Pathways to illness, pathways to health. New York: Springer. https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-1-4419-1379-1
Peper, E., Gibney, K.H., & Holt, C.F. (2002). Make health happen: Training yourself to create wellness. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company. https://he.kendallhunt.com/make-health-happen
Peper, E., Harvey, R., & Hamiel, D. (2019). Transforming thoughts with postural awareness to increase therapeutic and teaching efficacy. NeuroRegulation, 6(3),153-169. doi:10.15540/nr.6.3.1533-1 https://www.neuroregulation.org/article/view/19455/13261
Peper, E., Lin, I-M., Harvey, R., & Perez, J. (2017). How posture affects memory recall and mood. Biofeedback.45 (2), 36-41. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-45.2.01
Peper, E., Lin, I-M, Harvey, R., Gilbert, M., Gubbala, P., Ratkovich, A., & Fletcher, F. (2014). Transforming chained behaviors: Case studies of overcoming smoking, eczema and hair pulling (trichotillomania). Biofeedback, 42(4), 154-160. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-42.4.06
Peper, E., MacHose, M. (1993). Symptom prescription: Inducing anxiety by 70% exhalation. Biofeedback and Self-Regulation 18, 133–139). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00999790
Peper, E., Miceli, B., & Harvey, R. (2016). Educational Model for Self-healing: Eliminating a Chronic Migraine with Electromyography, Autogenic Training, Posture, and Mindfulness. Biofeedback, 44(3), 130–137. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-44.3.03
Peper, E., Sato-Perry, K & Gibney, K. H. (2003). Achieving Health: A 14-Session Structured Stress Management Program—Eczema as a Case Illustration. 34rd Annual Meeting of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. Abstract in: Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 28(4), 308. Proceeding in: http://www.aapb.org/membersonly/articles/P39peper.pdf
Richmond-Rakerd, L.S., D’Souza, S, Milne, B.J, Caspi, A., & Moffitt, T.E. (2022). Longitudinal Associations of Mental Disorders with Dementia: 30-Year Analysis of 1.7 Million New Zealand Citizens. JAMA Psychiatry. Published online February 16, 2022. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2021.4377
Shri, R. (2012). Anxiety: Causes and Management. The Journal of Behavioral Science, 5(1), 100–118. Retrieved from https://so06.tci-thaijo.org/index.php/IJBS/article/view/2205
Wilhelm, F.H., Gevirtz, R., & Roth, W.T. (2001). Respiratory dysregulation in anxiety, functional cardiac, and pain disorders. Assessment, phenomenology, and treatment. Behav Modif, 25(4), 513-45. https://doi.org/10.1177/0145445501254003
|Adapted from Peper, E., Covell, A., & Matzembacker, N. (2021). How a chronic headache condition became resolved with one session of breathing and posture coaching. NeuroRegulation, 8(4), 194–197. https://doi.org/10.15540/nr.8.4.194|
This blog describes the process by which a 32 year old woman student’s chronic headaches that she had since age eighteen was resolved in a single coaching session. The student suffered two or three headache per week a week which initially began when she was eighteen after using digital devices and encouraged her to slouch as she looked down. Although she describes herself as healthy, she reported having high level of anxiety and occasional depression. She self-medicated with 2 to 10 Excedrin tablets a week. It is possible that the chronic headaches could partially be triggered by caffeine withdrawal which get resolved by taking more Excedrins (Greben et al., 1980) since Excedrin contains 65 mg of caffeine as well as 250 mg of Acetaminophen which can be harmful to liver function (Bauer et al., 2021).
The behavioral coaching intervention
During the first day in class, the student approached the instructor and she shared that she had a severe headache. During their conversation, the instructor noticed that she was breathing in her chest without abdominal movement, her shoulders were held tight, her posture slightly slouched and her hands were cold. As she was unaware of her body responses, the instructor offered to guide her through some practices that may be useful to reduce her headache. The same strategies could also be useful for the other students in the class; since, headaches, anxiety, zoom fatigue, neck and shoulder tension, abdominal discomfort, and vision problems are common and have increased as people spent more time in front of screens (Charles et al., 2021; Ahmed et al., 2021; Bauer, 2021; Kuehn, 2021; Peper et al., 2021 ).
These symptoms may occur because of bad posture, neck and shoulder tension, shallow chest breathing, stress and social isolation (Elizagaray-Garcia et al., 2020; Schulman, 2002). When people become aware of their dysfunctional somatic patterns and change their posture, breathing pattern, internal language and implement stress management techniques, they often report a reduction in symptoms such as irritable bowel syndrome, acid reflux, neck and shoulder tension, or anxiety (Peper et al, 2017a; Peper et al, 2016a). Sometimes, a single coaching session can be sufficient to improve health.
Working hypothesis: The headaches were most likely tension headaches and not migraines and may be the result of chronic neck and shoulder tension which was maintained during chest breathing and the slouched head forward body posture. If she could change her posture, relax her neck and shoulders, and breathe diaphragmatically so that the lower abdomen widen during inhalation, most likely her shoulder and neck tension would decrease. Therefore, by changing posture from a slouched to upright position combined with slower diaphragmatic breathing, the muscle tension would be reduced and the headaches would decrease.
Breathing and posture changes
She was encouraged to sit upright so that the abdomen had space to expand (Peper et al., 2020). In addition, she needed to loosen the clothing around her waist to provide room for her abdomen to expand during inhalation instead of her chest lifting (MacHose & Peper, 1991). Allowing abdominal expansion can be challenging for many paticipants since they are self-conscious about their body image, as well holding their stomach in as an unconscious learned response to avoid pain after having had abdominal surgery, or as an automatic protective response to threat (Peper et al., 2015). The upright position also allowed her to sit tall and erect in which the back of head reaches upward towards the ceiling while relaxing and feeling gravity pulling her shoulders downward and at the same time relaxing her hips and legs.
With guided verbal and tactile coaching, she learned to master slower diaphragmatic breathing in which she gently and slowly exhaled by making a sound of pssssssst (exhaling through pursed lips) which tends to activate the transverse and oblique abdominal muscles and slightly tighten the pelvic floor muscles so that her lower abdomen would slightly constrict at the end of the exhalation (Peper et al., 2016). Then, by allowing the lower abdomen and pelvic floor relax so that the abdomen could expand in 360 degrees, inhalation occurred.
While practicing the slower breathing in this relaxed upright position, she was instructed to sense/imagine feeling a flow of down and through her arms and out her hands as she exhaled (as if the air could flow through straws down her arms). After a few minutes, she felt her headache decrease and noticed that her hands had warmed. After this short coaching intervention, she went back to her seat in class and continued to practice the relaxed effortless breathing while sitting upright and allowing her shoulders to melt downward.
The use of muscle feedback to demonstrate residual covert muscle tension
During class session, she volunteered to have her trapezius muscle monitored with electromyography (EMG). The EMG indicated that her muscles were slightly tense even though she reported feeling relaxed. With a few minutes of EMG biofeedback exploration, she discovered that she could relax her shoulder muscles by feeling them being heavy and melting.
Implementing home practice with a posture app
As part of the class homework, she was assigned a self-study for two weeks with the posture feedback app, Dario Desktop. The app uses the computer/laptop camera to monitor posture and provides visual feedback in a small window on the computer screen and/or an auditory signal each time she slouches as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Posture feedback to signal to participant that the person is slouching.
To observe the effect of the posture breathing training, she monitored her symptoms for three days without feedback and then installed the posture feedback application on her laptop to provide feedback whenever she slouched. The posture feedback reminded her to practice better posture during the day while working on her computer and also do a few stretches or shift to standing when using the computer for an extended period of time. Each time the feedback signal indicated she slouched, she would sit up and change her posture, breathe lower and slower and relax her shoulders.
She also monitored what factors triggered the slouching. In additionally, she added daily reminders to her phone to remind her of her posture and to stretch and stand after each hour of studying. After two weeks she recorded her symptoms for three days for the post assessment without posture feedback.
The chronic headache condition which had been present for fourteen years disappeared and she has not used any medication since the first day of class. She reported after two weeks that her shoulder and back discomfort/pain, depression, anxiety and lack of motivation decreased as shown in Figure 2. At the fourteen week follow up, she continues to have no headaches and has not used any medication.
Figure 2. Changes in symptoms after implementing posture feedback for two weeks.
She used the desktop posture app every time she opened her laptop at home as often as 3-5 times per day (roughly 2-6 hours).In addition, when she felt beginning of discomfort or thought she should take medication, she would adjust her posture and breathe. While using the app, she identified numerous factors that were associated with slouching as shown in Figure 3.
Figure 3. Behaviors associated with slouching.
The decrease in depression, anxiety and increase in motivation may be the direct result of posture change; since, a slouched position tends to increase hopeless, helpless and powerless thoughts while the upright position tends to increase subjective felt energy and easier access to empowering and positive thoughts (Peper et al., 2017b; Veenstra et al., 2017; Wilson & Peper, 2004; Tsai et al., 2016). Most likely, a major factor that contributed to the elimination of her headaches was that she implemented changes in her behavior. One major factor was using posture feedback tool at home to remind her to sit tall and relax her shoulders while practicing slower diaphragmatic breathing. As she noted, “Although it was distracting to be reminded all the time about my posture, it did decrease my neck pain. With the pain reduction, I was able to sit at the computer longer and felt more motivated.”
The combination of slower lower abdominal breathing with the upright posture reversed her protective/defensive body position (tightening the muscle in the lower abdomen and pelvic floor and pressing the knees together while curling the shoulder forward for protection). The upright posture creates a position of empowerment and trust by which the lower abdomen could expand which supported health and regeneration. In addition, the upright posture allowed easier access to positive thoughts and reduced recall of hopeless, powerless, defeated memories. It is also possible that caffeine withdrawal was a co-factor in evoking headaches (Küçer, 2010). By eliminating the medication containing caffeine, she also eliminated the triggering of the caffeine withdrawal headaches.
This case example suggests that health care providers first rule out any pathology and then teach behavioral self-healing strategies that the clients can implement instead of immediately prescribing medications. These interventions could include slower and lower diaphragmatic breathing, upright posture feedback, muscle biofeedback training, hear rate variability training, stress management, cognitive behavior therapy and facilitating health promoting lifestyles modifications such as regular sleep, exercise and healthier diet. When students implement these behavioral changes as part of a five week self-healing program, many report significant decreases in symptoms such as headaches, anxiety, neck and shoulder pain, and gastrointestinal distress (Peper et al., 2016a).
Watch April Covell describe her experience with the self-healing approach to eliminate her chronic headaches.
See the following blogs for additional instructions how to breathe diaphragmatically.
Ahmed, S., Akter, R., Pokhrel, N. et al. (2021). Prevalence of text neck syndrome and SMS thumb among smartphone users in college-going students: a cross-sectional survey study. J Public Health (Berl.) 29, 411–416. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10389-019-01139-4
Bauer, A.Z., Swan, S.H., Kriebel, D. et al. (2021). Paracetamol use during pregnancy — a call for precautionary action. Nat Rev Endocrinol . https://doi.org/10.1038/s41574-021-00553-7
Charles, N. E., Strong, S. J., Burns, L. C., Bullerjahn, M. R., & Serafine, K. M. (2021). Increased mood disorder symptoms, perceived stress, and alcohol use among college students during the COVID-19 pandemic. Psychiatry research, 296, 113706. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2021.113706
Elizagaray-Garcia, I., Beltran-Alacreu, H., Angulo-Díaz, S., Garrigós-Pedrón, M., Gil-Martínez, A. (2020). Chronic Primary Headache Subjects Have Greater Forward Head Posture than Asymptomatic and Episodic Primary Headache Sufferers: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Pain Med, 21(10):2465-2480. https://doi.org/10.1093/pm/pnaa235
Greden, J.F., Victor, B.S., Fontaine, P., & Lubetsky, M. (1980). Caffeine-Withdrawal Headache: A Clinical Profile. Psychosomatics, 21(5), 411-413, 417-418. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0033-3182(80)73670-8
Küçer, N. (2010). The relationship between daily caffeine consumption and withdrawal symptoms: a questionnaire-based study. Turk J Med Sci, 40(1), 105-108. https://doi.org/10.3906/sag-0809-26
Kuehn, B.M. (2021). Increase in Myopia Reported Among Children During COVID-19 Lockdown. JAMA, 326(11),999. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2021.14475
MacHose, M. & Peper, E. (1991). The effect of clothing on inhalation volume. Biofeedback and Self-Regulation 16, 261–265 (1991). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01000020
Peper, E., Booiman, A., Lin, I-M, Harvey, R., & Mitose, J. (2016). Abdominal SEMG Feedback for Diaphragmatic Breathing: A Methodological Note. Biofeedback. 44(1), 42-49. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-44.1.03
Peper, E., Gilbert, C.D., Harvey, R. & Lin, I-M. (2015). Did you ask about abdominal surgery or injury? A learned disuse risk factor for breathing dysfunction. Biofeedback. 34(4), 173-179. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-43.4.06
Peper, E., Lin, I-M., Harvey, R., & Perez, J. (2017b). How posture affects memory recall and mood. Biofeedback. 45 (2), 36-41. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-45.2.01
Peper, E., Mason, L., Harvey, R., Wolski, L, & Torres, J. (2020). Can acid reflux be reduced by breathing? Townsend Letters-The Examiner of Alternative Medicine, 445/446, 44-47. https://www.townsendletter.com/article/445-6-acid-reflux-reduced-by-breathing/
Peper, E., Mason, L., Huey, C. (2017a). Healing irritable bowel syndrome with diaphragmatic breathing. Biofeedback. (45-4). https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-45.4.04
Peper, E., Miceli, B., & Harvey, R. (2016a). Educational Model for Self-healing: Eliminating a Chronic Migraine with Electromyography, Autogenic Training, Posture, and Mindfulness. Biofeedback, 44(3), 130–137. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-44.3.03
Peper, E., Wilson, V., Martin, M., Rosegard, E., & Harvey, R. (2021). Avoid Zoom fatigue, be present and learn. NeuroRegulation, 8(1), 47–56. https://doi.org/10.15540/nr.8.1.47
Schulman, E.A. (2002). Breath-holding, head pressure, and hot water: an effective treatment for migraine headache. Headache, 42(10), 1048-50. https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1526-4610.2002.02237.x
Tsai, H. Y., Peper, E., & Lin, I. M.* (2016). EEG patterns under positive/negative body postures and emotion recall tasks. NeuroRegulation, 3(1), 23-27. https://doi.org/10.15540/nr.3.1.23
Veenstra, L., Schneider, I.K., & Koole, S.L. (2017). Embodied mood regulation: the impact of body posture on mood recovery, negative thoughts, and mood-congruent recall. Cogntion and Emotion, 31(7), 1361-1376. https://doi.org/10.1080/02699931.2016.1225003
Wilson, V.E. and Peper, E. (2004). The effects of upright and slumped postures on the generation of positive and negative thoughts. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 29(3), 189–195. https://doi.org/10.1023/b:apbi.0000039057.32963.34
Erik Peper, PhD and Monica Almendras
Our evolutionary traps with technology
Maintaining and optimizing health at the computer means re-envisioning our relationship with technology—and reclaiming health, happiness, and sanity in a plugged-in world. We have the ability to control everything from our mobile phones without needing to get up from our seat. Work, social life and online learning all involve the mobile phone or some type of smart devices.
A convenient little device that is supposed to simplify our lives has actually trapped us into a vicious cycle of relying on it for every single thing we must do. We spend most of our day being exposed to digital displays on our smartphones, computers, gaming consoles, and other digital devices, immersing ourselves in the content we are viewing. From work related emails or tasks, to spending our free time looking at the screen for texting, playing games, and updating social media sites on a play-by-play of what we are eating, wearing, and doing. We click on one hyperlink after the other and create a vicious cycle trapped for hours until we realize we need to move. We are unaware how much time has frittered away without actually doing anything productive and then, we realize we have wasted another day. Below are some recent estimates of ‘daily active user’ minutes per day that uses a screen.
- Facebook about an hour per day
- Instagram just under an hour per day
- Texting about 45 minutes per day
- Internet browsing, about 45 minutes per day
- Snapchat, about 30 minutes per day
- Twitter, about 25 minutes per day
Adolescents and college students interact with media for over 40 hours per week, or around 6 hours per day. That is a lot of hours spent on staring at the screen, which it is almost impossible not to be distracted by the digital screen. In time, we rehearse a variety of physical body postures as well as a variety of cognitive and behavioral states that impact our physical, mental, emotional, and social health. The powerful audiovisual formats override our desires to do something different, that some of us become enslaved to streaming videos, playing virtual games, or texting. We then tell ourselves that the task that needs to be done, will be finished later. That later becomes never by the end of the day, since the ongoing visual and auditory notifications from our apps interrupt and/or capture our attention. This difficulty to turn away from visual or auditory stimuli roots in our survival instincts.
Each time visual or auditory stimuli occur, we automatically check it out and see if it is a friend or foe, safety or danger. It is such an automatic response that we are unaware are reacting. The good news is that we all have experienced this compelling effect. Even when we are waiting for a response and the notifications has not arrived, we may anticipate or project that there may be new information on our social media accounts, and sometimes we become disappointed when the interval between notification is long. As one student said, “Don’t worry, they’ll respond. It’s only been 30 seconds”. Anticipating responses from the media can interrupt what we are otherwise doing. Rather than finishing our work or task, we continuously check for updates on social media, even though we probably know that there are no new important messages to which we would have to respond right away.
Unfortunately, some forms of social media interactions also lead to a form of social isolation, loneliness–sometimes called phoneliness (Christodoulou, G., Majmundar, A., Chou, C-P, & Pentz, M.A., 2020; Kardaras, 2017). Digital content requires the individual to respond to the digital stimuli, without being aware of the many verbal and nonverbal communication cues (facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice, eye contact, body language, posture, touch, etc.) that are part of social communication (Remland, 2016). It is no wonder that more and more adolescents experience anxiety, depression, loneliness, and attention deficit disorders with a constant ‘digital diet’ that some have suggested that include not only media, but junk food as well.
In my class survey of 99 college students, 85% reported experiencing anxiety, 48% neck and should tension, and 41% abdominal discomfort.
We are not saying to avoid the beneficial parts of the digital age. Instead, it should be used in moderation and to be aware of how some material and digital platforms prey upon our evolutionary survival mechanisms. Unfortunately, most people -especially children- have not evolved skills to counter the negative impacts of some types of media exposure. Parental control and societal policies may be needed to mitigate the damage and enhance the benefits of the digital age.
Zoom Fatigue- How to reduce it and configure your brain for better learning
Zoom became the preferred platform for academic teaching and learning for synchronous education during the pandemic. Thus, students and faculty have been sitting and looking at the screen for hours end. While looking at the screen, the viewers were often distracted by events in their environment, notifications from their mobile phones, social media triggers, and emails; which promoted multitasking (Solis, 2019). These digital distractions cause people to respond to twice as many devices with half of our attention- a process labeled semi-tasking’ -meaning getting twice as much done and half as well.
We now check our phones an average of 96 times a day – that is once every 10 minutes and an increase of 20% as compared to two years ago (Asurion Research, 2019). Those who do media multitasking such as texting while doing a task perform significantly worse on memory tasks than those who are not multitasking (Madore et al., 2020). Multitasking is negatively correlated with school performance (Giunchiglia et al, 2018). The best way to reduce multitasking is to turn off all notifications (e.g., email, texts, and social media) and let people know that you will look at the notifications and then respond in a predetermined time, so that you will not be interrupted while working or studying.
When students from San Francisco State University in the United States chose to implement a behavior change to monitor mobile phone and media use and reduce the addictive behavior during a five-week self-healing project, many reported a significant improvement of health and performance. For example one student reported that when she reduced her mobile phone use, her stress level equally decreased as shown in Fig 1 (Peper et al, 2021).
Figure 1. Example of student changing mobile phone use and corresponding decrease in subjective stress level. Reproduced by permission from Peper et al. (2021).
During this class project, many students observed that the continuous responding to notifications and social media affected their health and productivity. As one student reported,
The discovery of the time I wasted giving into distractions was increasing my anxiety, increasing my depression and making me feel completely inadequate. In the five-week period, I cut my cell phone usage by over half, from 32.5 hours to exactly 15 hours and used some of the time to do an early morning run in the park. Rediscovering this time makes me feel like my possibilities are endless. I can go to work full time, take online night courses reaching towards my goal of a higher degree, plus complete all my homework, take care of the house and chores, cook all my meals, and add reading a book for fun! –22-year-old College Student
Numerous students reported that it was much easier to be distracted and multitask, check social media accounts or respond to emails and texts than during face-to-face classroom sessions as illustrated by two student comments from San Francisco State University.
“Now that we are forced to stay at home, it’s hard to find time by myself, for myself, time to study, and or time to get away. It’s easy to get distracted and go a bit stir-crazy.”
“I find that online learning is more difficult for me because it’s harder for me to stay concentrated all day just looking at the screen.”
Students often reported that they had more difficulty remembering the material presented during synchronous presentations. Most likely, the passivity while watching Zoom presentations affected the encoding and consolidation of new material into retrievable long-term memory. The presented material was rapidly forgotten when the next screen image or advertisement appeared and competed with the course instructor for the student’s attention. We hypothesize that the many hours of watching TV and streaming videos have conditioned people to sit and take in information passively, while discouraging them to respond or initiate action (Mander, 1978; Mărchidan, 2019).
To reduce the deleterious impact of media use, China has placed time limits on cellphone use, gaming, and social media use for children. On February 2021 Chinese children were banned from taking their mobile phones into school, on August 2021 Children under 18 were banned from playing video games during the week and their play was restricted to just one hour on Fridays, weekends and holidays, and beginning on September 20, 2021 children under 14 who have been authenticated using their real name can access Douyin, the Chinese version of Tik Tok, for maximum of 40 minutes a day between the hours of 6:00 and 22:00.
Ways to avoid Zoom
Say goodnight to your phone
It is common for people to use their mobile phone before going to bed, and then end up having difficult falling asleep. The screen emits blue light that sends a signal to your brain that says it is daytime instead of night. This causes your body to suppress the production of the melatonin hormone, which tells your body that it is time to sleep. Reading or watching content also contributes, since it stimulates your mind and emotions and thereby promote wakefulness (Bravo, 2020). Implement sleep hygiene and stop using your phone or watching screens 30-minutes before going to bed for a better night’s sleep.
Maintaining a healthy vision
We increase near visual stress and the risk of developing myopia when we predominantly look at nearby surfaces. We do not realize that eyes muscles can only relax when looking at the far distance. For young children, the constant near vision remodels the shape of eye and the child will likely develop near sightedness. The solutions are remarkably simple. Respect your evolutionary background and allow your eyes to spontaneously alternate between looking at near and far objects while being upright (Schneider, 2016; Peper, 2021; Peper, Harvey & Faass, 2020).
Interrupt sitting disease
We sit for the majority of the day while looking at screens that is a significant risk factor for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression and anxiety (Matthews et al., 2012; Smith et al., 2020). Interrupt sitting by getting up every 30 minutes and do a few stretches. You will tend to feel less sleepy, less discomfort and more productive. As one of our participants reported that when he got up, moved and exercised every 30 minutes at the end of the day he felt less tired. As he stated, “There is life after five”, which meant he had energy to do other activities after working at the computer the whole day. While working time flies and it is challenging to get up every 30 minutes. Thus, install a free app on your computer that reminds you to get up and move such as StretchBreak (www.stretchbreak.com).
Use slouching as a cue to change
Posture affects thoughts and emotions as well as, vice versa. When stressed or worried (e.g., school performance, job security, family conflict, undefined symptoms, or financial insecurity), our bodies tend to respond by slightly collapsing and shifting into a protective position. When we collapse/slouch, we are more at risk to:
- Feel helpless (Riskind & Gotay, 1982).
- Feel powerless (Westfeld & Beresford, 1982; Cuddy, 2012).
- Recall and being more captured by negative memories (Peper, Lin, Harvey, & Perez, 2017; Tsai, Peper, & Lin, 2016),
- Experience cognitive difficulty (Peper, Harvey, Mason, & Lin, 2018).
When stressed, anxious or depressed, it is challenging to change. The negative feelings, thoughts and worries continue to undermine the practice of reframing the experience more positively. Our recent study found that a simple technique, that integrates posture with breathing and reframing, rapidly reduces anxiety, stress, and negative self-talk (Peper, Harvey, Hamiel, 2019). When you are captured by helpless defeated thoughts and slouch, use the thought or posture as the trigger to take change. The moment you are aware of the thoughts or slouched posture, sit up straight, look up, take a slow large diaphragmatic breath and only then think about reframing the problem positively (Peper, Harvey, Hamiel, 2019).
When we are upright and look up, we are more likely to:
- Have more energy (Peper & Lin, 2012).
- Feel stronger (Peper, Booiman, Lin, & Harvey, 2016).
- Find it easier to do cognitive activity (Peper, Harvey, Mason, & Lin, 2018).
- Feel more confident and empowered (Cuddy, 2012).
- Recall more positive autobiographical memories (Michalak, Mischnat,& Teismann, 2014).
The challenge is that we are usually unaware we have begun to slouch. A very useful solution is to use a posture feedback device to remind us, such as the UpRight Go (https://www.uprightpose.com/). This simple device and app signals you when you slouch. The device attaches to your neck and connects with blue tooth to your cellphone. After calibrating, it provides vibrational feedback on your neck each time you slouch. When participants use the vibration feedback to become aware of what is going on and interrupt their slouch by stretching and sitting up, they report a significant decrease in symptoms and an increase in productivity. As one student reported: “Having immediate feedback on my posture helped me to be more aware of my body and helped me to link my posture to my emotions. Before using the tracker, doing this was very difficult for me. It not only helped my posture but my awareness of my mental state as well.”
 Adapted from the book by Erik Peper, Richard Harvey and Nancy Faass, TechStress-How Technology is Hijacking our Lives, Strategies for Coping and Pragmatic Ergonomics, North Atlantic Press. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/232119/tech-stress-by-erik-peper-phd/
 Correspondence should be addressed to:
Erik Peper, Ph.D., Institute for Holistic Healing Studies/Department of Recreation, Parks, Tourism and Holistic Health, San Francisco State University, 1600 Holloway Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94132 COVID-19 mailing address: 2236 Derby Street, Berkeley, CA 94705 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org web: www.biofeedbackhealth.org blog: www.peperperspective.com
Erik Peper, PhD and Vietta Wilson, PhD
Adapted from: Peper, E. & Wilson, V. (2021). Optimize the learning state: techniques and habits. Biofeedback, 9(2), 46-49. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-49-2-04
Long after the COVID-19 pandemic is over, online learning will continue to increase as better methodologies and strategies are developed to implement and integrate it into our lives. This post provides suggestions on how to enhance the learner’s ability to engage while online with the use of pre-performance routines or habits.
Facilitating online learning requires coordination of the teacher, technology, student, environment and the topic. Teachers can enhance engagement (Shoepe et al., 2020) online through different types of prompts: intellectual (associated with instructor interaction, academic challenge, active learning), organizational (associated with enriching academic experiences by directing students, selecting topics and summarizing or redirecting), and social (associated with supportive campus environments by encouraging social interaction, using informal language and affirming student comments).
The student can enhance the satisfaction and quality of the online experience by having a good self-regulated learning style. Learning is impacted by motivation (beliefs about themselves or the task, perceived value, etc.), and metacognition (ability to plan, set goals, monitor and regulate their behavior and evaluate their performance) (Greene & Azevedo, 2010; Mega et al., 2014). While critical for learning, it does not provide information on how students can maintain their optimized performance long term, which is increasingly necessary during the pandemic but will possibly be the model of education and therapy of the future.
Habit can enhance performance across a life span.
Habit is a behavioral tendency tied to a specific context, such as learning to brush one’s teeth while young and continuing through life (Fiorella, 2020). Habits are related to self-control processes that are associated with higher achievement (Hagger, 2019). Sport performance extensively values habit, typically called pre-performance routine, in creating an ongoing optimized state of performance (Lautenbach et al., 2015; Lidor & Mayan, 2005; Mesagno et al., 2015). Habits or pre-performance routines are formed by repeating a behavior tied to a specific context and with continued repetition, wherein the mental association between the context and the response are strengthened. This shifts from conscious awareness to subconscious behavior that is then cued by the environment. The majority of one’s daily actions and behaviors are the results of these habits.
Failure to create a self-regulated learning habit impedes long-term success of students. It does take significant time and reinforcement to create the automaticity of a real-life habit. Lally et al. (2010) tracked real world activities (physical activity, eating, drinking water) and found habit formation varied from 18-254 days with a mean of 66 days. There was wide variability in the creation of the habit and some individuals never reached the stage of automaticity. Interestingly, those who performed the behavior with greater consistency were more likely to develop a habit.
The COVID pandemic resulted in many people working at home, which interrupted many of the covert habit patterns by which they automatically performed their tasks. A number of students reported that everything is the same and that they are more easily distracted from doing the tasks. As one student reported:
After a while, it all seems the same. Sitting and looking at the screen while working, taking classes, entertaining, streaming videos and socializing. The longer I sit and watch screens, the more I tend to feel drained and passive, and the more challenging it is to be present, productive and pay attention.
By having rituals and habits trigger behavior, it is easier to initiate and perform tasks. Students can use the strategies developed for peak performance in sports to optimize their performances so that they can achieve their personal best (Wilson & Peper, 2011; Peper et al., 2021). These strategies include environmental cueing and personal cueing.
By taking charge of your environment and creating a unique environment for each task, it is possible to optimize performance specific for each task. After a while, we do not have to think to configure ourselves for the task. It is no different than the sequence before going to sleep: you brush your teeth and if you forget, it feels funny and you probably will get up to brush your teeth.
Previously, many people, without awareness, would configure and reinforce themselves for work by specific tasks such as commuting to go work, being at a specific worksite to perform the work, wearing specific clothing, etc. (Peper et al., 2021). Now there are few or no specific cues tied to working; it tends to be all the same and it is no wonder that people feel less energized and focused.
Many people forget that learning and recall are state-dependent to where the information was acquired. The Zoom environment where we work or attend class is the same environment where we socialize, game, watch videos, message, surf the net and participate in social media. For most, there has been no habit developed for the new reality of in-home learning. To do this, the environment must be set up so the habit state (focused, engaged) is consistently paired with environmental, emotional, social and kinesthetic cues. The environment needs to be reproducible in many locations, situations, and mental states as possible. As illustrated by one student’s report.
To cue myself to get ready for learning, I make my cappuccino play the same short piece of music, wear the same sweater, place my inspiring poster behind my screen, turn off all software notifications and place the cell phone out of visual range.
A similar concept is used in the treatment of insomnia by making the bedroom the only room to be associated with sleep or intimacy (Irish et al., 2017; Suni, 2021). All other activities, arguing with your partner, eating, watching television, checking email, texting, or social media are done at other locations. Given enough time, the cues in the bedroom become the conditioned triggers for sleep and pleasure.
Create different environments that are unique to each category of Zoom involvement (studying, working, socializing, entertaining).
Pre COVID, we usually wore different clothing for different events (work versus party) or visited different environments for different tasks (religious locations for worship; a bar, coffee shop, or restaurant for social gathering). The specific tasks in a specified location had conscious and subconscious cues that included people, lighting, odors, sound or even drinks and food. These stimuli become the classically conditioned cues to evoke the appropriate response associated with the task, just as Pavlov conditioned dogs to salivate when the bell sound was paired with the presentation of meat. Taking charge of the conditioning process at home may help many people to focus on their task as so many people now use their bedroom, kitchen or living room for Zoom work that is not always associated with learning or work. The following are suggestions to create working/learning environments.
- Wear task-specific clothing just as you would have done going to work or school. When you plan to study or work, put on your work shirt. In time, the moment you put on the work shirt, you are cueing yourself to focus on studying/working. When finishing with working/studying, change your clothing.
- If possible, maintain a specific location for learning/working. When attending classes or working, sit at your desk with the computer on top of the desk. For games or communication tasks, move to another location.
- If you can’t change locations, arrange task-specific backgrounds for each category of Zoom tasks. Place a different background such as a poster or wall hanging behind the computer screen—one for studying/working, and another for entertainment. When finished with the specific Zoom event, take down the poster and change the background.
- Keep the sound appropriate to the workstation area. Try to duplicate what is your best learning/working sound scape.
Learning to become aware of and in control of one’s personal self is equally or more important than setting up the environment with cues that foster attention and learning. Practicing getting the body/mind into the learning state can become a habit that will be available in many different learning situations across one’s lifespan.
- Perform a specific ritual or pre-performance routine before beginning your task to create the learning/performing state. The ritual is a choreographed sequence of actions that gets you ready to perform. For example, some people like to relax before learning and find playing a specific song or doing some stretching before the session is helpful. Others sit at the desk, turn off all notifications, take a deep breath then look up and state to themselves: “I am now looking forward to working/studying and learning,” “focus” (whatever it may be). For some, their energy level is low and doing quick arm and hand movements, slapping their thighs or face, or small fast jumps may bring them to a more optimal state. For many people smell and taste are the most powerful conditioners, and coffee improves their attention level. Test out an assortment of activities that get your body and mind at the performance level. Practice and modify as necessary.
Just as in sport, the most reliable method is to set up oneself for the learning/performance state, because a person has less control over the environment. For example, when I observed the Romanian rhythmic gymnasts team members practice their routine during the warmup before the international competition, they would act as if it was the actual competition. They stood at the mat preparing their body/mind state, then they would bow to the imaginary judge, wait for a signal to begin, and then perform their routine. On the other hand, most of the American rhythmic gymnasts would just do their practice routine. For the Romanian athletes, the competition was the same as their rehearsal practice. No wonder, the Romanian athletes were much more consistent in their performance. Additionally, ritual helps buffer against uncertainty and anxiety (Hobson et al., 2017).
- Develop awareness of the body-mind state associated with optimum performance. This can be done by creating a ritual and an environment that evoke the optimum mental and emotional state for learning. As you configure yourself and your environment, explore how you physically feel when you are most focused and engaged. Identify what your posture, muscle tension, and body position feel like during these times, and identify what you are paying attention to. If your attention wanders, observe how you bring your attention back to the task. Does it help focus you to write summary notes or doodle? Do you flag important statements in your head and then visibly nod your head when you understand the concept? Or do you repeat an important cue word? Find what you do when you are optimally functioning. Then try to reproduce that same state that can be triggered by a key word that tells you what to focus on (e.g., listen to teacher, look at slide, etc.).
In summary, by becoming aware of and controlling one’s environment and personal states that are associated with productive learning, and then practicing them until they become a routine or habit, one can maximize all learning opportunities. This blog presented a few tips, techniques and cues that may help one to maximize attention and increase performance and learning while online.
I noticed when I took the time to prepare and ready myself to be focused and be present during the class, I no longer had to actively work to resist distractions; I was focused in the moment and not worried about emails, other assignments, what to make for dinner, etc…
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Hobson, N. M., Bonk, D., & Inzlicht, M. (2017). Rituals decrease the neural response to performance failure. PeerJ, 5, e3363. https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.3363
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Lally, P., VanJaarsveld, C. H., Potts, H. W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How habits are formed: Modelling habit formation the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40, 998–1009. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.674
Lautenbach, F., Laborder, S. I., Lobinger, B. H., Mesagno, C. Achtzehn, S., & Arimond, F. (2015). Non automated pre-performance routine in tennis: An intervention study. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 27(2), 123-131. https://doi.org/10.1080/10413200.2014.957364
Lidor, R. & Mayan, Z. (2005). Can beginning learners benefit, from pre-performance routines when serving in volleyball? The Sport Psychologist 19(4), 243–263. https://doi.org/10.1123/tsp.19.4.343
Mega, C., Ronconi, L., & De Beni, R. (2014). What makes a good student? How emotions, self-regulated learning, and motivation contribute to academic achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 106(1), 121–131. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0033546
Mesagno, C., Hill, D. M., & Larkin, P. (2015). Examining the accuracy and in game performance effects between pre- and post-performance routines: A mixed methods study. Psychology of Sort and Exercise, 19, 85–94. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychsport.2015.03.005
Peper, E., Wilson, V., Martin, M., Rosegard, E., & Harvey, R. (2021). Avoid Zoom fatigue, be present and learn. NeuroRegulation, 7(1).
Shoepe, T. C., McManus, J. F., August, S. E., Mattos, N. L., Vollucci, T. C. & Sparks, P. R. (2020). Instructor prompts and student engagement in synchronous online nutrition classes. American Journal of Distance Education, 34, 194–210. https://doi.org/10.1080/08923647.2020.1726166
Suni, E. (2021). Sleep Hygiene. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/sleep-hygiene.
Wilson, V. E. & Peper, E. (2011). Athletes are different: factors that differentiate biofeedback/neurofeedback for sport versus clinical practice. Biofeedback, 39(1), 27–30. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-39.1.01
Monica Almendras and Erik Peper
Adapted from: Almendras, M. & Peper, E. (2021). Reactivate your second heart. Biofeedback, 49(4), 99-102. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-49.04.07
Have you ever wondered why after driving long distances or sitting in a plane for hours your feet and lower leg are slightly swollen (Hitosugi, Niwa, & Takatsu, 2000)? It is the same process by which soldiers standing in attention sometimes faint or why salespeople or cashiers, especially those who predominantly stand most of the day, have higher risk of developing varicose veins. By the end of the day, they feel that their legs being heavy and tired? In the vertical position, gravity is the constant downward force that pools venous blood and lymph fluid in the legs. The pooling of the blood and reduced circulation is a contributing factor why airplane flights of four or more hours increases the risk for developing blood clots-deep vein thrombosis (DVT) (Scurr, 2002; Kuipers et al., 2007). When blood clots reaches the lung, they can cause a pulmonary embolisms that can be fatal. In other cases, they may even travel to the brain and cause strokes.
Sitting without moving the leg muscles puts additional stress on your heart, as the blood and lymph pools in the legs. Tightening and relaxing the calf muscles can prevent the pooling of the blood. The inactivity of your calf muscles does not allow the blood to flow upwards. The episodic contractions of the calf muscles squeezes the veins and pumps the venous blood upward towards the heart as illustrated in figure 1. Therefore, it is important to stand, move, and walk so that your calf muscle can act as a second heart (Prevosti, April 16, 2020).
Figure 1. Your calf muscles are your second heart! The body is engineered so that when you walk, the calf muscles pump venous blood back toward your heart. Reproduced by permission from Dr. Louis Prevosti of the Center for Vein Restoration (https://veinatlanta.com/your-second-heart/).
If you stand too long and experienced slight swelling of the legs, raise your feet slightly higher than the head, to help drain the fluids out of the legs. Another way to reduce pooling of fluids and prevent blood clots and edema is to wear elastic stockings or wrap the legs with intermittent pneumatic compression (IPC) devices that periodically compresses the leg (Zhao et al., 2014). You can also do this by performing foot rotations or other leg and feet exercises. The more the muscle of the legs and feet contract and relax, the more are the veins episodically compressed which increases venous blood return. Yet in our quest for efficiency and working in front of screens, we tend to sit for long time-periods.
Developing sitting disease
Have you noticed how much of the time you sit during the day? We sit while studying, working, socializing and entertaining in front of screens. This sedentary behavior has significantly increased during the pandemic (Zheng et al, 2010). Today, we do not need to get up because we call on Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri or Google’s Hey Google to control timers, answer queries, turn on the lights, fan, TV, and other home devices. Everything is at our fingertips and we have finally become The Jetsons without the flying cars (an American animated sitcom aired in the 1960s). There is no need to get up from our seat to do an activity. Everything can be controlled from the palm of our hand with a mobile phone app.
With the pandemic, our activities involve sitting down with minimum or no movement at all. We freeze our body’s position in a scrunch–a turtle position–and then we wonder why we get neck, shoulder, and back pains–a process also observed in young adults or children. Instead of going outside to play, young people sit in front of screens. The more we sit and watch screens, the poorer is our mental and physical health (Smith et al., 2020; Matthews et al., 2012). We are meant to move instead of sitting in a single position for eight or more hours while fixating our attention on a screen.
The visual stimuli on screen captures our attention, whether it is data entry, email, social media, or streaming videos (Peper, Harvey & Faass, 2020). While at the computer, we often hold up our index finger on the mouse and wait with baited breath to react. Holding this position and waiting to click may look harmless; however, our right shoulder is often elevated and raised upward towards our ear. This bracing pattern is covert and contributes to the development of discomfort. The moment your muscles tighten, the blood flow through the muscle is reduced (Peper, Harvey, & Tylova, 2006). Muscles are most efficient when they alternately tighten and relax. It is no wonder that our body starts to scream for help when feeling pain or discomfort on our neck, shoulders, back and eyes.
Figure 2a and 2b Move instead of sit (photos source: Canva.com).
The importance of tightening and then relaxing muscles is illustrated during walking. During the swing phase of walking, the hip flexor muscles relax, tighten, relax again, tighten again, and this is repeated until the destination is reached. It is important to relax the muscles episodically for blood flow to bring nutrients to the tissue and remove the waste product. Most people can walk for hours; however, they can only lift their foot from the floor (raise their leg up for a few minutes) till discomfort occurs.
Movement is what we need to do and play is a great way to do it. Dr. Joan Vernikos (2016) who conducted seminal studies in space medicine and inactivity physiology investigated why astronauts rapidly aged in space and lost muscle mass, bone density and developed a compromised immune system. As we get older, we are hooked on sitting, and this includes the weekends too. If you are wondering how to separate from your seat, there are ways to overcome this. In the research to prevent the deterioration caused by simulating the low gravity experience of astronauts, Dr. Joan Vernikos (2021) had earthbound volunteers lie down with the head slightly lower than the feet on a titled bed. She found that standing up from lying down every 30-minutes was enough to prevent the deterioration of inactivity, standing every hour was not enough to reverse the degeneration. Standing stimulated the baroreceptors in the neck and activated a cardiovascular response for optimal health (Vernikos, 2021).
We have forgotten something from our evolutionary background and childhood, which is to play and move around. When children move around, wiggle, and contort themselves in different positions, they maintain and increase their flexibility. Children can jump and move their arms up, down, side to side, forward, and backward. They do this every day, including the weekends.
When was the last time you played with a child or like a child? As an adult, we might feel tired to play with a child and it can be exhausting after staring at the screen all day. Instead of thinking of being tired to play with your child, consider it as a good workout. Then you and your child bond and hopefully they will also be ready for a nap. For you, not only do you move around and wake up those muscles that have not worked all day, you also relax the tight muscles, stretch and move your joints. Do playful activities that causes the body to move in unpredictable fun ways such as throwing a ball or roleplaying being a different animal. It will make both of you smile–smiling helps relaxation and rejuvenates your energy.
It is not how much exercise you do, it is how long you sit. The longer you sit without activating your second heart the more are you at risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes independent of how much exercise you do (Bailey et al., 2019).
Use it or lose it! Activate your calves!
- Interrupt sitting at your desk/computer every 30-minutes by getting up and walking around.
- Stand up and walk around when using your phone.
- Organize walking meetings instead of sitting around a table.
- Invest in a sit-stand desk while working at the computer. While working, alternate positions. There should be a balance between standing and sitting, because too much of one can lead to problems. By taking a short standing up break to let your blood pump back to the heart is beneficial to avoid health problems. Exercise alone, a fancy new ergonomic chair or expensive equipment is not enough to be healthy, it is important to add those mini breaks in between (Buckley et al, 2015).
For a holistic perspective to stay healthy while working with computers and cellphones, see the comprehensive book by Peper, Harvey and Faass (2020), TechStress: How Technology is Hijacking Our Lives, Strategies for Coping, and Pragmatic Ergonomics.
Bailey, D.P., Hewson, D.J., Champion, R.B., & Sayegh, S.M. (2019). Sitting Time and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease and Diabetes: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis, American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 57(3), 408-416.
Buckley, J.P., Hedge, A., Yates, T., et al. (2015). The sedentary office: an expert statement on the growing case for change towards better health and productivity British Journal of Sports Medicine, 49, 1357-1362.
Kuipers, S., Cannegieter, S.C., Middeldorp, S., Robyn, L., Büller, H.R., & Rosendaal, F.R. (2007) The Absolute Risk of Venous Thrombosis after Air Travel: A Cohort Study of 8,755 Employees of International Organisations, PLoS Med 4(9): e290.
Smith, L., Jacob, L., Trott, M., Yakkundi, A., Butler, L., Barnett, Y., Armstrong, N. C., McDermott, D., Schuch, F., Meyer, J., López-Bueno, R., Sánchez, G., Bradley, D., & Tully, M. A. (2020). The association between screen time and mental health during COVID-19: A cross sectional study. Psychiatry research, 292, 113333.
Vernikos, J. (2021, February 25). Much ado about standing. Virtual Ergonomic Summit. American Posture Institute. https://api.americanpostureinstitute.com/virtual-ergonomics-summit-free-ticket?r_done=1
Zhao, J.M., He, M.L., Xiao, Z.M., Li, T.S., Wu, H., & Jiang, H. (2014). Different types of intermittent pneumatic compression devices for preventing venous thromboembolism in patients after total hip replacement. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 12. Art. No.: CD009543.
Zheng, C., Huang, W.Y., Sheridan, S., Sit, C.H.-P., Chen, X.-K., Wong, S.H.-S. (2020). COVID-19 Pandemic Brings a Sedentary Lifestyle in Young Adults: A Cross-Sectional and Longitudinal Study. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health. 17, 6035.
 We even wonder if excessive sitting during the COVID-19 pandemic is a hidden risk factor of the rare negative side effects of blood clots in the brain, that can occur with the AstraZeneca and Johnson and Johnson coronavirus vaccine (Mahase, 2021).
Adapted from: Peper, E., Wilson, V., Martin, M., Rosegard, E., & Harvey, R. (2021). Avoid Zoom fatigue, be present and learn. NeuroRegulation, 8(1), 47–56. https://doi.org/10.15540/nr.8.1.47
After a while, it all seems the same. Sitting and looking at the screen while working, taking classes, entertaining, streaming videos and socializing. The longer I sit and watch screens, the more I tend to feel drained and passive, and the more challenging it is to be present, productive and pay attention.
Overnight, the pandemic transformed college teaching from in-person to online education. Zoom became the preferred academic teaching and learning platform for synchronous education. Students and faculty now sat and looked at the screen for hours. While looking at the screen, the viewers were often distracted by events in their environment, notifications from smartphones, social media and email, which promoted multitasking (Solis, 2019). The digital distractions causing people to respond to twice as many devices with half of our attention—a process labeled ‘semi-tasking’- meaning getting twice as much done half as well.
For many students synchronous online learning was more challenging, especially after teaching was shifted to a Zoom environment without adapting the course materials to optimize online learning. During polling of 325 undergraduate university students at a metropolitan university who were all taking synchronous online Zoom classes, the vast majority reported that learning was somewhat to extremely difficult, with only the minority of students (approximately 6%) preferring online learning as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Survey of 325 Undergraduates comparing Zoom online learning compared to the previous in person classes. Approximately 94% had moderate to considerable difficulty with on line learning.
The increased self-report on difficulty experienced in synchronous Zoom online learning may also affect academic achievement. At the same time, many people have reported an increase in physical, behavioral and psycho-emotional problems (e.g. backache, headache, stomachache, eye-strain, sore neck and shoulder pain, over or under eating, over or under sleeping, over or under exercising, ruminative thoughts related to categories of anxiety/fear, boredom/numbness, depression/sadness, anger/hostility, etc) (Fosslien & Duffy, 2020; Lee, 2020; Intolo, 2019; Leeb et al, 2020; McGinty et al, 2020; Peper & Harvey, 2018; Peper, Harvey and Faas, 2020).
This post explores factors that contribute to zoom fatigue and offers practical suggestions to optimize learning during synchronous Zoom online education. The concepts are derived from our teaching athletes to sustain peak mental and physical performance, with the implication that the same concepts can help students towards sustaining on-topic attention during online learning (Wilson & Peper, 2011). In sports, the coach can help guide the athlete; however, the athlete needs to be present and motivated. Faculty have a responsibility to support, encourage, and engage students while students have the responsibility to configure themselves into an optimum learning state.
Part 1: Factors that contribute to Zoom fatigue
Differences in communication between live and computer communication
Until the 20th century, almost all communication included non-verbal expressions. The speaker used verbal and nonverbal expressions while the respondent would immediately show a reaction to the speaker. There was a continuous dynamic verbal and nonverbal exchange. The listener would respond to the speaker. If they agreed they nodded their head. If they disagreed or were intimidated they would provide alternative body movements (e.g., shake their head) or facial expressions (look away or frown). During normal conversations, both the speaker’s facial expression and body language are noticed and responded to, which are in turn, can be used as feedback by the other person. In large group sessions with many participants, the visual feedback is reduced and facial responses are difficult to distinguish especially the gallery view.
In a Zoom environment, both the sender and receiver are watching the computer screen without awareness that nonverbal cues are essential for the purpose of understanding not only what is being said but also for the implied meaning and its importance. These non-verbal cues are usually processed without awareness in live person-to-person exchange. While sending and receiving are usually simultaneous, there can exist a disconnect between the attached meanings of the encoded information and that of the decoded information due to the inconsistent existence of important nonverbal components. In a Zoom environment, the end-result could mean multiple images of receivers providing the sender with little or no non-verbal cues with which to interpret the meaning they have attached to your message. The person may appear to look at you; however, you do not know whether they are attending to you, have a neurological disorder and cannot respond, are reading their emails, watching YouTube videos, or texting on their phone. Additionally, the nonverbal cues they are sending may not be related to your message but to their reaction to other media, people or distractions not seen by the presenter.
This mode of communication is different from communication patterns that evolved through natural selection and allowed the human species to thrive and survive. For the first time in human history we learn, teach, work, socialize, and entertain in front of the same screen. In many cases, communication in the era of smartphones has been reduced to texting, writing digital responses or reacting to media content on any screen. Over the past few decades, it is possible for people to communicate through more disembodied, off-topic and external modes of interaction. So many types of learning activities vie for our attention and can occur without leaving our chairs, thus, it may be difficult to stay on-topic online Zoom classes (Keller, Davidesco, & Tanner, 2020).
Normal communication typically involves whole body movements (face, head, arms and hands) which tends to energize or sometimes distract the speaker or listener (Kendon, 2004). When communicating with friends-we often move our bodies dynamically and responsively during the discussion. With synchronous large online lectures, students tend to be passive and just sit and watch. This state of sitting and just watching the screen is similar to watching video entertainment where we sit for a long time and are covertly conditioned not to act.
Unknowingly, we have trained ourselves not to initiate action since the screen does not provide feedback to our responses- a process so different from talking and responding spontaneously in groups of participants.
When communication is safe, people interact, respond and chime in. In large groups, just like large lectures, Zoom tends to inhibit this process because it delays social feedback since most people mute their microphone to avoid extraneous noise. This is usually the rule for large groups although for small groups, people often unmute themselves. The physical act of unmuting is an additional barrier to spontaneous verbal responses. This shift of attention induces a delay before responding. From a communication perspective, a delay before responding reduces the spontaneity and is may be interpreted more negatively by the listener (Roberts, Margutti, & Takano, 2011).
Facial Expressions and Auditory Processing
Facial expressions are a critical part of non- verbal feedback and signals to the other person that they are being listened to and provide cues that the interaction is safe. We unknowingly react to facial expressions–processed unconsciously through neuroception (Porges, 2017)–to indicate whether the person is signaling safety or danger. Usually when the person is facially responsive and shows expression, it signals safety and allows communication and intimacy to be developed. If the person shows no facial expressions (a still/flat face), we unconsciously interpret this as a signal of danger (Porges, 2017). The importance of responsive feedback is illustrated in the study by Tronick et al (1975) where mothers were instructed not to respond with facial and body cues to their infant. The babies rapidly became highly disturbed when the mother stayed nonresponsive as dramatically illustrated in the YouTube video, Still Face Experiment: Dr. Edward Tronick (Tronick, 2007). In adults lack of verbal and nonverbal feedback during social evaluations is extremely stressful (Gruenewald, Kemeny, Aziz, & Fahey, 2004; Birkett, 2011).
The absence of social facial and body feedback often makes teaching and learning more challenging. Namely, are the receivers–the invisible, (only their picture or name is shown), partially visible (facial features are indistinct due to backlighting) or ghosting (those whose picture and name are shown but are physically absent from the session)–understanding the information the way the sender intended?
Unlike traditional classroom settings where one has the benefit of seeing/sensing nonverbal cues, the Zoom gallery view often, the speaker may not know what how the audience is responding and this contributes to Zoom fatigue. In addition, the communication bond is often reduced when the speaker does not look at audience and the listener does not respond to the speaker with facial expressions. Zoom fatigue can also be reduced when online teaching tools are used appropriately by involving active feedback responses through polls, chat, etc. as well as asking specific participants to speak and give feedback.
What is unique to the synchronous online environment is that the speakers and participants view themselves. This is the first time in human history that people are seeing themselves while speaking. For some people, seeing themselves may increase anxiety and negative self-judgement- a process that is even more prevalent in teens. Some are self-conscious and some have social anxiety and do not want their face to be shown (Degges-White, 2020). In the past, most of us had no idea how we looked when others or ourselves are communicating—it is totally novel experience to see yourself while talking and communicating.
Reduced physical activity and increased near vision stress.
Before sheltering in place, I would walk from my house to the BART station, take the train to Daly City station and then walk to the university. At the university, I would climb stairs to go to my office, meet with other faculty and walk to the classroom. At the end of the day, I would walk back to the Bart station and eventually walk home. Without any thinking or trying to do any exercise, I usually would do 12,000 steps and about 25 stairs. Now, I am lucky if I do 3000 unless will myself to do more exercise. –Erik Peper
The move to a Zoom environment and sheltering in place meant that we sit more and more which tends to increase mortality, decrease subjective energy and contributes to an attitude of passive engagement, more as an observer than as a participant (Stamtakis et al, 2019; Patel et al, 2018; Oswald et. al., 2020; Yalçin, Özkurt, Özmaden & Yagmur, 2020). While sitting, we also tend to slouch as we look at the screen that may be a covert factor in the increasing rates of depression and anxiety.
This slouching position tends to decrease access to positive memories and allow easier access to negative memories (Peper et al, 2017) as well as interfere with academic performance. Peper et al (2018) found that students have more difficulty performing mental math in the slouched as compared to upright sitting position. To reduce the impact of sitting, Peper & Lin (2012) found that when student perform some physical activities (e.g., skipping in place) for just a minute they report a significantly increase subjective energy and attention levels.
When looking at the screen our eyes only focus on the screen, which is different from in-person communication where you look at the person and then look at behind or to the side of the person. Only looking at the screen means that to focus on the screen the muscles of the eyes tighten so that the eyes can converge and the ciliary muscles around the lens contract so that the lens curvature is increased which results in near visual stress. This continuous looking at a near object is different from normal eye function in which we alternately focus on nearby objects and then look far away which allows the muscles of the eyes to relax.
Numerous students reported that it was much easier to be distracted and multitask, check Instagram, facebook, TikTok, or respond to emails and texts than during face-to-face classroom sessions as illustrated by two students’ comments.
“Now that we are forced to stay at home, it’s hard to find time by myself, for myself, time to study, and or time to get away. It’s easy to get distracted and go a bit stir-crazy.”
“I find that online learning is more difficult for me because it’s harder for me to stay concentrated all day just looking at the screen.”
Students often reported that they had more difficulty remembering the materials presented during synchronous presentations. Most likely, the passivity while watching Zoom presentation affected the encoding and consolidation of new material into retrievable long term memory. The presented material was rapidly forgotten when the next screen image or advertisement appeared and competed with the course instructor for the student’s attention. We hypothesize that the many hours of watching TV and streaming videos have conditioned people to sit and take in information passively, while discouraging them to respond or initiate action (Mander, 1978; Mărchidan, 2019). Learning requires engagement, which means a shifting from passively watching and listening to being an active, participant shareholder in synchronous online classes. However, in most cases, students have not received information/education or training on HOW TO be a more active/engaged participant in a synchronous Zoom class.
Instructors also have many of the same issues when presenting classes online. They engage in multiple simultaneous roles: presenter, director, and producer. While teaching, they need to engage students, monitor the chat for feedback and look at the screen for facial responses. At the same time, they may face similar technical issues as those experienced by students such as internet connectivity, limited bandwidth, and mastering the technical features of synchronous online learning technology. At times, instructors feel that students expect each presentation to be as captivating as a TED talk. Thus, teaching has shifted from education to edutainment.
Part 2: Practical suggestions to optimize learning
To optimize learning in the synchronous online environment, teachers have the responsibility to reconfigure their teaching so that it incorporates active student involvement and students have the responsibility to be present and engaged. The following practices may facilitate learning:
Be present to learn
Mastering media presence is becoming even more important for everyone. The skill implemented in attending an online learning class will also be useful for professional development. Although the pandemic shifted personal interviews to online interviews, most likely, synchronous and asynchronous video interviews are part of the first automatic screening level to assess candidates for a job (Rubinstein, 2020).
Be visible for the other person looking at you to create a positive impression
Adjust your camera and lights so that your face is visible and you are looking at the person to whom you are talking. Your screen presence is representing you. Does the camera show you engaged or distracted lying on bed? Be aware that you and your background together create an impression. The concept that looking directly at the audience– looking directly at the camera–is not new. Everyone working in media (newscasters, politicians, actors) have been trained to make their faces visible and expressive. This means arranging your webcam at eye level right in front of you and speaking to the camera as if it is the person. Avoid looking down at the person on the screen since the viewer would see you looking look down and away. Be sure your face is illuminated and there are no bright light sources behind you (Purdy, 2020). We recommend that in small group, participants unmute their microphones so that people can respond spontaneously to each other unless there is excessive background noise.
Be a responsive and interactive listener to configure your brain to be engaged
Shift from being a passive absorber to an active participant even if your camera is off or the speaker cannot see you. Imagine being physically with the speaker and activate yourself by increasing your face and body animation as you are attending a synchronous online class. Thus, when you watch a presentation, act as if you are in a personal conversation with the presenter or the material. This means that if you agree, nod your head; if you disagree, shake your head (do this naturally without making it a work task). Do this for the whole session. Our research has shown that when college students purposely implement animated facial and body responses during Zoom classes, they report a significant increase in energy level, attention and involvement as compared to just attending normally in class (Peper & Yang, in press). See Figure 2.
Figure 2. Change in subjective energy, attention and involvement when the students significantly increase their facial and body animation by 123 % as compared to their normal non-expressive class behavior (Peper & Yang, 2021).
“I never realized how my expressions affected my attention. Class was much more fun”
-22 year old woman student.
“I can see how paying attention and participation play a large role in learning material. After trying to give positive facial and body feedback I felt more focused and I was taking better notes and felt I was understanding the material a bit better.”-28 year old medical student
Configure your body to attend and perform
Sit upright and adapt a position of empowerment. When we sit upright and expanded it is easier to have positive thoughts and detach from negative hopeless thoughts (Peper, Lin, Harvey, & Perez, 2017; Peper, Harvey, Mason, & Lin, 2018). Students also performed better in mental math when they sat upright as compared to collapsed. When students are provided ongoing feedback when they begin to slouch by an app that uses the computer camera to monitor slouching, they reported a significant decrease in neck and back symptoms (Chetwynd et al, 2020). As one of many students reported:
“Before when I didn’t use the app, I had a lots of shoulder and neck pain. Now when I use it, the pain went way down as I kept changing posture to the feedback signal. I had more energy and I was more alert. I did notice that when I would get the alert to sit up straight.”
Optimize concentration and learning
In the online environment, the structure more likely depends upon the person unlike the externally created structure of going to work or to class. Thus, purposely creating a time structure and scheduled time-periods to perform different tasks as time management skills are associated with improved school and work performance (Macan et al., 1990). Create an environment to promote concentration and reduce distractions.
- Stay on task and reduce interruption and practice refocusing on task. On the average we now check our phones 96 times a day—that is once every 10 minutes and an increase of 20% as compared to two years ago (Asurion Research, 2019). Those who do media multitasking such as texting while doing a task perform significantly worse on memory tasks than those who are not multitasking (Madore et al., 2020). Multitasking is negatively correlated with school performance (Giunchiglia et al, 2018). When working or attending a class or meeting, turn off all notifications (e.g., email, texts and social media). Then block out specific times when you work on Zoom and when you respond to email, phone or social media (Newport, 2016). Let people know that you will look at the notifications and respond in a predetermined time so that you will not be interrupted while working or studying. If you work where there are other people, arrange your workstation so that there are fewer distractions such as sitting with your back to other people. When students chose to implement a behavior change to monitor cellphone and media use and reduce the addictive behavior during a five-week self-healing project, many report a significant improvement of health and performance. One student observed that when she reduced her cellphone use her stress level equally decreased as shown in Fig 3.
Figure 3. Example of a student changing cellphone use and corresponding decrease in subjective stress level.
During this class project, many students observed that the continuous responding to notifications and social media affect their health and productivity. As one student reported,
The discovery of the time I wasted giving into distractions was increasing my anxiety, increasing my depression and making me feel completely inadequate. In the five-week period, I cut my cell phone usage by over half, from 32.5 hours to exactly 15 hours and used some of the time to do an early morning run in the park. Rediscovering this time makes me feel like my possibilities are endless. I can go to work full time, take online night courses reaching towards my goal of a higher degree, plus complete all my homework, take care of the house and chores, cook all my meals, and add reading a book for fun! –22 year old College Student
- Approached learning with a question. When you begin to study the material or attend a class, ask yourself questions that you would like to be answered. If possible, put your questions to the instructor. When you have a purpose, it is easier to stay emotionally present and remember the material (Osman, & Hannafin, 1994).
- Take written notes while attending a Zoom meeting or class. When participants take hand written notes versus on the computer they tend to integrate and remember the material much more than just watching passively (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014). Active note taking leads to focused attention and fewer distractions from social media content (Flanigan & Titsworth, 2020).
- Review materials. At the end of the class, meet with your fellow students on ZOOM or social media and review the class materials. As you discuss the materials, add comments to your notes and if possible, do a hierarchical outline to more easily remember the relationships among the ideas.
- Change your internal language. What we overtly or covertly say and believe is what we may become. When one says, “I am stupid”, “I can’t do math,” or “It is too difficult to learn,” one may become powerless which increases stress and inhibits cognitive function. Instead, change the internal language so that it implies that you can master the materials such as, “I need more time to study and to practice the material,” “Learning just takes time and at this moment it may take a bit longer than for someone else,” or “I need a better tutor.”
Create an environment to trigger the appropriate mental and emotional state for learning.
Learning and recall are state dependent. Without awareness, the learned content is covertly associated with environmental, emotional, social and kinesthetic cues. Thus, when you study in bed, the material is more easily accessed while lying down. When you study with music, the music becomes a retrieval cue. Without awareness, the materials are encoded with the cues of lying down or the music played in the background. When you take your exam in a different setting then you have studied, none of the covert cues are there, thus, it is more difficult to recall the material. Study and review the materials under similar conditions, as you will be tested.
To configure yourself to be ready to study, work, or socialize create different environments that are unique to each category of Zoom involvement (studying, working, socializing, entertaining). Pre COVID, we usually used different clothing for different events (work versus party) or different environments for different tasks (temple, churches, mosques, or synagogue for religious practice; bar or coffee shop to meet friends). Create a unique environment with each Zoom activity. The stimuli to be associated to the specific tasks can also include lighting, odors, sound or even drinks and food. These stimuli become the classically conditioned cues to evoke the appropriate response associated with the task just as Pavlov conditioned dogs to salivate by pairing a sound with the meat. Taking charge of the conditioning process may help many people to focus on their task as so many students use their bedroom, kitchen or living room for Zoom work which is not always conducive for learning or work.
- Wear task specific clothing just as you would have done going to work or school. When you plan to study, put on your study T-shirt. In time, the moment you put on the study T-shirt, you are cueing yourself to focus on studying. When finishing with studying, change your clothing.
- Arrange task specific backgrounds for each category of Zoom task. Place a different background such as a poster or wall hanging behind the computer screen-one for studying and another for entertainment. When finished with the specific Zoom event, take down the poster and change the background.
Optimize arousal and regenerate vision
- The longer we sit the more passive we tend to become. Teachers will benefit by interrupting the passive transfer of information by guiding students in fun short movements to increase arousal. If instructors fail to put in movement breaks, students sitting in front of screens can remind themselves to move. The challenge is that we are usually unaware of how much time has passed as we are captured by the screen. It is often helpful to use an app such as StretchBreak to remind yourself to get up and move.
- Get up and move every 30 minutes. After sitting for 30 minutes stretch, wiggle and move. Do the movements with vigor or even dance, look up and reach up. When you stand up and move your legs and feet, you tighten and relax your calf muscles that pump the venous blood and lymph fluids that have been pooling in your legs back to your heart. The calf muscle is often called the second heart because in facilitates venous blood return.
- Regenerate vision. Our eyes tend to get tired and world looks blurry. Interrupt the near vision stress by allowing the eyes to relax and regenerate.
- Palming. Bring your hands to your face and cup the hands so that there is no pressure on your eyeballs. Allow the base of the hands to touch the cheeks while the fingers are interlaced and resting your forehead. Then with your eyes closed imagine seeing black. Breathe slowly and diaphragmatically while feeling the warmth of the palm soothing the eyes. Feel your shoulders, head and eyes relaxing and do this for five minutes (Schneider, 2016; Peper, 2021).
- Look at the distance. Interrupt near visual stress (convergence of the eyes and tightening of the ciliary muscle around the lens allows us to focus on the screen) by looking away at the far distance. Every so look at the clouds, top of trees or rooftops outside the window to relax the eyes.
By activating the evolutionary communication patterns that allowed us to survive and thrive and using known performance enhancement skills derived from peak performance training, we can enhance involvement and productivity. The instructor needs to stay current on methods that keep students attention. At the same time, students have a responsibility to configure themselves to optimize learning. We recommend practices 1) to be present and learn, 2) optimize concentration and learning, 3) create an environment to trigger the appropriate mental and emotional state for learning, and 4) optimize arousal and regenerate vision. By taking charge of your own teaching/learning process and configuring yourself to be present through active participation, learning is enhanced.
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 We thank Professor Jackson Wilson for his incisive comments.
 In this paper will use Zoom as the example for synchronous online teaching although the concepts may apply equally to other platforms such Microsoft Teams and Google Meet.
 Zoom and other synchronous online platforms provide tools to indicate that you would like to speak (e.g., electronic hand raising); however, it is an issue of how the class session is designed (e.g., do you use breakout rooms, are there structured requests for interaction).
 Zoom has a feature to hide yourself. Start or join a Zoom meeting. The meeting automatically begins in Speaker View and you can see your own video. Then, right-click your video to display the menu, then choose Hide Myself.
Erik Peper and Amber Yang
“Instead of zoning out and being on my phone half the time. I felt more engaged in the class and like I was actually learning something.” -21 year old college student
Before the pandemic, roughly, two-thirds of all social interactions were face-to-face—and when the shelter-in-place order hit our communities, we were all faced with the task of learning how to engage virtually. The majority of students reported that taking online classes instead of in person classes is significantly more challenging. It is easier to be distracted and multitask online—for example, looking at Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, texting, surfing the internet, responding to notifications, listening to music, or drifting to sleep. Hours of watching TV and/or streaming videos have conditioned many people to sit and take in information passively, which discourages them from actively responding or initiating. The information is rapidly forgotten when the next screen image or advertisement appears. Effectively engaging on Zoom requires a shift from passively watching and listening to being an active, creative participant.
Another barrier to virtual engagement is that communicating online does not engage all senses. A considerable amount of our communication is nonverbal—sounds, movement, visuals, physical structures, touch, and body language. Without these sensory cues, it can be difficult to feel socially connected on Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Google Meet to sustain attention and to focus especially if there are many people in the class or meeting. Another challenge to virtual learning is that without the normal environment of a classroom, many students across the country are forced to learn in emotionally and/or physically challenging environments, which gets in the way of maintaining attention and focus. The Center for Disease Prevention (CDC) reported that anxiety disorder and depressive disorder have increased considerably in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic (Leeb et al, 2020; McGinty et al, 2020). Social isolation, stay-at-home orders, and coping with COVID-19 are contributing factors affecting mental health especially for minority and ethnic youth. Stress, anxiety and depression can greatly affect students’ ability to learn and focus.
The task of teaching has also become more stressful since many students are not visible or appear still-faced and non-responsive. Teaching to non-responsive faces is significantly more stressful since the presenter receives no social feedback. The absence of social feedback during communication is extremely stressful. It is the basis of Trier Social stress test in which a person presents for five minutes to a group of judges who provide no facial or verbal feedback (Allen et al, 2016; Peper, 2020).
The Zoom experience especially in a large class can be a no win situation for the presenter and the viewer. To help resolve this challenge, we explored a strategy to increase student engagement and reduce social stress of the teacher. In this exploration, we asked students to rate their subjective energy level, attention and involvement during a Zoom conducted class. For the next Zoom class, they were asked to respond frequently with facial and body expressions to the presentation. For example, students would expressively shake their head no or yes and/or use facial expressions to signal to the teacher that they were engaged and listening. Other strategies included giving thumbs up or thumbs down, making sounds, and changing your body posture as a response to the presentation. Watch the superb non-judgmental instructions adapted for high school students by Amber Yang.
When college students purposely implement and increase their animated facial and body responses by 123% during Zoom classes, they report a significant increase in frequency of animation (ANOVA (F(1,70) = 30.66, p < .0001), energy level (ANOVA (F(1,70) = 28.96, p < .0001), attention (ANOVA (F(1,70) = 16.87, p = .0001) and involvement (ANOVA (F(1,69) = 10.70, p = .002) as compared just attending normally in class (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Change in subjective energy, attention and involvement when the students significantly increase their facial and body animation by 123 % as compared to their normal non-expressive class behavior (Peper & Yang, in press).
“I never realized how my expressions affected my attention. Class was much more fun” -22 year old college student
“I can see how paying attention and participation play a large role in learning material. After trying to give positive facial and body feedback I felt more focused and I was taking better notes and felt I was understanding the material a bit better.” –28 year old medical student
These quotes are a few of the representative reports by more than 80% of the students who observed that being animated and responsive helped them to stay present and learn much more easily and improve retention of the materials. For a few students, it was challenging to be animated as they felt shy, self-conscious and silly and kept wondering what other students would think of them.
Having students compare two different ways of being in Zoom class is a useful assignment since it allows students to discover that being animated and responsive with facial/body expression improves learning. So often we forget how our body impacts our thoughts and emotions. For example, when students were asked to sit in a slouched position, they reported that it was much easier to recall hopeless, helpless, powerless and defeated memories and more difficult to perform mental math in the slouched position. While in the upright position it was easier to access positive empowering memories and easier to perform mental math (Peper et al, 2017; Peper et al, 2018).
Experience how body posture affects emotional recall and feeling (adapted from Alda, 2018).
1) Stand up and configure your body in a position that signals defeat, hopelessness and depression (slouching with the head down). While holding this position, recall a memory of hopelessness and defeat. Notice any negative emotions that arise from this.
2) Shift and configure your body into a position that signals joy, happiness and success (standing tall, looking up with a smile). While holding this position, recall a memory of joy and happiness. Notice any positive emotions that arise from this.
3) Configure your body in a position that signals defeat, hopelessness and depression (slouching with the head down). While holding this position, recall a joy, happiness and success. Do not change your body position. End this configuration after holding it for a little while.
4) Shift and your body in a position that signals joy, happiness and success (standing tall, looking up with a smile). While holding this position, recall a memory of hopelessness and defeat. Do not change your body position. End this configuration after holding it for a little while.
When body posture and expression are congruent with the evoked emotion, it is almost always easier to experience the emotions. On the other hand, when the body posture expression is the opposite of the evoked emotion (e.g., the body in a positive empowered stance while recalling hopeless defeated memories) it is much more difficult to evoke and experience the emotion. This same concept applies to learning. When slouching and lying on the bed while in a Zoom class, it is much more difficult to stay present and not drift off. On the other hand, when sitting erect and upright and actively responding to the presentation, the body presence/posture invites the brain to focus for optimized learning.
In a Zoom environment, it is easy to slouch, drift away, and become non-responsive—which can exacerbate zoom fatigue symptoms and also decrease our capacity to learn, focus, and feel connected with the people around us. Take charge and actively participate in class by sitting up, maintaining an empowered posture, and using nonverbal facial and body expressions to communicate. The important concept is not how you show your animation, but that you actively participate within the constraints of your own limitations. For example, if a person is paralyzed the person will benefit if they do the experience internally even though their body may not show any expression. By engaging our soma we optimize our learning experience as we face the day-to-day challenges of the pandemic and beyond.
I noticed I was able to retain information better as well as enjoy the class more when I used facial-body responses. At times, where I would try to wonder off into bliss, I would catch myself and try to actively engage in the class with body movements even if there is no discussion. Animated face/body was a better learning experience. –21-year old college student.
Leeb, R.T., Bitsko, R,H,, Radhakrishnan. L., Martinez, P., Njai, R., & Holland, K.M. (2020). Mental Health–Related Emergency Department Visits Among Children Aged <18 Years During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, January 1–October 17, 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep, 69,1675–
McGinty, E.E., Presskreischer, R., Anderson, K.E., Han, H., &Barry, C.L. (2020). Psychological distress and COVID-19–related stressors reported in a longitudinal cohort of US adults in April and July 2020. JAMA. Published online November 23, 2020.
Peper, E., Wilson, V.E., Martin, M., Rosengard, E., & Harvey, R. (unpublished). Avoid Zoom fa
Adapted from the book, TechStress: How Technology
is Hijacking our Lives, Strategies for Coping and Pragmatic Ergonomics, by Erik Peper, Richard Harvey and Nancy Faass.
Peper, E., Harvey, R., & Faass, N. (2020), TechStress-How Technology is Hijacking our Lives, Strategies for Coping and Pragmatic Ergonomics. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.