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Mental Health

Unmute: How Zoom University Helped Me Manage My Anxiety

Baking bread, learning an instrument, and mental health—these have been the personal development trifecta of quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the beginning of the pandemic, I was an anxious yet optimistic freshman who was less than enthusiastic about the "extra week of spring break." Looking back on that moment, it's funny how unpredictable these past few months have been; it's even funnier how drastically different each part of this year has been. I, like many others, reflect on the past few months using terms like "era," "phase," or "chapter." In the early epoch of my quarantine, I stayed behind at Rutgers. Walking out of my dorm and onto the barren streets of College Ave gave the same eerie feeling as walking down streets ravaged by armageddon. At this point, I wasn't very optimistic about my in-person career at Rutgers in the coming semester. At this point, I couldn't predict anything, especially not how I would perform academically in the coming months. 

In class, I was the type of person whose hand would hover between their lap and the top of their desk. Raising my hand in class or participating has been an onerous task for me for years. For me, it stems from my innate fear that everyone is watching me and judging me. So, my flight or fight response, activated by the myriad of eyes on me during class whenever I spoke, has just always been something I had to deal with until my first day of class after spring break. 

I entered the Zoom call for my French Literature class, notes for the first act of Tartuffe in hand, and an extravagant eyeshadow look. As we talked, I felt the need to discuss a part of the text I had jotted down in my notes. I remember that when I pressed the unmute button in my call, something was missing: the distinct apprehension to speak. It wasn't that it was gone, but instead, it was lighter. It didn't actively make me second guess and silence myself. For the rest of the discussion, I was jumping in when I had something to say, taking in other people's comments, and genuinely engaging in my classmates' conversation. After the class, I didn't think that my increased participation was even noticeable until I received an email from my teacher. She couldn't believe that the same person on the Zoom call was the same person that would barely speak in class. I seemed less shy and more open to talking to people. In an online setting, people aren't looking at me; we're separated by a screen, miles away from one another. Instead of "disconnecting" us from one another, this setup allowed me to be more comfortable with people over a video call. I don't have to be confronted by everyone staring at me. I don't have to feel the desire to fold myself into as small a space as possible, because I only have to talk, and what I say is all that matters. I can control when and for how long people see me, and for longer and longer periods, I elected to keep my camera on.

This growing comfort with speaking up in class seems to be only the beginning. I mean, of course, I still felt a little awkward trying to decipher the social contract when to mute and unmute or how many times you say "thank you" before clicking “Leave Meeting.” Over time, the more we become reliant on online communication for our academic careers, the more it permeates our social lives. You have to keep in contact with your friends, especially when in-person meetings are few and far between (and they were already rare with everyone's busy schedules). Learning to be more vocal on Zoom or Webex or Skype (really, Skype?) has helped me connect with the people at school. I still often feel out of place and on edge, and extremely nervous, but I can manage the anxiety I feel in these situations, and over time, it's helped my mental and emotional healing process. In the wake of this economic crisis caused by the pandemic, you could say Zoom was akin to free therapy (unless you paid for Zoom premium). All jokes aside, I'm not trying to preach about "conquering my mental health issues" with "the savior that is an online school." I still have anxiety. I still have bad and worse days like I have good and better days. Managing your mental health looks different for everyone, so you have to reach out and find resources that can help you. I don't know what the next few months will look like or when we'll be back on campus, but these past few months have given me a sort of courage to carry on into my future and actions, and maybe, in the end, I won't need to press the unmute button to speak up.

Concetta Jenny Vecchione is a student at Rutgers working towards a double major in psychology and french. Outside of school, her passions include film, theatre, and literature. She is a voracious reader as well as an aspiring author. She also enjoys photography and other creative pursuits that she shares with others on her Instagram @jenny.vecchione. She loves the her campus community for their breadth of opportunities and welcoming community!
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