Vocal Fatigue: 5 Ways to Survive the Zoom-age

Updated: Dec 3, 2020

How talking on Zoom Exhausts Your Voice - and 5 Simple Ways to Prevent It.

Even if you're not normally a Professional Voice User (PVU), someone whose voice is essential to their job, there's a good chance, since the pandemic began, you've spent more than a little time talking to a screen.  While Zoom meetings have some positives (no pants..a sneak peek of your boss' living room..the ability to split your screen between work and Wayfair's latest sale on bedding - you know you do it too) they can also wreak havoc on your voice. 

Zoom creates an alternate communication universe where the pillars of talking face-to-face, things like body language, peripheral vision, gesture, and the normal eb and flow of conversation - #pleasemute2020 - don't exist.  Instead we find ourselves overcompensating for this lack of normal communication by speaking too loudly, too often, and from a body rigid with tension and anxiety

Tension from sitting and staring at a computer all day, anxiety, because, you know, public speaking..and a pandemic..and the very real possibility your 4-year-old could escape virtual preschool and crash your pitch meeting demanding lemonade and a fruit snack while wearing only her Halloween mask.  Just me? 

This misuse and overuse of the voice can lead to hoarseness, discomfort when speaking, running out of breath quickly, and a voice that just feels tired.  Over time these problems can worsen, requiring lifestyle changes, voice therapy, or even surgery to correct.  

This isn’t only a problem professionally.  Covid has also forced our personal lives online: family gatherings, visits with elderly loved ones, coffee dates, and game nights are now done in front of a screen and, while they may provide some substitute for social interaction, they also provide more opportunities for vocal exhaustion. 

Your voice doesn't have a carrying case (though if it did, it would be a Birkin bag because you are designer quality) but it doesn't.  So, here are 5 ways to avoid vocal Zoom exhaustion:

1) Keep your computer at eye level.  Your head is heavy, whenever I teach posture & alignment to my university freshman I make this obvious Jerry Maguire reference, which they never, ever get.  Your head balances on your spine between your ears - put your fingers in the indents behind your ears and imagine a line going between - and when it's not balanced your neck muscles over engage.  You can buy a laptop stand to raise it up, or just use a midsized box from one of your daily Amazon orders, like I am right now. 

2) Wear an ear plug.  I got this excellent idea at a workshop I attended at the Chicago Institute for Voice Care from rockstar Speech Language Pathologist Jan Potter Reed.  Wear 1 foam ear plug while speaking and you'll get a much better idea of how loud you actually are.  If having a brightly colored ear plug sticking out of one ear isn't the conversation starter you're looking for, you can also use the clear, wax plugs used when swimming. 

3) Get Up & Stretch.   In the Zoom age, we can move between meetings without actually moving.  Sitting is terrible for our concentration (our brains were meant to learn on the move) our posture, and our health:  Between meetings, stand up, move around and stretch.  Quickly rag-doll over (bend over at the waist and let your body hang), nod your head, roll your shoulders, take a few big breaths, then when you're ready to roll up, do it slowly, one inhale at a time.  Stack your body back up: toes, knees, hips, arms, and head, let your shoulders fall back and down, release the tension in your hands, and make sure your tongue isn't pressing to the roof of your mouth.  Your posture affects your breathing and your breathing affects your voice - if your voice is a car, the breath is the gas - so be mindful of your alignment.

4) Take vocal naps.  For actors & singers, most vocal health issues arise when they're NOT performing - from overusing or misusing their voices in their daily lives.  When you have the opportunity to rest your voice, take it.  Even 10-15 minutes of silence can give your voice a much needed recharge throughout the day.  This is especially important for teachers.  The data tells us that teachers have more vocal health issues than other professionals, so if you're in the classroom, face-to-face or virtual, be sure to take the time for silence. 

5) Hydrate.  There are 2 kind of vocal fatigue: muscular fatigue (from overuse) and mucosal fatigue - from dehydration.  Your voice relies on mucus for it's clear, strong sound and when that mucus gets dehydrated, it gets thick and sticky - the equivalent of blowing clear, thin snot, or the yellow gunk that comes towards the tail end of a cold.  Your voice doesn't have its own hydration system, so it is entirely dependent on you to keep it hydrated and its mucus thin.  It takes 4 hours for the water we drink to hydrate our vocal folds, so plan accordingly.  Also, as the temps fall, and the heat turns on inside, consider getting a humidifier for our home office and bedroom to keep the air moist. 

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