Published: 20 April 2021. Written by: Jo Usmar.
The temptation to spend every waking minute seeing all the people you’ve missed during lockdown is more than understandable. However, social burnout is real. Being smart with your time will be better for your mind, body and friendships
The sheer pleasure of being able to book in time to see family and friends after a year of waving through windows and computer screens will prompt many of us to overload our diaries. In fact, lots of experts are predicting that we’re about to enter this century’s version of the Roaring Twenties. Released from our Covid bubbles, we’ll Charleston our way through the summer, letting loose all our pent-up frivolity.
However, with the rush to see everyone as soon as possible, social burnout is a real possibility. Here’s how you can pace yourself once faced with all those RSVPs.
Know your enemy: what is social burnout?
Burnout is a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by prolonged stress. You’ll feel overwhelmed, drained (emotionally and physically) and unable to meet constant demands. ‘When it comes to socialising, this can be the result of trying to do too much at once, and not listening to how you’re feeling,’ says Cognitive Behavioural Therapist Claire Luchford. ‘It might be [due to] saying yes to everything, not taking time for yourself, poor sleeping habits or overindulging in food, drink or drugs. But the result will be a shift in starting to feel overwhelmed, tired and seeing socialising as stressful rather than enjoyable.’
So, what can you do to prevent it?
Cut yourself some conversational slack
Don’t put pressure on yourself to be the funniest person at the party, full of relatable anecdotes and brilliant bon mots. Remember: everyone’s conversational skills are going to be rusty.
‘It’s likely to feel clunky or awkward for most of us,’ agrees Luchford. ‘Being so restricted has left us with no “news” to tell. So give yourself a break and just accept that small talk is what most of us start with, and it doesn’t need to be hilarious or fascinating.’
Also, bear in mind that if you found socialising difficult pre-Covid, the thought of having to re-enter society again may be tricky.
‘For those that suffer with social anxiety, this last year may have brought some temporary relief in avoidance of situations,’ Luchford continues. ‘So it’s going to be important to ease back in slowly and be aware of the expectations you are putting yourself under going into conversations.’
Remember that everyone is in the same conversational boat this time around. A lot of our easy chatting triggers have been lost (travel, dating, even weekend plans) so don’t feel bad for sticking to basics that everyone can relate to: ‘How has working from home been for you? Are you back in the office yet? Have you seen your family much? Do you think you’ll get a holiday this year?’ Being upfront about finding it all a bit weird will be a welcome relief to everyone: ‘I’ve been waiting months to have a conversation and now I can’t think of a thing to say!’
‘If you do think you need help with anxiety or social anxiety, then speak to your GP,’ adds Luchford. ‘Discuss your options: talking therapies are now widely accessible in the UK.’
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Remember, it’s about quality, not quantity
Social media can give the impression that if you’re not at a party every week having #thebesttime you’re missing out. Remember, it’s quality, not quantity that’s important: spending time with the people who make you feel most at ease, in places you feel safe and secure.
‘Prioritise what and who is important to you,’ Luchford says. ‘For now, that might just be your running group and closest friends.’ She advises scheduling in one or two activities a week, rather than back-to-back plans. ‘If you’re nervous about too much too soon, suggest times or places that you feel comfortable with – “I can do from 4 to 6pm on Sunday at the park” – and be honest about a preference for bigger spaces. It’ll hopefully be met with agreement or at least understanding.’
‘Healthy boundaries are fundamental to our wellbeing,’ Luchford continues. ‘The ability to politely and respectfully say “no” is a game-changer in seeing your needs as equal to everyone else’s. For anyone that struggles with this, research self-help and assertiveness – there are some good free materials out there.’
Be firm, polite and unapologetic about your preferences for meeting up and only explain yourself if you want to (you don’t have to justify your feelings). However, you could say something like: ‘I’m booked up this week, but how about a coffee at 3pm next Saturday?’ Or, ‘I’m still not comfortable with groups of more than six so I’ll pass on that, thanks.’ Always remember that prioritising yourself and avoiding social burnout is the most important thing.
Take your time
What the entire world is experiencing right now is unprecedented – so feeling overawed by the expectations of lockdowns lifting is entirely normal and natural. Indeed, the thought of having to deal with what were everyday activities, such as getting on public transport or eating in a restaurant, may bring you out in a cold sweat. Socialising plays a major role in this adjustment to the ‘new normal’.
‘We’ve had a year of being told that socialising is actually dangerous – it’s no surprise people will not only be feeling wary about being able to pick up where they left off with friends, but about being in social situations at all,’ Luchford says.
‘We’ve all experienced that pang of shock and anxiety when seeing people hugging or standing in groups or crowds on TV,’ she adds. ‘It’s surprised everyone how quickly those things became abnormal, so it’s important to give yourself a chance to readjust to another new normal. Don’t be surprised if you don’t feel as comfortable or eager to be in the same spaces as often as you used to, or for not feeling like your old life-and-soul self straight away. It’s natural to want to take things slowly when it comes to opening up your social circle.’
Be wary of trying to mask feelings of anxiety with alcohol. Acknowledge that your tolerance for social drinking will have changed. If you’re already feeling worried about being on good form, losing your inhibitions – while seemingly an attractive short-term solution to a confidence dip – may have potentially complicated emotional repercussions as alcohol is a depressant. If you’re feeling nervous about drinking again, there are some ways to practice mindful drinking which will help you to consciously monitor your alcohol intake.
‘This past year has also taught us a lot about balance,’ Luchford says. ‘Not everyone wants to go back to rushing around to the same degree as before. Consider how to get the best balance of work, rest and play – whatever that is for you.’
Avoid comparing lockdown ‘achievements’
Don’t go into social situations thinking you’re going to be the odd one out if you didn’t spend your lockdown achieving a life-defining goal. Sure, when it seemed as if lockdown might only last a few months, finally getting around to starting that novel or learning French may have seemed like a no-brainer – but not so! Mental health experts soon reported that the expectation that we ‘should’ be achieving was making people feel even worse about an already intense situation.
Truth is, lockdown was terrible for creative endeavour – you’re not only stressed and anxious, but you’ve lost all ‘normal’ inspirations: travel, new experiences, chance meetings and so on. Your social circle will no doubt be far more full of people who didn’t tick anything off their bucket list than those that did. Don’t fall victim to social comparison (comparing your worst bits to other people’s best bits) as that’s exhausting and will inevitably lead to burnout.
‘Not everyone wrote a book or ran a marathon while in lockdown,’ says Luchford. ‘Most people just focused on coping, and that’s an achievement in itself. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to live up to some lockdown ideal. Everyone will be just the same as you – nervous but excited about reconnecting, not bragging about what a great year they’ve had!’
Use your body to work out your mind
‘Listen to your body,’ Luchford advises. ‘Acknowledge how you are feeling physically and think about what you might need or what might help. If you’re feeling particularly anxious and think you might be going into fight-or-flight mode [experiencing faster breathing, a racing heart and feeling shaky, dizzy or nauseous], practise slow rhythmic breathing – in and out breaths, each for a count of three – and ask yourself whether you need to rest up (or leave the situation).
‘Try normalising how you are feeling – for instance, telling yourself, “Feeling anxious is totally understandable. I’ve been told to avoid crowds for a year and now I’m in one!” Could you talk it through with a friend you trust? Fight or flight is an old evolutionary response protecting us from danger, but it doesn’t always get it right. Sometimes your body just needs to be told: “It’s OK. I know this situation is safe and if I refocus it will reduce my fears.”’
Worried that social burnout might just be another negative of lockdown? We take a look at 6 small positives we can take from a year in lockdown, which will help to keep you feeling positive.