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In-Person Life Is Exhausting: Post-Pandemic Socializing

Re-entering a post-pandemic world is hard. Here are some tips for the journey.

Key points

  • Returning to in-person interaction is difficult at the behavioral, emotional, and neurological level.
  • We must take stock of our exhaustion level as we re-enter the community.
  • Making a plan for how to tend to our mental and physical health while we re-engage socially is important.

As we migrated our work, home, school, and recreational lives to online spaces in the early days of quarantine, the reality of Zoom fatigue became evident. We realized, over time, that conversations including a reflected view of ourselves as well as revelations of our surroundings felt costly in a way that those without didn’t. We also practiced, over the course of 13 months, getting used to the mental and physical exhaustion that accompanied our near-constant connection to digital devices that connected us to the world.

 Brainsil/iStock
Source: Brainsil/iStock

Now, we are waking up to a new reality as we find that in-person experiences and encounters are taking a similar mental, physical, and emotional toll. The slow return to the post-pandemic, embodied world, it seems, may not be as simple as we had hoped it would be.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the move from quarantine-related isolation toward in-person experiences may end up taking a real energetic toll on our bodies, minds, and spirits. An arts writer participates in her first gallery visit in over a year and departs feeling exhausted and, oddly, numb. A business owner who has suffered through a year-long closure finds themselves deeply ambivalent about re-opening, making it difficult to gather the strength to do so. A teacher, tired of juggling distance learning anticipates gaining energy from being with students but, instead, feels irritable and completely worn out. A typically jovial and energetic student who has desperately missed being in the classroom can barely stay awake once home. And these are just a few examples.

When it comes to both our habits and neurological capabilities, practice makes us proficient. We repeatedly do a task, thereby increasing our behavioral competence while, at the same time, building robust neural pathways that support the actions we take. When we stop practicing that way of thought or behavioral action, our brains and bodies direct attention elsewhere, diminishing our proficiencies. In many ways, we’ve under-stimulated the embodied, interpersonal parts of our brains, leaving us bereft as we re-join the community.

Over the last many months, we’ve become highly proficient at communicating via video, text, and audio. We’ve acclimated to being mostly alone or with our pod and have gone over a year largely bereft of the kind of novel experiences that make small talk possible. We haven’t practiced in-person encounters, let alone in-person communication. It’s unlikely that our skills for embodied living are in tip-top shape, making the return to a new normal challenging, at best, and costly, at worst.

We would be wise to take some concrete steps to prepare ourselves for the energy that this re-start, of sorts, will require. Not only must we address our need for self-soothing but our transition to embodied life will benefit from an investigation of tools we may need to sharpen after a year of under-use. Here are a few ideas for how to start this process.

1. Be honest about the energy level with which you are moving out of quarantine.

It would be easy to interpret relief as readiness at this point in time. Yes, most people are relieved that strict and rigid quarantine is past but this doesn't mean that they feel ready to re-engage in-person life at full speed. Take stock of your feelings and thoughts, as well as your physiological level of exhaustion, at this point in time. Being tired is expected, even if you’re also glad that the world is changing. Map out a plan for getting the rest and breaks that you need while, at the same time, beginning to re-enter embodied life.

2. Practice.

You wouldn’t expect yourself to run a race without training. The same is true here. If safe, do a trip to the store with the intent of making small talk with the checker. Determine a topic area or two and use it. Set a timer for five minutes and find someone to have a conversation with. Commit to going back and forth with small talk, referencing your pre-determined topics. Or, if you’ve mostly been texting, migrate a few of those streams to phone then to video, offering yourself the opportunity to practice verbal communication. If there are topics that would spur anxiety in the early days of re-entry, practice statements that you could use in conversation to skip over them (e.g., “Thank you for asking. I’m not able to discuss that right now.”) or to express your overwhelm in the moment (e.g., “Wow. I’m finding myself not able to focus well enough to answer that right now.”).

3. Start small.

It’s likely not to restart by attending a party with lots of people on a Sunday night when we have work to do the next day. Overwhelming our central nervous systems by re-entering too quickly or intensely will hurt us. To avoid this, we must train for social re-entry just like we would for other life events. At the start, get together with a friend or two for a relatively short period of time, noting how you feel before, during, and after. Once that feels manageable, add a few others to the mix or move the get-together to a place with a bit more active stimulants (a park where there are others, an outdoor eating establishment, etc.). Notice how the number of people and type of setting impact the manageability, or lack thereof, of the get-together. Pacing is the key here.

4. Prioritize “recovery” time.

Resist the urge to fill your calendar with lots of social gatherings without making space for time to regroup. Schedule your social outings strategically so that you have time to recover from them. Identify two or three things that you can do to offer your mind, heart, and body time to become re-regulated as you re-enter. This might be a nap or a walk alone or some quiet time to let your mind wander. The goal is to refresh and re-ground yourself between times of social stimulation.

5. Talk with others about the process.

Part of what makes support groups helpful is the sense of universality that participants feel in connecting with others who have similar experiences. The more that we can normalize the real costs of coming out from under a year of quarantine, the better. Make these conversations a normal part of your planning with those you will reconnect with.

A special note about helping children in this time: Children often experience big emotions without the commensurate language to express, explain, or understand them. Help them by narrating your own experience in re-entry. Help them see that, at times, irritability means a need for quiet or that overwhelm is an important feeling to pay attention to and address. Help them learn to name their feelings as well as the actions that will help them resolve them. Work hard to not push them to re-enter faster than they are able. This will be difficult as, likely, parents are exhausted and in need of some space. Re-entering in paced ways that account for the child’s capabilities and difficulties will be most effective.

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