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From Zoom Fatigue to Room Fatigue

How and why re-entering the real world after COVID feels exhausting.

Key points

  • Migrating communication to Zoom/video platforms was exhausting and yet we adjusted.
  • Moving more conversations to in-person settings will involve awkward moments and will be tiring.
  • Strategies to help with transitioning back to an in-person world include planning ahead and keeping a sense of humor.
Source: Mentadgt/Pexels

Fifteen months ago, and a mere 30 days into lockdown, I wrote a post about why video meetings were wearing us out. We were new to quarantine and hadn’t yet coined the phrase “Zoom Fatigue” but, very quickly, I heard back from thousands of people who were relieved that they weren’t alone. While it may not have had a name yet, Zoom Fatigue was rampant.

As we try to restart embodied lives outside of the confines of our home we’re facing a new set of challenges: call it “room fatigue.” A year of practicing social distancing and moving our lives online has atrophied our real-world conversation and interpersonal skills. At the same time, we’ve lacked the kind of novelty and experiences in our day-to-day lives that offer us subject matter with which to engage others. We’ve mastered Zoom etiquette at the expense of our real-world social agility.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that in the early days of the pandemic we didn’t consider the costs of video conferencing, the psychological and emotional toll of watching ourselves mirrored on our screens while conversing, of interfaces that didn’t allow two people to talk at once, and/or what it would be like to bring everyone into visual contact with our home and surroundings. We couldn’t. We were panicked and afraid of both Covid and the reality of sheltering in place and didn’t have the resources to take time to process and adjust to our new realities. Our lives had been upended in ways that we had never experienced and we had no recent history to draw lessons from. We, out of necessity, migrated everything to digital spaces and did what we could to adjust on the fly.

Having fully made the switch to remote work, learning, entertainment, and socializing, we now find ourselves surprised by the fatigue that is coming with re-entering a more embodied world. We get together with friends we’ve missed and find ourselves overly tired as we depart. We attend an in-person meeting and find our senses overstimulated and feel frazzled. We encounter a colleague and attempt to make small talk and find ourselves bereft of anything to say. We feel awkward, uncomfortable, and exhausted.

In much the same way that our adjustment to Covid-related safety precautions required mental, physical, and emotional energy, our re-entry into embodied spaces is going to involve a certain amount of adaptation and discomfort. Humans are quick to develop habits that help them keep decision-making to a minimum and privilege relative ease in daily living.

Over the course of the pandemic, we’ve established all manner of habits to keep us going. We’ve adjusted to dress shirts on top and sweatpants below and acclimated to a new way of life with a slower pace and fewer people. We’ve been rescued from social situations we never loved and haven’t needed to practice skills related to social or relational encounters, in the same way, we would have had we not been distancing. Now, we will have to adapt or re-learn the skills to restart life outside the home.

Any time we face situations that require us to engage a new, or atrophied skill, we are likely to feel drained, irritable, and/or to lack confidence in our skills. Instead of simply plowing through these feelings, like we did as we adapted to the need for safety precautions and the beginning of the pandemic, it would behoove us to move a bit more intentionally and thoughtfully as we re-engage our wider interpersonal circles. We would do well to:

  1. Plan ahead. This means having some conversation starters ready because even the most loquacious us might find it challenging to slip back into the flow and rhythms of real-world conversation.
  2. Take it slow. Be intentional about the pace at which we re-enter social situations because we are likely to be overwhelmed more quickly than we were pre-pandemic.
  3. Keep a sense of humor. Most of us will feel at least some awkwardness with making eye contact and starting or joining conversations. Keeping it light-hearted can reduce anxiety and signal empathy to each other.
  4. Cultivate a “beginner’s mind.” This is a concept borrowed from Buddhism, and it means adopting a non-judgmental and curious attitude toward what is happening around us.

Basically, we will all thrive if we are ready to stretch ourselves into these new old spaces with a beginner’s mind. Such an approach allows us to realize that everyone is a bit rusty and uncertain and that, together, we can find our way to comfort in social spaces.

“We’ll get through this together” became a familiar rallying cry throughout the pandemic and needs to be resurrected as we come back together in embodied ways. Denial about the complexities of undoing the habits we fell into to keep us safe during quarantine will only hurt us, just as all denied or suppressed feelings do. Instead, let’s be honest about the exhaustion that all this adapting requires and find ways of pro-actively getting ourselves and our communities through it with health and thriving in our collective focus.

More from Doreen Dodgen-Magee, Psy.D.
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