Life in person is exhausting: post-pandemic socialization
As we migrated our work, home, school and recreational lives to online spaces in our early 40s, the reality of Zoom fatigue became evident. We realized, over time, that conversations that included a thoughtful view of ourselves as well as revelations about our surroundings seemed expensive in ways that others didn’t. We also trained, over the course of 13 months, to get used to the mental and physical exhaustion that accompanied our almost constant connection to the digital devices that connected us to the world.
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Now we are awakening to a new reality as we see experiences and face-to-face encounters having a similar mental, physical and emotional impact. The slow return to the post-pandemic embodied world, it seems, may not be as straightforward as we had hoped.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the shift from midlife isolation to in-person experiences can end up having a real energetic impact on our body, mind, and spirit. An artistic writer takes her first visit to the gallery in over a year and leaves exhausted and, oddly enough, numb. A business owner who has suffered from a year-long shutdown finds himself deeply ambivalent about reopening, making it difficult to muster the strength to do so. A teacher, tired of juggling distance education, anticipates gaining energy by being with the students but, on the contrary, feels irritable and completely exhausted. A typically jovial and energetic student who desperately missed being in the classroom can barely stay awake when at home. And these are just a few examples.
When it comes to both our habits and our neurological abilities, practice makes us competent. We perform a task over and over, increasing our behavioral competence while creating robust neural pathways that support the actions we take. When we stop practicing this way of thinking or acting, our brain and body direct our attention elsewhere, diminishing our skills. In many ways, we have under-stimulated the embodied and interpersonal parts of our brain, leaving us helpless when we join the community.
Over the past few months, we have become very proficient in communicating via video, text and audio. We have grown used to being alone or with our group most of the time and have spent over a year without the kind of new experiences that make conversation possible. We haven’t practiced face-to-face meetings, let alone face-to-face communication. Our embodied life skills are unlikely to be at their best, making returning to a new normal difficult at best and costly at worst.
We would be wise to take concrete steps to prepare for the energy that this restart, in a way, will require. Not only do we meet our need for self-healing, but our transition to embodied life will benefit from an investigation of the tools we may need to hone after a year of underuse. Here are some ideas on how to start this process.
1. Be honest about the energy level with which you are coming out of your 40s.
It would be easy to interpret relief as preparation at this point. Yes, most people are relieved that the Strict, Rigid Quarantine is over, but that doesn’t mean they feel ready to re-engage life in person at full speed. Take stock of your feelings and thoughts, as well as your level of physiological exhaustion, at the time. Fatigue is expected, although you are also happy that the world is changing. Make a plan to get the rest and breaks you need as you begin to re-enter embodied life.
You wouldn’t expect to run a race without training. The same is true here. If you’re safe, take a trip to the store with the intention of talking to the checker. Identify one or two topics and use them. Set a timer for five minutes and find someone to have a conversation with. Commit to coming and going with small discussions, referring to your predetermined topics. Or, if you’ve primarily texted, migrate a few of those streams to phone and then video, giving you the option to practice verbal communication. If there are any topics that might stimulate anxiety in the first few days of school, practice statements that you could use in the conversation to ignore them (eg, “Thanks for asking. I’m not in. able to discuss it for now. ”) or to express your upset at the moment (eg,“ Wow. I find myself unable to concentrate enough to answer this question now. ”).
3. Start small.
Chances are it doesn’t restart by attending a party with a lot of people on a Sunday night when we have work to do the next day. Overwhelming our central nervous system by entering it too quickly or intensely will hurt us. To avoid this, we need to practice reintegration as we would other life events. At first, 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 more to the mix or move the date to a place with a little more active stimulants (a park where there are others, an outdoor restaurant, etc. .). Notice how the number of people and the type of setting impact the manageability, or lack thereof, of the meeting. Rhythm is the key here.
4. Prioritize the “recovery” time.
Resist the urge to fill your calendar with lots of social gatherings without having time to regroup. Plan your social outings strategically so that you have time to recover. Identify a couple of things you can do to give your mind, heart, and body time to re-regulate as you come home. It could be a nap or a walk on your own, or a quiet time to let your mind wander. The goal is to refresh and rejuvenate you between moments of social stimulation.
5. Talk with others about the process.
Part of what makes support groups useful is the sense of universality that participants experience when connecting with others who have similar experiences. The more we can normalize the actual costs of getting out of less than a year of quarantine, the better. Make these conversations a normal part of your planning with those you will reconnect with.
A special note on helping children during this time: Children often experience strong emotions without the proper language to express, explain or understand them. Help them by recounting your own back-to-school experience. Help them see that sometimes irritability means a need for calm or that overwhelming is an important feeling that needs to be attended to and dealt with. Help them learn to name their feelings and the actions that will help them resolve them. Work hard not to push them back home faster than they can. It will be difficult, because most likely the parents are exhausted and need a little space. Reintegration at a pace that takes into account the child’s abilities and difficulties will be more effective.