Photograph: Time Out/Shutterstock
Photograph: Time Out/Shutterstock

Do you have pandemic-induced social burnout?

Trying to fill your week with fun like in the old times and finding it way more tiring than before? You’re not alone

Written by: Kate Lloyd

I’m not sure about you, but I’m not feeling quite how I expected to right now. After a year of craving culture, partying and hanging out with my mates, I thought I’d hit this period of reopening with a lust for living it up in the goddam city. Every week would be booked up with dinners, theatre shows and 48 hours spent pounding MDMA to minimal techno. When I wasn’t shotting jägerbombs with 50 of my best friends I’d be squat-jumping with zeal at a fitness class called ‘Body Pump XXL to the Limit’ or something. 

The reality? All socialising is making me exhausted now. I look in the mirror and see the woman from the Floradix adverts staring back. I feel so tired all the time that I actually just want to stay in and binge-watch ‘Below Deck’ alone, like I did through lockdown. It’s a Catch 22 really. Every day’s a choice between ‘go out and have a fun time and then feel so exhausted that the next few days are a write-off’, or ‘stay in all week, feel a normal level of awakeness but also be incredibly bored by my own existence’. Is that a Catch 22? Maybe? Probably?

Of course, I recognise that this problem is coming from a place of privilege. My pandemic wasn’t one of frontline risks or major financial struggle. I largely just wrote silly news posts from my bed and walked round London Fields. It feels a bit Paris Hilton’s ‘The Simple Life’ to be like ‘but whyyy don’t I have the energy to go out to do more than three social events a week?’ But the more I’ve asked around the more it seems like other people are in the same (very slow-moving) boat as me. 

One Londoner told me that getting pinged over the summer became a relief. ‘It was quite nice in being able to legitimately say no to everything that I couldn't be bothered to do,’ she said. ‘Which was most things.’ Another said: ‘Lockdown was obviously awful in lots of ways but I'm a creature of habit and I got into a routine.’ A routine that they then didn’t want to lose. 'I find socialising so much more tiring than pre-pandemic,’ she said. ‘I'm having to really consciously say no to things and not overload my weeks with loads of plans.’

How our bodies have adapted

What I and these Londoners are experiencing is something similar to burnout. It isn’t doesnt surprise counsellor Louise Tyler and sleep coach James Wilson. Both say that this malaise is probably a natural reaction to a year-plus of prolonged stress. 

Wilson says that stress triggers the human fight or flight response, a system that’s more designed to deal with immediate threats (Help! An E-scooter’s hurtling towards me!) than long-term worries. The result? 18 months of heightened levels of cortisol and adrenaline: hormones that are designed to keep us very awake and alert (in case of said scooter attack). ‘We're not designed to have those flooding into our bloodstream for a year and a half,’ says Tyler. She adds that it can lead to low mood, low motivation, poor emotional resilience, bad sleep and weight gain. ‘So we have really depleted our mental and physical energy.’ She describes this experience as the mental equivalent of running a marathon and says that pushing ourselves to go back to working and socialising at full pelt is like trying to get back up and sprint as we’re ‘limping towards the finish line’. 

That’s why we’re lacking motivation to do things, and it’s especially the case given that there are new stressors now. Going out doesn’t just mean returning to old social expectations like wearing actual clothes and making polite conversation to friends-of-friends. Tyler says that our brains adapted to lockdown rules and are still catching up with our new-found freedom: ‘We're always, always second-guessing what we need to do to make a social arrangement, even though those restrictions have been lifted.’ Meanwhile, social events that used to be relatively worry-free come with questions like: ‘Should I wear a mask?’ ‘Is it safe to see my gran afterwards?’ and ‘Am I being a socially awkward weirdo?’ (Wilson says that clients have been experiencing anxiety around things like ‘making eye contact in real life’.)

Basically, socialising feels more tiring now because it is. And, more than that: it turns out that living a real human life rather than one of a lockdowned droid is actually leading to some people getting worse sleep than they did earlier in the year. 

Wilson says his clients have reported finding going out way more stimulating than they used to. (I can sympathise. Last week I went to a birthday party for the first time since Covid hit and had to take a Calms to get to sleep.) ‘A lot of people I work with have reported that they’re finding it harder to sleep after a night at the theatre or a football match,’ he says. ‘It makes them feel much more wired than before. Our bodies have adapted to a lack of socialising.’ They’ve talked to him about getting better sleep in lockdown too – thanks to being able to have a more stable bedtime routine and being able to dictate their own patterns better than when they’re in the office and rushing off to the gym and then dinner.

No more fight or flight

So what’s the solution? First up, it’s reminding ourselves that it’s totally normal to feel tired from the past 18 months even if nothing that bad happened to us: we all need our post-marathon recovery time. Then we need to work to shut down our ‘fight or flight’ response and rev the engines of our ‘rest and recover’ system. This might mean switching HIIT training for low-intensity exercise like yoga and hiking, or choosing to socialise in a way that makes us feel relaxed rather than hyped up. (Spa day, anyone?) It’s also about building our lives back to being social again at our own pace. 

Tyler says it is still important to push ourselves out of our comfort zone. ‘There is a temptation just to just carry on and sit in and watch TV,’ she says. ‘But we really do need social connections as human beings.’ She adds, though, that we do need to consider who we are now, rather than thinking we haven’t changed over the past year and a bit. ‘I think people did things before that they thought they should do and the pandemic has really made people reassess the value of time,’ she says. Perhaps you’d rather spend a Saturday wandering around one of London’s new exhibitions on your own than heading to a bottomless bingo-brunch hen party or maybe you’d rather go raving in Fabric with your best mates than go for after-work drinks. 

And if you’re going out tonight and worried you’re going to end up wiped out for the rest of the week? ‘I’d give people the same advice I give my sports clients,’ says Wilson. ‘In the long term, try and regulate your sleep pattern. That way a very late night is easier to recover from. In the short term, eat well, get a disco nap in and try not to worry too much about getting tired. It’ll only stop you from sleeping.’ 

There is, of course, also the chance that I’m entirely wrong about all of this and that all that’s happened during lockdown is that I ‘got old’. But I simply refuse to believe that. 

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