Too many virtual hangouts may do more harm than good — here's how to know if it's time to say no

rhosie@insider.com (Rachel Hosie)
Too much virtual socializing can be overwhelming.

Getty/Filippo Bacci

  • Social distancing guidance due to the coronavirus pandemic means instead of meeting our friends and family in person, we now socialize virtually.
  • However, as many people jump headfirst into endless chats on Zoom, Skype, Houseparty, and Google Hangouts, it can feel very overwhelming and start to induce anxiety for some.
  • Introverted people who know they need quiet time on their own to recharge now find themselves in a difficult situation as they can't let friends down lightly by saying they're busy or have other plans.
  • However, three therapists explained to Insider why it's imperative to put boundaries in place and say no when you need to in order to protect your mental health.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

As little as a few months ago, back before countries around the world went into lockdown amid the coronavirus pandemic, our social lives looked very different.

Now, as many of us stay at home while self-isolating and social distancing, we've swapped pub quizzes, coffee dates, and movie nights for, well, virtual pub quizzes, virtual coffee dates, and virtual movie nights.

Yes, it's wonderful that we live in an age technologically advanced enough that we can keep in touch with our loved ones through a digital device, but as our screentime soars and the invitations to chats on Zoom, Facetime, Whatsapp video, Houseparty, and Skype keep coming, what if — whisper it — you find you just don't want to any more?

What if it all starts to feel a bit overwhelming and a little stressful? What if you just want some time to yourself?

Zoom fatigue, if you will, is something the more introverted amongst us are likely to be feeling right now, but while we used to be able to decline social engagements for sacred alone time to protect our mental health, we now have no excuse. 

What can we say? We're busy? We have other plans?

Not likely, is it?

Mental health experts say it's OK to feel overwhelmed by pressure to socialize virtually

Psychotherapist Cate Campbell told Insider she thinks it's "absolutely" understandable that some people are feeling stressed out by virtual socializing.

"I think we all felt disappointed that we wouldn't be able to keep up with friends and family or carry out plans and commitments while self-isolating, so everyone dived into a whole lot of virtual socializing. But that has just created a new set of pressures," she said.

"People imagined all sorts of possibilities for when they were home, such as spending more time with their partner and/or children, catching up with other relatives and friends, cooking more, DIY, housework, gardening, plus virtual cocktail hours, quizzes, games, movie watching, etc.

"Actually, when we stop going out for work, most of us realize how tired we are and that we don't have the energy for a fraction of the activities we hoped to accomplish."

 

Combine work with the anxieties of the coronavirus pandemic plus, for some, the pressure of looking after children, and people are realizing they don't have anywhere near as much time or mental headspace as they thought they might while social distancing.

"There's also no gear change between work and home, which means if you've been online or in conference calls all day, the last thing you need is to join another group call when you finish work," said Campbell.

"Being at home, you may need to spend more time tidying up before you can relax too. Things like online ordering and going to the supermarket take much longer now than they normally would and many of us feel obliged to call family members we don't live with, so you need to look at the day you have timetabled and shave off 20-25% to avoid feeling overwhelmed."

Social media can increase FOMO and pressure

Yes, sometimes we screengrab funny moments from our virtual chats and post them on social media, but for some people, seeing these contributes to the feeling that they should be filling their evenings with Zoom hangouts.

There's also the fact that many of the supposedly helpful self-care memes and messages swirling on social media tell us we need to be Facetiming our loved ones.

 

"Feeling obliged, for whatever reason, to do something you don't really want to do can be overwhelming and stressful," Relate counselor Gurpreet Singh told Insider.

"This feeling of obligation can come from socializing, whether this is done in person or through virtual mediums like Zoom and Houseparty."

Most people are feeling more anxious than normal right now, and for some people, chatting to friends all the time will help. For others, it won't.

"If your main way of coping is to share and talk, then virtual socializing is probably right up your street," said Singh.

"On the other hand, if you like to be with your own thoughts, then virtual socializing may be something you want to avoid or limit. Or you may be somewhere in the middle."

But even extroverts may reach a point where they're feeling Zoom fatigue or just can't keep up.

"Perhaps you found all the virtual socializing enjoyable at first but you're now feeling overwhelmed or finding it boring," said Singh. "This can be particularly true if you're working from home and spend a lot of the day on conference calls. The idea of yet another video call can feel too much, even if it is with close family and friends."

Equally, psychologist Emma Kenny points out that if you're finding the current situation more challenging than your friends, forcing yourself to talk to them may not help.

"You know that on one hand staying connected is powerful for combatting feelings of isolation and for encouraging positive mental wellness, but if you are not actually in a space where you feel able to relate to others in a better mental space than you, then sometimes forcing yourself to do so is counterproductive," Kenny told Insider.

When virtual socializing feels oppressive, it's time to cut back

You need to step back and reflect on how scheduling virtual catch-ups with your mates is actually making you feel.

"When it does start to feel oppressive rather than fun, we need to realize we are becoming stressed," said Campbell.

"It's also easy at the moment to have the same conversation repeatedly or keep checking the news for updates and then talking over what you've found.

"If this is making you anxious or trying to calm friends is feeling as though you're being sucked dry, do stop. Everyone needs some space, so you have to make sure you get it and don't just gallop from one online encounter to the next."

 

Equally, Singh said you should take a moment to assess whether virtual hangouts are giving you a boost, or draining your energy.

"If you enjoy socializing in general, then you tend to get your energy from these kind of interactions and get a 'buzz' from them," he explained.

"You look forward to them and a lack of them might have the opposite effect on you. Virtual socializing becomes a replacement for what you otherwise enjoy.

"On the other hand, if you like your own company and like the odd socializing activity, then the frequency and potential repetitiveness of the conversations might be overwhelming and become hard work. This can leave you feeling de-energized, tired, and feeling low."

It might be that some of your friends are lifting you up right now, but others are draining you.

"If you feel more anxious, stressed, or scared at the end of any interaction, then you are being emotionally informed that the interaction was neither a relaxing nor positive one," Kenny said.

Be honest with your friends when you need time to yourself

All three therapists Insider spoke to recommended honesty as the first port of call.

"Many of us are really busy at home now and it's fair enough to say so," Campbell advised.

"People understand if you say you're cutting back on social media and will probably be sympathetic if you say socializing is becoming a strain, especially if you're now fitting in extra calls to family."

Of course, you want to be there to support your friends, but not to the extent that it's damaging your own health.

"Saying no to friends is a balancing act because you don't want to leave someone struggling, but equally you don't want to add to your struggle," said Kenny.

"If you know that these requests are more about fun and socializing than stress and support, then just be upfront. Tell your friends that you are feeling burnt out and you just need some time to recharge your batteries.

"Agree to text them all regularly so that they know you care, and so they don't need to worry about you. If you think you can manage a couple of socials a week then agree to hang out when and if it works for you."

She added: "Feeling exhausted and overwhelmed by the idea of connecting with people can mean that you just need to switch off for a while, so be kind to yourself and tell your friends that you are OK, but are taking some time out."

 

Campbell also recommends booking virtual chats into your calendar in advance and then leaving it at that.

"A good way to manage enthusiastic friends is to suggest a regular online meeting (no more often than weekly and possibly considerably less) which clearly defines the time you're prepared to spend on this while seeming keen to ensure you keep up contact," she said.

"Once there's something in the diary we don't need to keep contacting one another."

And if you have a friend who really won't take no for an answer, Campbell suggests telling them that seeing everyone online makes you sad you can't be together.

"Sending a card or message may mean more than just being available for an online scrum or repetitive chat," she said.

Enthusiasm for virtual socializing may fizzle over time

No one knows how long we're going to be social distancing for, and thus how long it will be before we can see our friends and family in person again.

So even though you may have jumped head-first into Houseparty and Zoom, the novelty may wear off, your enthusiasm may wane, and you may find it starts to become more draining. And if that happens at some point, that's when you need to speak up.

"It's completely understandable to feel overwhelmed," said Singh.

"Asking not to participate in such activities should be equally understandable. It's about communicating this in a way that makes it clear it's nothing personal."

If your friends aren't feeling the same, you need to be strong.

"We have a unique opportunity to practice self-care now, so shouldn't get carried away with other people's organizational enthusiasm," said Campbell.

"You'll have a better time if you're relaxed and looking forward to the chat or event rather than stressed about it. Many people are very anxious at the moment, and if the contact is making this worse, just don't do it." 

Don't feel guilty for limiting your socializing

The prospect of saying no to a friend's suggestion to chat simply because you need time to yourself can be daunting, but it's not selfish, and a good friend should understand that.

"Realizing that you're not rejecting your friends by saying no but you're in fact saying no to having a conversation as you want some time to yourself is a good starting point," said Singh.

"The guilt of saying no is sometimes what drives our behavior. Becoming aware of it and learning to manage our guilt without abandoning our boundaries is a good thing.

"Once you're aware of this, it will be easier to explain it to friends and family."

Respecting each others' boundaries is an essential part of a healthy relationship, and you don't want to damage your friendships by starting to resent your loved ones.

 

For these reasons, Kenny said it's "counterproductive" not to put yourself first: "True friends care about what you need, even if that differs from what they need, so speak your truth and ask for whatever you need so you can make it through this challenging time."

There's nothing wrong with you if you find that sometimes — or all the time — you don't want to chat to your friends right now. It's perfectly legitimate.

"It is so important to be able to acknowledge your true feelings and to feel okay with them, even if this means not wanting to socialize online for the time being," said Kenny.

"Some of us cope by analyzing where they are mentally through a period of solitude, and only when they feel that this work is done can they return to their normal social activities."

As the saying goes: You can't pour from an empty cup.

Read the original article on Insider