While we’re a social race, all of our social needs tend to present with variations.
One or two phone calls and exchanges per week might be enough contact for one person, while another needs physical contact and near constant communication with their loved ones.
Even our self-determined identities as introverts, extroverts, and ambiverts is, at its core, a measure of what social interaction does to us – does it charge us? Drain us? A combination of both depending on the type of engagement?
Right now, we’ve been living in an alternate reality of splintered and sub-optimal social connection for almost a year.
It’s not that humans have never been through something like this…
But we’ve bucked it and suffered from it every time. Even the 1918 Spanish Flu had hordes of people refusing to social distance and be away from their family and friends.
That’s because of something called isolation fatigue.
Basically, it’s what it sounds like – it’s the physiological weariness, impatience, and hopelessness associated with the severing of our social lifelines and a return to Thoreau-ean ideals regarding the stoicism of a life lived in solitude. (It’s important to note that Thoreau didn’t even live that way when he wrote Walden – his mother and sister regularly visited with baked goods and pleasant company.)
The Cognitive Dissonance in our Brains
There are a few interesting psychological events at play.
The first is that the human brain – specifically the left side – is pretty capable of endurance as long as it knows for how long it must carry on. It loves to rationalize, and it’s very skilled at compartmentalizing bad feelings and hiding them from us.
That brings us to the second distinct event…
All of our experiences, socioeconomic standings, and geographical locations lead us to different conclusions about how long we must carry on like this.
In some areas of the world, it’s very clear that we won’t be leaving our work-from-home offices for a while. In others, hope may be regularly rekindled, only to be cast down again as cases rise or companies reassess liability or bars and restaurants shut their doors.
In the case of the latter, our brains are doing a lot of code-switching – from coldly rational left brain to vulnerable and emotional right brain.
Not to mention that even if our “logical” brains try to convince us we’re not stressed out, lonely, worried, and hungry for normalcy… (a walk in the park with friends, a lonely thursday where impromptu plans totally brighten your day, a holiday party with all of the fixings, hugging a friend when you run into them at a grocery store…)
The stress hormones in our bodies don’t actually stop coming. We just become numb to their presence.
Which means that after sustained hormonal increases, all kinds of things start to bend out of shape – our adrenals are overtaxed, our baseline stress levels rise, our physical health suffers…
All while we “think” we’re fine and coping. So if you feel like you’re hitting a wall…
And it’s not your fault – it’s biology.
Climbing the Wall
You know the tips – set up a clear workspace, schedule your day and be clear about working vs. not-working boundaries, use group chats and technology to get creative about spending time with others, etc.
But just like knowing the way to sustain physical health and doing it are two separate endeavors…
Sometimes the tips just don’t translate to real world satisfaction.
We’ve got a long winter ahead of us. There are likely going to be many revisions to the way we live now, and many adjustments we didn’t expect to make.
Normal isn’t yet close on the horizon.
However, wallowing in our misery simply isn’t the right answer.
Although we don’t hibernate like animals do, the winter time in Ayurvedic and Taoist (among other) traditions emphasizes the winter time as a slowing-down period of reflection and introspection.
Here are a few ways you can make those principles real in your life:
- Eliminate doom scrolling. Social media may be the primary way that you’re staying connected to social media, but it’s also contributing to feelings of jealousy, anger, and loss. There are other ways to stay connected. Consider making three-four days of your week social media free.
- Work in a different spot as often as you can remember. There’s something to be said for keeping your desk stationary, especially if you’re highly organized. But a change of scenery can often have a rejuvenative neurological effect.
- Make your self-care specific. Bubble baths, face masks, and long walks are lovely, but they don’t move the needle. They just pull us from sympathetic overdrive back into our sympathetics. Creation and challenge are what move the needle. No, that doesn’t mean you have to become an influencer – just consider what kind of you you want to show up as when you can reenter the world, and think about the things you can practice now that’ll get you there.
- Reacquaint yourself with actual silence. Think of how excited the first family to have a phonograph or radio in their home must have been – and how far we’ve come from that place. It would behoove us all to find value in simply staring and repairing, rather than producing and juicing. If you’re someone who’s always struggled with meditation, don’t think of it as that! Just be with yourself and the humming noises your house makes.
- Make your social time extra intentional. Just like you schedule time to be with yourself and time to be at work, schedule time to be with friends. Everyone knows what being safe looks like at this point. Use your social moments to loosen intimacy boundaries, collaborate on projects, learn new things, share memories and music, brainstorm ways to help your community, and so on. Give Netflix a break.
Isolation fatigue is real – but what if you leaned in and got comfortable with your isolation and made your social interactions even more meaningful?