Whether it’s warmer weather that’s coaxing you out of your lockdown bunker, or you and your loved ones are vaccinated and starting to see each other again, IRL hangouts are slowly starting to make a comeback. And while this return to some old habits is undeniably exciting, the transition from isolation to socialization can actually feel draining. So if you’ve been wondering why you feel tired after socializing, you’re not the only one.
In early March, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report stating that fully vaccinated people can socialize indoors, mask-free with other fully vaccinated folks. But if you convened with your vaxxed pals upon hearing the news only to leave feeling exhausted, rest assured that that’s totally normal right now, says licensed counselor Nawal Alomari. Remember how draining it was to transition to living most of your life at home when the pandemic started? She says this is the same thing, just in reverse. (So it’ll take some time to get used to, even though that’s how regular life used to be.)
That transition period may last a while, says Alomari. The majority of people need to be vaccinated in order for COVID restrictions to subside, according to the CDC, and currently about 12% of the U.S. population has gotten their shots. That’s why precautions like wearing masks in public and social distancing are still important to protect those who are unvaccinated.
Still, the world has been waiting for this time when things return to normal — so why are you experiencing social fatigue? Below, mental health experts explain why you’re so drained after your first forays back into in-person interactions (and why this isn’t a strange response).
Socializing in public or at a friend’s house is a dramatic change of scenery when you’re used to doing most things from home. The sights, sounds, smells, and surroundings — though perhaps not completely alien to you — can feel overwhelming after a year of relative stagnancy. So reintroducing those different experiences and stimuli, while fun and exciting, can be a lot to process, according to Alomari.
If you feel tired after something as simple as pleasantries with your barista when you grab a coffee, give yourself a break, says Dr. Dave Rabin, a psychiatrist, neuroscientist, and co-founder of Apollo Neuro. You’re working hard to take in and make sense of everything that’s going on around you, so it might take a while before venturing outside the house is more energizing than energy-zapping. “Our environment and surroundings are changing quickly in an unprecedented fashion,” he tells Bustle. “We relearn to socialize ourselves as we prioritize safely reconnecting with each other.”
Your Sense Of Time Is Changing
Your life probably went into slow motion when the first pandemic lockdowns began. Suddenly you had so much extra time on your hands without your commute, social appointments, or daily yoga class. Well, now that slow motion is starting to turn back into a more fast-paced way of life — whether it’s more frequent hangs or returning to your workplace, doing things outside your house requires budgeting your time differently than you’ve been doing for the last year, says Alomari. Remember thinking about travel time and your parking situation? That comes into play when making plans again.
Hangouts are now punctuated by the need to account for others’ COVID precautions. And thinking that through can be exhausting.
This is a far cry from the time-efficient, hyper-localized lifestyle you’ve gotten used to, says Alomari. “Your energy went from running around and multitasking to learning how to make use of your time at home,” she tells Bustle. “Now it’s shifting again.” Transitioning from one lifestyle to another is no easy feat, she adds. Be patient and give yourself the time to find and settle into new patterns, just like you did at the beginning of the pandemic, recommends Rabin. Human beings are adaptable, he says, so you’ll relearn to comfortably navigate social situations in time.
You’re Juggling Others’ COVID Comfort Level
If you’ve kept your pandemic social calendar full with virtual hangouts or phone calls with friends, you might be wondering why transitioning back to some in-person socialization would feel any different. But it will, says Alomari, and a huge reason why is because you’re expending extra brain power as you navigate peoples’ different COVID comfort levels.
In the before times, nobody would bat an eye when hugging or sitting next to each other at a restaurant. But even if all the people you’re with are fully vaccinated, some might still feel uncomfortable with close contact or even venturing into public spaces at all. Alomari says you’re constantly on alert for those preferences whenever you socialize, so that makes what would have been a natural interaction more complicated: Hangouts are now punctuated by the need to account for others’ COVID precautions. And thinking that through can be exhausting.
Shedding some of your social muscle memory requires extra thought and consideration.
The same goes for COVID safety in general, she adds. Where it was once a no-brainer to grab a drink on a patio, you now have to consider whether or not that’s the safest option for you, your loved ones, and the strangers you encounter along the way, especially given the fact that there are asymptomatic carriers, says Rabin. That’s a lot to weigh, and it’s made more complicated by the fact that there’s never a sure-fire answer when it comes to COVID. “You have to assess at every point: Is this okay? Are they okay? Am I okay?” Alomari tells Bustle. “Your brain gets tired from doing that all the time, because you can’t know for sure.”
Social Norms Have Changed
Before COVID, you understood how to conduct yourself in most social settings, says Alomari. But now social niceties have changed: Holding the door for someone might put you in too close range, or reaching out for a handshake could provoke recoil. It’s strange and a different experience, and shedding some of your social muscle memory requires extra thought and consideration. This can wipe you out while you start to find your footing.
Socializing After COVID
If safe in-person social interactions are back on the table for you, Alomari suggests easing back in. Even if you’re super excited to hit up IRL happy hour or a family party, you need time to adjust. If you’re the opposite, don’t worry — feeling socially anxious is totally normal, she says. Either way, embrace this as an opportunity to start finding a healthy balance between your home and social lives. “Take the good from both worlds,” suggests Alomari. “If you enjoy social things, reintegrate what you loved before. And if you enjoy the slowdown, keep the parts that you like.”
Rabin also recommends being gentle with yourself throughout the process. Pay attention to whether you get exhausted in a social situation, and if you do, take a breather or head home. It will take time to readjust, and giving yourself the flexibility to do so will serve you in the long run.
“We’re headed towards a new reality,” Alomari tells Bustle. “A lot of our priorities have shifted during this. We've learned to pay attention to our home and personal lives, our health, and our self-care.” So if you lived for your jam-packed social calendar before the pandemic but are now satisfied spending more nights at home, that’s OK — it might be your new, healthier normal right now.
Anderson, A. (2019). The Relationship Between Uncertainty and Affect. Frontiers in Psychology, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6861361/
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Thompson, C. (2021). Changes in social anxiety symptoms and loneliness after increased isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Psychiatry Research, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0165178121001311?via%3Dihub
Nawal Alomari, L.C.P.C., a licensed clinical professional counselor and life coach based in Chicago