Call it the lockdown paradox: after spending so much time in isolation, adjusting to smaller lives, we may now be struggling to expand them.
Now that restrictions have been lifted, the pressure to pack our calendars, make the most of the summer and say yes to every invitation is coming up uncomfortably against a public that is not match-fit for marathon socialising. Even those butterflies who used to happily flit from event to event may now be finding one is enough.
Here’s how to not over do it.
Ease in gently
Just because nightclubs are open does not mean you have to go. “It was a big transition in and it is going to be a big transition out,” says Beth Pickens, an arts consultant and author with a background in counselling. Her own re-entry into the world, after restrictions lifted in California, was to go to Disneyland. “That was insane,” she says (she blames her wife). “We went from zero to 100 – I realised I need to go to about 15.”
“Some people have just gone out and filled their social calendars, then gone: ‘Actually, I’m not quite ready for this,’” says Emily Syphas, a London-based life coach and founder of Sober and Social. She suggests starting out with just one event at the weekend – “instead of brunch, lunch, dinner, drinks …” – as you feel out your threshold, and build up your stamina.
Get in the right mindset
Even socialising with people we love, at events we enjoy, takes its toll on our energy levels. Take whatever steps you need to feel happy and rested before you head out – “whether that’s meditating, or going for a run or walk, or having a bath,” says Syphas. “The better that we feel about ourselves before we go into these potentially overwhelming situations, the better time we’ll have.”
Focus on the moment
If you find yourself spiralling in a social situation, Syphas says to look for the “moments of joy” – no matter how small they may be. “Did you have a really great conversation with someone new? Is there great music playing, are you enjoying a lovely drink, is it a sunny day?” Focusing on the positives – or even just the specifics of what you can see, smell, touch, taste and hear – can help to anchor us through an anxious moment.
Don’t drink if you don’t want to
It can be tempting to lean on alcohol to get over any initial social awkwardness, but as a depressant, it may also exacerbate uncomfortable emotions or symptoms of anxiety or depression, and disrupt your sleep. And though not everyone is affected by day-after “hangxiety”, it can be severe. Syphas suggests tuning into your mood before ordering alcohol. “Am I drinking because I feel stressed or a bit socially anxious or upset today?” If so, you could try an alcohol-free alternative.
Allow for recovery time
Even if you don’t drink alcohol, you might feel depleted the day after. “Social hangovers are definitely a thing,” says Syphas. Especially with a reported uptick in summer colds, even extroverts might need more time than usual to recharge. “If you have become used to a slower pace of life, perhaps the next day you’d want to turn your phone off and not talk to anyone. I’m a very social person, but after my first weekend of socialising, I wanted to spend the day in bed.”
Keep conversation light, and limited
You might feel obliged, on catching up with acquaintances you have not seen since the start of the pandemic, to fill them in on all your lockdown highs, lows and learnings – but there’s no need to relive them if you don’t want to, says Pickens. She tries to keep conversations focused on the present. “I ask, ‘How are you feeling? What’s happening right now? What did you do today?’ Rather than trying to neatly summarise a year and a half of individual and collective trauma, keep it in the moment. It doesn’t have to be trite – just light.”
Accept that feelings may have changed
In his book Friends, the anthropologist Robin Dunbar demonstrates the dramatic effects on social networks of major life events, such as divorce and death; the same might apply to the pandemic. “Time is the basis of friendship,” Dunbar writes. We feel closer to someone the more time we spend in their company, and digital communication is a poor substitute.
So it is inevitable that we might emerge from isolation to find some friendships have changed or drifted away. That might also extend to how we like to spend time. Pre-Covid, Pickens kept a packed calendar of cultural events, but for the moment she finds she prefers to socialise at home and in small groups. “I haven’t gone to any events, I haven’t eaten at a restaurant … I will want to, but not yet.”
Similarly, many performers, dancers and comedians have told her that they are struggling to find the desire or motivation to do what they once loved. “They are feeling a lot of reluctance about performing, even though they missed it so much.” It may not be for ever, but Pickens’s main advice is to accept how you feel, rather than layer on shame.
Give yourself a power hour
If there’s an event you feel especially anxious about – a big party you feel obliged to go to, or where you won’t know many people – Syphas suggests making a deal with yourself to go for an hour. “If you’re feeling really overwhelmed, or not having a good time, give yourself permission to leave and know that you have shown up and you did your best.” Equally, you might find you’re enjoying yourself – after so long in isolation, it may be hard to tell in advance. A time limit can make uncertain situations feel manageable.
Ask yourself: do you actually want to go?
Equally, it might be that – if you are are honest – you are just not that keen. “We always have to look like we’re busy and that narrative feeds into our social life,” says Syphas.
The collective countdown to so-called “freedom day”, hype about the “summer of love”, and all-round eagerness for the pandemic to be over has amounted to pressure to push on with life as if everything is back to normal. But everyone will have experienced the past 18 months differently, says Pickens. “We may be being very thoughtful about what, and who, we are putting back into our lives – and I think that’s great.”
In any case, advises Syphas, don’t feel guilty for sending a regretful RSVP, or leaving an event when you are no longer having fun. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that time and energy is precious.