I heard a term recently that I was familiar with, but had not thought about in today’s context. Generally when the term “social fatigue” is used it describes a feeling of being emotionally overextended or exhausted by work. It has also been known to manifest itself in by both physical fatigue and a sense of feeling psychologically and emotionally “drained”.
We are social by design. However, the degree of social interaction needed varies by individual. One person may be content with one or two interactions per day, while another may need constant interaction or communication or physical contact with those closest to them.
People generally fall into one of three different categories; introverts, extroverts or ambiverts, which is a combination of the first two. We often think of the terms introvert associated with the person who enjoys being alone, but that’s not entirely accurate. The introverted nature of the person defines how they recharge themselves by spending some time alone or doing an activity that accommodates a single person. Conversely, the extrovert draws their energy from contact with others and often feels down or drained if alone for extended periods of time.
At the moment, we live in somewhat of a bizarre reality, whereby we can’t fully control our social interaction or physical connections. This has been our reality for almost a year and although it’s not the first time our human race has experienced something like this, it does take its toll on us individually and as a society.
Eventually people find a way to socially interact. Even during the 1918 Spanish Flu thousands of people refused to social distance indefinitely from their family and friends.
It’s all a result of something called isolation fatigue, which some are now calling COVID fatigue. Basically, it’s exactly what it sounds like; a physiological weariness, impatience, depression and hopelessness that is associated with slipping into a life of relative solitude.
Cognitive Dissonance and Our Brain
Let’s explore some of the psychological elements of this isolation fatigue. First, the left side of our brain is the logical hemisphere of our brain concerned with things like language, number skills, scientific skills, reasoning, and analytics. It is capable of enduring an environmental change for a long time as long as it can rationalize and then compartmentalize bad or negative feelings.
The right brain gives us a few more problems. It houses our emotions, perceptions, impulses, creativity, and non-verbal perception. Thus, the right side of our brain struggles with beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes, especially if there are inconsistencies or no defined conclusions or end-state. This can lead to a form of cognitive dissonance.
During this somewhat chaotic period of history, things such as our experiences, socioeconomic standings, and geographical locations lead us to form different perceptions of the same events and draw varied conclusions about how long we must continue like this.
During my career within the military, I underwent some training periods or cycles that would include a small team or individual movement of significant distance on foot at a fast pace across various terrains. We would be initially told that we were to reach an objective within a period or window of time but not told the distance in which we would be moving, nor did we really know when we would finish. There was an element of physical endurance that was being evaluated, but the more significant evaluation was how we mentally coped with the stress of the unknown end, magnified by physical stress. This drove us to a form of cognitive dissonance.
In some areas of the world, it’s very clear that many people won’t be leaving their work-from-home offices for a while. In other areas, there is the continual roller-coaster ride of increased and lessened restrictions on companies and citizens. Because of this, our brains are constantly shifting from left hemisphere to right hemisphere to rationalize and deal with the emotional ups and downs.
As the cognitive battle continues, even our “logical” brain begins to fatigue as it constantly tries to convince us that we are not stressed, worried, or desiring a sense of normalcy. Add to this a holiday season whereby many are not able to congregate with family and friends to encourage and uplift one another, and we have the ideal environment for increased mental fatigue.
Interestingly, we begin to feel or at least we convince ourselves that we are coping well and no longer feel as stressed. But the stress hormone production did not stop, we merely become numb or unaware after a period of time. The impact of this continual production of stress chemicals such as cortisol overtasked our adrenals, stress levels remain high and our physical health suffers.
Eventually, we hit the wall!
So, What Can We Do?
If you are working from home, follow the standard tips such as setting up a clean designated workspace, schedule your day as you would in the office, and set clear working and not-working boundaries. Use all the communication and management tools available to you such as group chats, Monday.com or smart-sheets. In short, maintain open lines of communication and social interaction with co-workers.
We have long winter ahead of us and wallowing in misery and self-pity will do nothing but harm. Take on this winter period as you normally would. View it as a period of slow-down and self-reflection. An opportunity to establish new goals and discover new interest.
Here are just a few additional principles that will help:
• Stop scrolling. Social media may be one primary way that you remain connected to friends and family, but it also contributes to feelings of jealousy, anger, and loss. Especially if this is the only medium used to receive worldly news. Consider social media detox periods of 3–4 days every two weeks. Replace that stimulus with reading a book or writing thoughts and feelings in a journal.
• Alter your work scenery as often as possible. If you’re highly organized, it’s understandable that you would want to maintain a stationary workspace with consistency and structure.. But a change of scenery can often rejuvenate and inspire creative thought. Personally, I enjoy taking my laptop to different sites around town to spark creativity. I’m not one for wanting to camp out in the midst of a busy social spot, but I do enjoy my small town coffee shops, cafés and outdoor recreational areas to feed of the vibe of each in some small way.
• Make self-care a priority. Things like a bubble bath, pedicure, meditation and long walks may not move the needle of our business, but they energize us and allow for decompression and reduction of stress. All of which make us more productive and healthier.
• Be intentional about social time. Just like you schedule time in work and for yourself, schedule time to be with friends and family. Use these social moments to truly reconnect, exercise intimacy, collaborate on projects, learn something new, share memories and music, help your community, and so on. Step away from Netflix binging and be social.
Yes, Isolation fatigue is a real thing. But what if you leaned in and got comfortable with your isolation and made your social interactions even more meaningful?