Consider the following.
“Friends! Are y’all down for virtual cocktails?” Does this make you (a) tingle with glee or (b) stiffen and want to bang your head against the desk in your home office?
If you answered (a), good for you. If you answered (b), you’re not alone in your virtual social burnout as our lives move more and more online for work, and play.
“I’m hearing many patients verbalize an increase in anxiety, and I’m also observing it and having to bring it to people’s attention,” said Shannon Englehorn, a certified dialectical behavioral therapist and licensed clinical social worker with Novant Health Psychiatric Medicine in Kernersville. “It turned on so gradually that, over time, the burnout has been increasing for many of them.”
The symptoms she’s noticed of this shift into virtual burnout include loss of sleep, difficulty shutting the brain off at the end of the day and uncharacteristic impatience and irritability.
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“I’ve been hearing the word ‘overwhelm’ more,” she said.
It’s not fun. Feeling digitally burned out in the middle of the pandemic indicates that you may not only be exhausted by the onslaught of virtual meetings for work (and possibly suffering from screen apnea). Working at home, for many, means living at work. And you may also be overwhelmed by the after-work wave of virtual hangouts with people you normally would be pumped to see in person.
Not that it’s your fault.
“There’s research to back how excessive digital interactions are draining and taxing on the brain,” Englehorn said. At the same time, she’s noticed patients multitasking at intense levels, like managing their own virtual workload while overseeing their children’s virtual learning.
There’s also the issue of lost social cues. “When you’re staring at somebody on a screen, you have multiple distractions,” she said. “All that stimulation that you’re taking in when trying to also read that person’s social cues and respond, that takes more effort.”
As for ramifications of virtual burnout, after about three months of dealing with the shift to heavily digital social and work interactions, Englehorn said, depression can sink in. She’s treating that in patients now. She’s also seeing people who have gotten so comfortable in their homes that they don’t want to get active, and it’s hard for them to feel like their normal selves. A vicious cycle.
So, how do you help stave off virtual burnout – or even recover from it?
1. Set boundaries
I started by offering up a polite “no, I’m not free” response to any virtual hangout invitations outside of the 9-to-5 time zone. Which means I close down my computer and generally ignore my phone after the workday. It’s pure magic.
Englehorn takes a more conceptual approach. “I start with awareness,” she said. “How much digital time did you have today? Then look at your schedule and see where this is not working for you, where in your schedule you feel overwhelm or fatigue. Do you need to set up times or spaces where you aren’t connected?”
Then the trick is to be consistent with those boundaries throughout the week.
While anybody can be dealing with virtual burnout during this unprecedented time, Englehorn is seeing perfectionists and high performers having the most trouble setting boundaries, and those living with ADHD feeling more overstimulated. Then there’s the elderly – stressed-out people who are navigating Zoom, online appointment check-ins and more for the first time.
2. Make time for socially-distant, in-person hangouts when possible
At the moment, I refuse to prioritize virtual hangouts over socially-distant, in-person hangouts when mapping out my weekly calendar. (Sorry, friends.) But as Englehorn affirmed, it’s just more energizing to be in the same physical setting as someone else.
Plus, after six months of working from home, it’s positively thrilling to get in your car and drive to a friend’s house with a bottle of wine for a backyard chat. Or to dinner on a restaurant patio with your spouse, or to a dog park with your pup where you both interact with complete strangers in the fresh air.
“Being in the presence of people is an experience,” Englehorn said. “Sights, smells, the physical feeling of what it’s like to share space with another human.”
3. Let go of the sense of dread that accompanies screen time
Englehorn said the nature of digital connections has shifted from overuse of social media to over-reliance on all things digital. “I wasn’t hearing the term ‘Zoom fatigue’ before the pandemic. Before, I was hearing, ‘I need to deactivate my Facebook page for a while.’ Now, I’m hearing more dread.”
But the digitally burned-out might forget: without these on-screen connections, we’re risking another, perhaps worse feeling: isolation.
With virtual hangouts, Englehorn said, “It’s a middle ground between what we want and nothing, because we want to be with each other. This is still an outlet to connect.”
The key is to create boundaries as needed, but also to stop approaching the virtual social plans you do have with negativity. Because, Englehorn pointed out, there’s actually a lot you can control about your virtual interactions. You can elevate your environment with cheerful items on your desk, like plants. You can place your call on speaker view so you’re not distracted by a grid of 12 other faces.
When you commit to a virtual hangout, she said, “Know what you can control. Don’t add dread to it, or you make it worse and exhausting at the same time. Accept that you’re choosing this – this life rhythm and pace.”