Feeling Exhausted Lately? It Might Be Social Fatigue—Here’s What That Means

After a year-plus of social distancing, this summer is already beginning to live up to its hype. Now that much of the country and parts of the international community have lifted restrictions on travel, dining, live entertainment, group fitness, and more, many of us are itching to fill our social calendars.

I certainly drank the Kool-Aid and have spent nearly all of my recent free time socializing. At first, I saw no issue with my calendar being filled to the brim. But last weekend, I found myself hitting a stage of burnout. I was hopping from barbecue to barbecue, sneaking happy hour between work and gym sessions, and planning an evening to watch The Bachelorette with friends.

social fatigue

Each event was filled with typical small talk and discussions of the mundane realities of our lives. However, I found that as the weekend carried on, I was beginning to dread the next activity instead of looking forward to it. I longed for the endless days and nights of watching Netflix, reading books, and scrolling through my social channels. What I was experiencing is called social fatigue.

What is social fatigue?

According to Psych Central, social fatigue or social exhaustion can occur when someone has been socialized to the point that they are no longer able to socialize. Social fatigue often impacts those who identify as introverts more frequently than those who identify as extroverts. However, it can happen to anyone.

The onset of social fatigue may have emotional and physical attributes such as physical exhaustion, irritability, and stress. Other signs of social fatigue include feeling unable to connect with others, challenges with attention, headaches, trouble sleeping, emotional volatility, and increasingly low energy.

If social fatigue goes unmanaged, some long-term impacts may include detachment, hopelessness and helplessness, depression, and anxiety. These symptoms of social fatigue are likely new to some, but familiar for others.

How has social fatigue changed this past year?

Social fatigue is not a new experience, but our relationship to socializing has changed significantly over the past year. That’s why social fatigue is more prevalent right now.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, lock down, and social distancing, my calendar was regularly full. I would wake up, go to work, attend a workout class, go to a graduate school class, and end the day watching a show with roommates, or meeting up with a friend. This routine would repeat itself five days out of the week. The weekend often included its own series of events. Looking at my old calendar now often makes me wonder who that person was and where her energy went. My friends and colleagues tend to feel the same way. This is likely due to the major changes we made in how we socialize. 

But during the pre-vaccine stage of the pandemic, many of us only spent time in our “quarantine bubbles.” If we wanted to expand our circles, we may have spent large swaths of energy getting tested or quarantining alone for days at a time. These once-strange practices quickly became routine. We were able to get creative by hosting Zoom events from the comfort of our homes. We found new games to play or shows to watch with those we saw in person. 

Because we were spending time with the same people each week, the need for small talk and catching up dwindled. After all, we already knew what was happening in each others’ lives. However, this could not last forever.

As quickly as COVID-19 protocols were put in place, they were revised for those who are vaccinated. It seemed as if overnight restaurants, gyms, and other social areas were able to operate at full capacity. In some ways, it felt like social whiplash to go from only being able to see four friends in person, to being able to see almost all of my friends.

With whiplash comes the need for patience. As described this BBC article, it’s normal to not feel skilled at something if you haven’t practiced it for a long time.

For example, as a runner, I normally run five easy miles, four or five times a week. However, if I take time away from running, a five mile run feels like an enormous task that needs preparation before and recovery time after.

Similarly, most of us are out of practice for socializing. That means we will likely need to prepare ourselves before socializing and allow for recovery time after social events. Thankfully, there are many ways to manage social fatigue.  

How can I prevent social fatigue?

As described above, social fatigue can be rather challenging, but it is also manageable. There are a few proactive ways to manage social fatigue prior to experiencing it. According to Kells McPhillips for Well + Good, three key skills for social fatigue management are to: 

  1. Only attend events or gatherings that feel appealing or connecting for you. It is okay to recognize that not all invitations will bring joy or fulfillment. It’s okay to RSVP no. By doing that, you create more time in your calendar for yourself or events that are life-giving.
  2. Practice dropping in on or stopping by events instead of staying the entire time. Not all events are intended for all guests to stay for the full duration. If you want to attend an event, but only believe you have the capacity to socialize for two hours, it is okay to set that boundary.
  3. Schedule personal time. It’s easy to look at your calendar, see one or two free blocks of time, and feel the need to say yes to whatever a friend asks you. But then the week of that event, you may feel a bit socially exhausted. Instead, when you see two or three blocks of free time, proactively set aside that time for you. Practice saying, “Thanks, but I already have plans,” even when those plans are just Netflix and chill.

How do I treat social fatigue?

If you are already feeling socially fatigued, it is important to manage the experience that you are having. If you are currently at a social event, find a way to either leave or find space where you can have alone time. After you have returned to your home or a safe space, practice calming coping skills. Try meditation, journaling, deep breathing exercises, or grounding exercises. Whatever amount of time you need is valid and should not be rushed.

While many of us have experienced some level of social fatigue in recent months, we are all capable of managing our symptoms and experiences. If you find that you are practicing both proactive and responsive skills to manage social fatigue, but are not feeling improvement in your experience, consult with a physician or a mental health provider to assess for further support needs.

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About Sarah Kelly

Sarah Kelly is a licensed social worker and certified alcohol and drug counselor. Sarah received her MSW from Loyola University and Chicago and currently works as an individual and group therapist for Clarity Clinic Chicago with an emphasis in addiction and trauma work. While Sarah believes that therapy is a significant and often necessary tool to foster personal and community wellness, Sarah believes in caring for the whole person and whole community. Sarah works towards this value by engaging in Chicago’s running and yoga communities, tapping into several book clubs and indulging in the bachelor. Sarah hopes to support you in the process in discovering what brings you value in yourself and your community.