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The great Covid social burnout: why are we so exhausted?

It’s not just you – the pandemic has changed our brain psychology.

By Eleanor Peake

Last week my flatmate burst into tears when I reminded her that we had agreed to see some friends on Saturday morning. 

She is embarrassed to recall this now; worse things have happened to the world than a 9am breakfast date, but finding free time just for ourselves has felt like an impossible task since 19 July when lockdown rules ended. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sunday afternoons have been packed with comedy nights and birthday parties; weekends away with school friends and midweek pub trips with old colleagues. The desperation to make up for lost time is resulting in a blur of activity as we are impatient to feel consumed by joy again. 

Months on, this relentless social rhythm shows no signs of slowing down. Socialising, my flatmate would tell me as I tried to calm her with a cup of tea, has become exhausting. 

Was it always like this? Can anyone actually remember what it was like before? For some reason, coming up with an answer to that question is like recalling a boring dream: the more you attempt to remember the details of life before Covid, the quicker it fades, as if it never happened at all. 

In 2018, a group of psychologists in the Antarctic published a report that may help us understand our current collective exhaustion. The researchers found that the emotional capacity of people who had relocated to the end of the world had been significantly reduced in the time they had been there; participants living in the Antarctic reported feeling duller than usual and less lively. They called this condition “psychological hibernation”. And it’s something many of us will be able to relate to now.

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“One of the things that we noticed throughout the pandemic is that people started to enter this phase of psychological hibernation,” said Emma Kavanagh, a psychologist specialising in how people deal with the aftermath of disasters. “Where there’s not many sounds or people or different experiences, it doesn’t require the brain to work at quite the same level. So what you find is that people felt emotionally like everything had just been dialled back. It looks a lot like burnout, symptom wise.” Kavanagh continued: “I think that happened to us all in lockdown, and we are now struggling to adapt to higher levels of stimulus.”

Once we are placed in unusual under-stimulating environments, whether the remote South Pole or Covid-induced lockdowns, the brain adapts to the new status quo pretty quickly. According to Kavanagh, our brain got used to functioning at a quieter level. “We got used to being alone,” she said.

It may have taken a few months, but the impact of this is finally being realised. “When we go back out, it’s quite a shock to the system,” Kavanagh explained. “Because our brains are used to processing at a different speed, this can make us a lot more tired than we may have been before the pandemic.” 

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And this isn’t the only factor that has been shaping our psychology as we live through the pandemic years. “One of the things the brain tries to do to help us in stressful situations is use emotional regulation. Often that looks like using our prefrontal cortex, the smart part of our brain, to talk the rest of our brain off of a ledge,” Kavanagh told me. “So we’re using this decision-making part of our brain to calm down our limbic system when it’s getting very highly stressed. That takes a lot of cognitive energy.”

Inevitably, that is having an impact on our emotional resilience. “That can only go on for so long before we start getting consequences, simply because it’s not a system that was designed to last for 18 months,” Kavanagh warned. The after-effects of this sort of stress can result in complete exhaustion, even after hours of sleep. 

So why are some of us, like my flatmate, only feeling the side-effects of this re-socialisation now? “The people who went straight into full-time socialising once the restrictions were eased, without it having much of an impact at first, are the ones I would be most concerned about,” said psychotherapist and behavioural expert Nilufar Ahmed. “A lot of these people had an adrenaline rush coming out of lockdown, but that inevitably fades at some point and these people are the ones that find themselves crashing, months into the easing of restrictions.” 

It may take a few more months until our energy for socialising returns, but rest assured, it will. “One thing we know is that when you remove people from an isolated environment, their brain function does return to normal. It takes time, it’s hard to say how long,” Kavanagh said.

Finally, even as our social schedules kick into gear, it would be wrong to assume everything really is back to normal. “I think the other issue that we are contending with is [how] we are still in an ongoing threat situation, people still feel like they are in a dangerous situation, which is reducing our brain’s ability to adapt to our new environments even more,” said Kavanagh. Months on and our brain is still in survival mode. “We are not really using our mental energy to get back to the way things were because we’re in the mindset that things are still bad. For many people, life still does feel quite scary at the moment.”

As normality slowly and inevitably trickles back, its slow pace should also be mirrored by a cautious return to socialising in our personal lives. Overcompensating, as Kavanagh rightly warned, will only lead to a major crash and burn. “I think for a lot of people, all they need to give themselves is time,” she said. For my impatient flatmate, this remains the trickiest life lesson of all.

[See also: What WhatsApp has taught me about friendship]

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