A New Kind of Social Overwhelm

All this social distancing and staying home is often thought of as an introvert’s – or an autistic person’s – dream come true.  And while that’s not necessarily wrong, I’ve found that I’ve lost a considerable amount of my social skills in the isolation (despite the fact that I’ve been going to work every day) and I’m now dealing with a whole new kind of social overwhelm.

Notification Overload

In these days of quarantine and isolation, everything has moved online.  This removes the stress of in-person socializing, which is great, but it adds a new problem: it means that everything happens at once

All my social media is blowing up pretty much all the time.  The very sound of notifications sometimes starts to grate on my nerves and sets off my anxiety.  With each little ding and buzz of my phone, my stress levels build and build because each sound means that someone – or some app – wants something from me.  It might be a text from a friend, or three rapid-fire messages from a family member, or an email from a colleague…or maybe a reminder to practice my language lessons, an alert that someone I follow posted something I want to see, etc.  It’s just….SO MUCH…all the time.

So I end up having to prioritize conversations that I have the time, the energy, and the spoons for – and simply let others go.  I don’t like that, especially because I have to put my spoons toward work emails and conversations first, but I no longer have a way to separate out time for “an evening of games with friends”, “an hour of talking with my family”, or “a two hour group get-together” because everything is always happening all at once online.

Losing Social Spoons

I’ve also found that I have fewer spoons for socializing online.  As hard as in-person socialization is for me, online it can be even more difficult.  Conversations are almost impossible to follow in a busy group chat or a comment thread.  The more people are involved, the worse it gets, just like face to face.  Zoom meetings are more exhausting than they appear between struggling to hear and the physical effort of trying to speak loudly enough – and if several people speak at once, it’s instant overwhelm. 

And speaking of auditory processing, somehow that’s more difficult online as well.  I’m not sure if it’s the slight distortion of voices or the tiny amounts of echo or the nearly-imperceptible whine of all the electronic devices or what, but it makes my brain work extra hard and means that video calls and meetings leave me drained and in need of a nap.

I’m Really Not a Hermit

It’s not that I don’t want to talk to anybody – quite the contrary!  I miss the hell out of my friends!  I want very much to hang out with people who know me, who get me, who I’m comfortable being myself with – as opposed to only seeing my coworkers, none of whom do I feel really comfortable with and none of whom would I ever totally be myself around. 

But the group chats are so busy that I had to mute them to prevent the constant notifications from sending me into a meltdown.  And the virtual hangouts that people arrange are all in the middle of the day when I’m on the clock.  Or they’re about the time I need to get ready for bed on a weeknight.  Or they’re on a weekend, but I’m so out of sorts or mentally exhausted from trying to catch up on everything I missed during the week that I forget or I simply have no spoons left.  I get invited or added into all of these, but I can’t avail myself of any of them without putting myself through more stress.

Hence, I’ve found myself hiding from a lot of online interaction. I’ve lost track of friends, I’ve let people down, and I’ve given up my one form of regular socialization that I really loved and that was really important to me.  Because I just can’t think about another Zoom meeting. 

The consequence of this is that I’m becoming more isolated while others are maintaining community.  That’s really hard on me, having finally found a few spaces where I didn’t feel outcast and now seeing proof that yes, everyone is hanging out without me.  And knowing that the choice is either to let it happen or do myself some mental/emotional harm in order to be a part of things does not help.  This whole thing sucks. 

And it’s a little scary, as well.  I’m legitimately worried about where my social skills will be when in-person socializing is a thing again.  Will I even remember how?  All those years I spent learning how to read people, how to figure out the give and take of a conversation – hell, even learning how to modulate my voice so I wasn’t always too loud – will I have to re-learn all of that?  Will I have any social spoons, or will I have forgotten how to allocate energy for social situations?  This isn’t a form of social overwhelm that I was prepared to deal with.

Two hands holding a black smartphone showing two notifications with a green table and black keyboard in the background.  White and blue text on purple background on top and bottom reads "A New Kind of Social Overwhelm"

How are you handling the move to all-online interaction?  Is it better for you or are you finding new ways to be overwhelmed as well?  Do you have any advice for me on how to keep all the various conversations straight and clear in my mind?  I’ve seen memes about even NT’s social skills regressing – do you feel like that’s happening to you?

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