Today’s blog post is all about social atrophy — what it is, how it might affect you and how you can deal with it in a helpful way. If you find this blog helpful, please consider sharing it with your friends and loved ones, so that they too can benefit.
Global COVID-19 lockdowns are being eased and the UK is no exception. Almost six months since the novel coronavirus first appeared in Wuhan, China, we are starting to return to some semblance of normality.
But a lack of social contact over the last few months will have caused our social skills and tolerance levels to have atrophied from lack of use. As restrictions are lifted and you begin to socialise more with your friends and family, there is a chance you may struggle as a result of all the social stimulation.
We’ve written this blog post to help you deal with this reality.
What is social atrophy?
In the same way muscles that haven’t been used for a prolonged period begin to atrophy, so too does your social stamina. Fortunately, in the same way that muscle atrophy can often be reversed through exercise, training and physiotherapy, social atrophy can also be reversed.
As you begin to return to the office, go shopping on the High Street and meet up with friends and family, you’ll inevitably experience more social stimulation than you’ve been used to in recent times. When you’ve not had this for a while, you may struggle for example with being tolerant of others, you may experience bouts of unusual tiredness, difficulties with thinking clearly and even headaches. You may also find that you’re clumsy in what you say and how you behave. All of this can impact your mood as well as your thinking and your body.
This is natural and occurs simply because your social stamina has become de-conditioned through lack of use (social atrophy). Processing social stimulation such as different voices and noises actually takes a significant amount of energy and focus; those who’ve experienced ill health are likely to have a sense of this but if you’ve never experienced this before, it can be surprising and can feel disconcerting.
Social atrophy & our 3D approach to health
As you’ll know from many of our previous blog posts, the fundamental principle of the way we approach health, feelings and wellbeing here at The Helpful Clinic is the BioPsychoSocial model. To enjoy robust and sturdy health you need to bear all three dimensions in mind when you’re looking after your health.
Now, as already mentioned, atrophy is what happens when we lose strength and stamina due to inactivity. With less strength and stamina, we can quickly become tired when carrying out activities as our energy stores are depleted.
While you may be familiar with atrophy usually being associated with muscles (biological), it also impacts us mentally (psychological) and socially (the focus of this post).
Here are a couple of examples to help your understanding of psychological and social atrophy:
- Psychological — Think of the last time you had to learn something new. Maybe it was a new piece of technology during the lockdown to enable you to work from home. At the beginning, chances are it seemed difficult to pick up and you may have felt tired as a result. But now you’re used to using the software, it’s become almost second nature and doesn’t tire you as much. This is because you’ve filled the mental tech skills needed.
- Social — Having had less social interactions over the past few months, or at least having experienced a significant reduction in the number of different people you’ve been socialising with, your social strength and stamina will have become deconditioned. Therefore, when you do start socialising again you will likely find that you become tired a lot more easily than perhaps you did before.
You may think that tiredness is always physical and so you should always respond to it with rest and sleep but nothing could be further from the truth. That’s why it can be helpful to look at the different ways we experience tiredness.
The 5 types of tiredness
You need energy to function. Whether you’re simply going about your daily business, or carrying out more strenuous activities, your body’s ability to produce and distribute energy is key. However, it’s not the only factor that plays a part.
When you are doing things you enjoy, you will often feel as though you have more energy. The same goes for when you are doing activities that you don’t enjoy i.e. they feel more tiring.
With feelings of tiredness often linked to social atrophy, it can be helpful to bear in mind that there are actually 5 types of tiredness:
- Physical tiredness — how you feel after doing something physically or mentally demanding
- Mental tiredness — how you feel after you have done a lot of thinking, especially adrenalised & fast thinking
- Emotional tiredness — the type of tiredness that comes with feeling drained and is often in relation to other people
- Environmental tiredness — the type of tiredness that is affected by your environment and the level of stimulation around you
- Repetitive tiredness —the type of tiredness that comes from doing the same thing over and over for a prolonged period
We will cover these 5 different types of tiredness in more detail in a future blog post, but the brief outline above should provide you with a rough idea of the different types of tiredness you are likely to experience from time to time.
It’s also worth noting that you may experience more than one type of tiredness simultaneously. Furthermore, while many people are inclined to try and get some sleep when they feel tired, this action is only the answer for physical tiredness. Again, we will elaborate on this in a future blog post.
Remember feelings are information. Tiredness is a healthy marker of where you are at in terms of your strength and stamina. When you have reached the limits of your strength and stamina, tiredness shows up to let you know. When you feel tired, get curious about what kind of tired you are feeling.
Gradual gains are crucial
When it comes to muscle atrophy, building fitness and stamina is all about gradually increasing your activity to make sustainable gains. Improving your social stamina and beginning to reverse the effects of social atrophy requires much of the same.
Bear in mind that pacing is crucial when you are looking to make sustainable gains. So look to begin social interactions gradually and on terms that are helpful for you. Don’t overexert yourself.
For example, don’t arrange to meet three different groups of friends on a single day. Doing so under normal circumstances could be tiring, but at this point in time there is a heightened risk of you falling out, becoming overwhelmed, getting symptoms like headaches because of the social atrophy.
There is no hard and fast formula here. You’ll inevitably go over your capacity because you haven’t had much social stimulation for a while. This is understandable as you are finding your feet and establishing your current capacity. Go gently with yourself when this happens and take it seriously. Less haste more speed is the mantra here, if not you are at much higher risk of unhelpful outcomes.
Be deliberate with your choices
It’s important to remember that you have a choice in how you return to your social circles. Be selective and practice not to saying ‘yes’ to everyone. Take your time to consider which social interactions are likely to be helpful and leave you feeling good and which are likely to be less unhelpful. Then, agree to the potentially helpful ones in the first instance and consider the other interactions later.
The key to building up social strength is learning to choose the social interactions that will afford you the most benefit. Prioritise your focus on these and then turn your attention to the others once the effects of social atrophy have already started to be reversed.
Don’t fall into the trap of gorging on social interactions. Having not had many for several months, it can be tempting to go overboard when given the opportunity. It’s kind of the same as when you are really hungry and become tempted to gorge yourself on food to make up for it. It can leave you feeling rather unpleasant and uncomfortable.
As you are socially deconditioned, you won’t have the strength and stamina to sustain too many interactions. This could lead to repercussions when it comes to physical energy and have an impact on how diplomatic you are during social engagements. Be deliberate with your choices and any social interactions you do have will be a lot more fruitful.
Imagine you’d been physically inactive for a prolonged period of time. Your muscles will have atrophied from lack of use. Therefore, it wouldn’t be sensible to go out and try to climb a mountain immediately. A much more helpful approach would be to start a focussed training regime first and build your way up to the mountain climb with gradual gains along the way.
Would you like personal support to navigate your way forward and help you find the meaning you need to come through this? Book a chat with me and let’s explore how I can help you through 1:2:1 consultations.
You’ll discover how to:
- Help yourself feel better straight away
- Work with your brain and your body to respond better to challenges
- Get curious about your feelings and why they show up
- Have more helpful self-talk
- Pace to manage stress, pain and fatigue and reduce where possible
Go gently, hold steady, stay the course.
All the best, Thor