Lily,* a 38-year-old living in east London, feels as brittle as a ceramic espresso cup. Not that you'd know it, to look at her. Though the binding is thin, things are being held together. Her work in publishing isn't suffering, her romantic relationship is in tact. Where things are coming apart, though, is in her friendships.
'I dread my friends asking me how I am and then having to ask them back. It's not that I don't care, I really do, but I simply don't have the emotional capacity to be a good, supportive friend at the moment. I feel very sad about it,' she tells WH.
Everyone is 'at capacity'
Take a forensic eye to your friendship dynamics right now and what do you see? Like Lily, you might intuit that you have little left to offer up, once the grind of gainful employment is done.
It's something that Dr Sophie Mort (@_drsoph) a clinical psychologist and author of A Manual For Being Human, has noted. 'A particular issue many of us are facing right now is that almost everyone we know is going through something tough, whether that's an illness, or the loss of a relationship or loved one,' she wrote in a recent Instagram post.
Pre-pandemic, she detailed, one or two people in a friendship group might have faced serious struggles at any one time, meaning that others would be able to provide the support – long, raw chats; stress-relieving nights out dancing – required.
Come the screaming festival of hellfire that is 2022, though, and it seems that most people are facing something hard, be it physical health concerns, a mental health crisis, the break down of a relationship or money struggles. All of this is set to the drum of the ever-accelerating climate crisis, to take just one of the melange of existential threats currently on offer.
The result, says Dr Mort, is this: that you might be feeling that everyone is 'at capacity.' To put a finer point on it: that you are unable to provide the support you once did to your friends, and that you, in turn, are lacking the support you once drew from them.
Why does it seem that everyone is overwhelmed?
So, why? When we asked Dr Mort what she thought could be at the root of this collective overwhelm, she shared a clutch of theories.
We've become more comfortable sharing our feelings
Firstly, that the rawness of the pandemic forced us to be more candid with our struggles, meaning that, perhaps, there's a greater deluge of openly acknowledged hardships. (This, she stresses, is not likely the whole story, but it could be a layer of this messed-up trifle.)
Big picture events are reducing our capacity for day-to-day stressors
Next, and more pertinently, 'our capacity to cope is reduced due to world and life events. The real world stressors of the pandemic and its knock-on effects (such as worries about family and friends, finances, dealing with loss of loved ones), the climate crisis and the current war in Ukraine, for example, all mean people have less tolerance for day-to-day life stresses. One result of this is that few of us have capacity to support each other.'
Dr Mort offers an analogy for this. Imagine that each day you have a rain barrel. In the morning, if you've slept well and had a subsequent little holiday from conscious stress, this is empty. As your day goes on, stress (or rain), starts to fill up the barrel. The bigger the stress, the greater the volume of water. If stress thrashes down and down, without a rest or time to overcome it, the barrel overflows. It's then that you feel you can't cope.
'At present, due to the background of real world stressors [such as horrific events in the news] few of us have much capacity left to cope with day-to-day stressors [like an intense work deadline] even if they should seemingly be small to us. This means we have little emotional capacity for the people around us, as we are all flooded,' she explains.
That resonates with Lily. 'Most of the time I am absolutely exhausted by the horrors and existential slog of modern existence, so I prioritise being alone to recharge. I wasn't like this pre-2020. I miss how carefree and breezy I used to feel around my friends.'
Lily is not alone in this thinking. EJ, a 39-year-old business coach living in Manchester, is dealing with the impact of lost working hours during lockdowns. As such, she's now working at speed to try and recuperate.
'I'm trying to squeeze nearly 2 years of lost time into my working weeks, as well as dealing with a backlog of postponed medical appointments and birthday parties for my children. Elderly family are still nervous to fully engage with the outside world meaning that the wider family support network is also dysfunctional. I would love to be able to support my friends more, but the aftermath [of lockdowns] has overloaded my plate.'
The medical backlog from the pandemic means a lot of diagnoses are happening at once
As well as the above being true, Dr Mort offers another theory. 'Due to the impact of the pandemic on the healthcare system, many physical illnesses may not have been picked up or treated as early as they might have been, before. As such, you might feel that a lot of people you know are currently dealing with a loved one being sick. This is flooding our already full rain barrel.'
Data shows that, during the second wave of the pandemic, NHS waiting lists for elective care were the highest on record, meaning people experiencing long delays in diagnosis and treatment. As these begin to pull through, it could seem as though a lot of serious illness is being diagnosed at once.
The mental toll of not feeling safe
At the intersection of the above is a feeling of being unsafe. Like you know all too well, the chaos that the past couple of years have brought has seeded out a beat of anxiety. Dr Mort notes that this can be witnessed in the minute of weird, antisocial behaviour that's been recorded, recently.
She cites that early 2021 saw the highest number of 'unruly passenger incidents on planes' ever recorded, that 75% of pharmacies in England have reported people becoming aggressive when told they cannot have the medication they have been prescribed, due to current shortages.
'On top of that, many of us aren't sure whether our governments can safely support us, meaning we don't have a sense that there is someone in control.' This, she says, is 'a recipe for anyone to feel unsafe', and another thing taking up space in your emotional rain barrel. Taken together, this might mean that every member of a friendship group has something going on, therefore dissolving the usual nourishing support networks that used to be in place.
Yasmin*, a 26-year-old from Surrey, has seen this effect in her two primary friendship groups. During lockdown one, from March 2020, she felt distanced from her gang due to the enforced physical separation.
While there was a 'season of normalcy,' late last year, in which one or two of the group had a spiky issue they needed help with, now, they all do: intense career switches; supporting a partner through a crisis.
'I do think that the way we communicate and reach out has shifted massively, because everyone just seems to have things going on,' she says.
How to tell your friends you can't support as well as you would like
If you feel like you're out of steam to support your mates in your typical way, but don't want to give the impression that you don't love them, Dr Mort recommends that you communicate. If you're really struggling and are conscious you can't make time for big chats, you could let them know, but make it clear that you love them and just need a bit of time. If long conversations are too much but spending restful time together is possible, alternatively, you could communicate what you do have capacity for.
'You may not have capacity to fully support someone in the way you think they want, but you might feel able to sit and watch a movie together, or to go and do something wild and freeing that would liberate you from your thoughts of whatever is happening.'
Where to find support, if your friends are less available
For those of you who feel like your web of support is breaking, just as you need it the most? 'Look for groups online or in your community that offer spaces to chat, and to listen, or that talk about the kinds of situations you are going through yourself. Try journalling or exercising to vent some of the pent up feelings. Consider therapy or even volunteering – we know that helping others can boost our mood,' she suggests.
On Lily's part, she hopes that, with time, some of this angst will subside and she'll be back to her fizzy, supportive self with the people she's spent endless hours shooting the shit, belly-laughing and ordering rounds of margaritas with.
For now, the tonic of rest and recuperation is what's needed.
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