Now that half of US adults are now fully vaccinated, we're finally able to do more socializing than distancing. And while it's pretty exciting that mingling — in groups, one-on-one, and even with strangers in bars — is a thing again, chances are you might now be finding yourself with a social calendar that's a little more packed than you bargained for. And if you've started to notice that you're more exhausted than usual after a day or night of socializing, or even after what should've been a normal meetup pre-COVID times, you're not alone. In fact, there's a name for that: a social hangover. And according to experts, they're currently on the rise.
What is a "social hangover?"
Social hangover isn't a clinical term, but it describes the experience of feeling exhausted, drained, and "hungover" in the aftermath of socializing, explains Sage Grazer, LCSW, chief clinical officer and co-founder at Frame. Basically, if you're feeling really low-energy, irritable, anxious, and maybe even physically depleted after hanging out with people, you're probably experiencing a social hangover.
Where did the name come from? Well, symptoms of social hangovers are similar to many of the symptoms that you might experience after a heavy night of drinking, according to Alissa Jerud, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist. And, FYI, while you can experience a social hangover even when alcohol isn't involved, if you're feeling anxiety only after nights where one too many cocktails were involved, know that it could also be the alcohol to blame.
Why are social hangovers such a thing right now?
For what it's worth, social hangovers were definitely happening pre-pandemic. It's just that way more people are experiencing them now. "As restrictions are lifted, more people are venturing out and expanding their social calendars," notes Andreas Michaelides, Ph.D., chief of psychology at Noom. Even if we enjoy the company of others, some of us find ourselves physically and emotionally exhausted from a single social event. "This exhaustion can be overwhelming, and a new sensation for a lot of people who were extremely social pre-COVID lockdown," Michaelides points out.
When you think about it though, it's not super surprising so many are feeling this way. "After a year of limiting our social lives and fearing interpersonal exposure, it makes sense that we would feel at least a little on edge when first getting used to socializing again," Grazer points out. "The pandemic 'new normal' is what we became accustomed to, so it will be another adjustment as we phase back into socializing — and it might feel overwhelming at first."
Another factor is that some people are packing their social schedules right now out of excitement, and they may not be prepared to handle the lack of recovery and quiet time they're accustomed to now, notes Myra Altman, Ph.D, VP of Clinical Care at Modern Health.
Lastly, socializing is a performative skill and one we often take for granted, Michaelides says. "Some of the anxiety that you may face could be similar to an actor returning to the stage after a hiatus," he notes. In other words, some of us don't quite remember how to "perform" in social situations anymore, and it takes a lot of effort to behave "normally" among others again. No wonder we feel exhausted afterwards.
Some people are more susceptible to social hangovers than others.
While pretty much anyone can experience a social hangover, it should come as no surprise that those already dealing with general anxiety are at higher risk. "As a therapist specializing in the treatment of anxiety, I have definitely noticed an increase in social hangovers recently in my practice," Jerud says.
Personality type also plays a role. "Introverts are naturally going to be more at risk for social hangovers, along with people who suffer from social anxiety disorder," Grazer says. For what it's worth, many of us probably have a touch of social anxiety (though not necessarily a full-blown disorder) post lockdown-life, she adds. Those who are empathetic and highly sensitive are also susceptible to the affliction. "This group may be more vulnerable to social hangovers because they may feel overstimulated as they begin exposing themselves to social events and outings again," Grazer notes.
And lastly, those still concerned about catching Covid-19 are another group likely to experience social hangovers, says Emily Anhalt, PsyD, clinical psychologist and co-founder of Coa. "The process of risk-assessment — weighing whether a certain situation is a risk for your health and wellbeing — requires internal resources that will then be depleted for the socializing itself."
What should you do if you're in the middle of a social hangover?
So let's say you're in the throes of a social hangover. What to do? First and foremost, take some time for activities you actually like, Altman says. "For example, you may find that quiet meditation or a mindfulness practice is the best way to decompress after extending yourself socially. Or, you may benefit from going on a walk, listening to your favorite music, or preparing a meal. Whatever the activity is, it's important to give some love back to yourself in the space where you feel most comfortable."
It's also key to recognize how you're feeling, she says. Are you anxious? Exhausted? Both? By pinpointing what you're really feeling, you can better understand what could be triggering your experience and then work to help mitigate the effects, according to Altman.
You'll also want to practice some self-compassion by remembering that there's nothing wrong with you for feeling this way. "Try to understand that it's likely that others around you are also experiencing some level of anxiety or adjustment as we get used to our new way of socializing," Altman says. "You are not alone in your experience."
How to avoid social hangovers in the first place:
If feeling depleted after social time is becoming a problem for you, or you want to be sure to avoid it completely, here's what experts recommend for nipping social hangovers in the bud.
Space out social events. "When booking your social calendar, be mindful of the need for some down time in between events to avoid overstimulation," Grazer suggests.
Set time boundaries. "Break down visits into smaller, more digestible chunks of time, ideally between one and three hours," Altman recommends. You might suggest a social activity that has a set time limit, like an exercise class or walking along a set route at a local park to ensure you're not spending more time socializing than you can handle. "Above all, be sure to communicate these time limit boundaries to friends or family before meeting up with them in person, so you're less likely to stay longer and overextend yourself."
Avoid large group get-togethers. "Large group settings can be overstimulating, and you may feel yourself getting drained more quickly as your attention is shifted among a variety of people and topics and your brain processes a higher volume of information," Altman says. If you feel like bigger groups are more triggering for you, try limiting your social encounters to one to two people for the time being. "As you start to ramp back up into socializing, you can gradually work your way up to larger group settings."
Have a post-social plan. "The best way to prevent social hangovers is to be prepared," notes Melissa Sugarman, LMSW, a licensed clinical social worker. "There are situations where we can't control being around others (work, school, holidays, parties), but if we have a plan, it can help us feel more in control." For instance, if you have a wedding to attend and you know it's going to be exhausting, you might plan to keep the next day completely open so you can spend it alone and recover. Even just having that plan in place might make the wedding itself feel less stressful, Sugarman says.
Don't play the excuse game. Try to steer away from the habit of making excuses to get out of social engagements, Grazer advises. "Honesty is important in any relationship, and you may discover it's less anxiety-inducing to under-commit as opposed to over-committing and then having to make an excuse for why you can no longer make it."