Health & Fitness: Why you're struggling to maintain friendships right now

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If you've been finding staying connected to your friends difficult of late, you're not alone.

Managing and maintaining our friendships can be a tricky balancing act at the best of times, but factor in a pandemic and suddenly it can feel near impossible.

With lockdown burnout setting in and phone or text conversations feeling increasingly like admin, the feeling of physical distance from our nearest and dearest is now, for many of us, being caught up by an emotional gap, too.

'Conversations are sometimes a little more awkward or strained as we feel we have less to talk about as we haven’t been out and about,' explains health psychologist Sue Peacock. 'Small talk may seem irrelevant if you are faced with losing your job or a relative or friend is ill.'

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Plus, on top of that, now that we spend much of our day staring at screens, big and small, it can feel all too much like a chore to reply to WhatsApp messages or FaceTime friends in the evening.

Time is also a major factor in this feeling of distance in our friendships. Our work days are no longer 9-5, with many people working flexible hours or finding that working from home has loosened boundaries around start and finish times, and, for those with children, hands-on parenting hours now outweigh time away from the kids.

'Many people are now focussing on their immediate needs such as juggling home schooling with working from home, so friendships are drifting apart,' Sue says. 'The expectation of being available 24/7 [is leading to work-related stress] as we feel we must respond to emails and calls outside normal working hours.'

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Whereas before we booked in drinks or dinner with friends, and knew which of our evenings or weekends were free, this merging of our work and home lives leaves us with unclear boundaries on when our down-time is.

Then there is the emotional impact of the pandemic. 'At present mental and emotional fatigue are extremely common and very normal,' Sue says. 'Most of our energies are focussed on how best to deal with this very unfamiliar situation, leaving us with less energy for our friends.'

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And when you factor in the great divisions that the pandemic has created: those with jobs and those on furlough, those looking after children, those getting ill and those who are willing to stretch the rules versus those who aren't, it becomes even clearer why so many of us are struggling with feeling distant from our friends.

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However, it isn't all doom and gloom, there are ways to manage both our emotions around our friendships and our friendships themselves.


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Sue advises putting the emphasis on creating firmer bonds with fewer friends.

'If you are feeling mentally or emotionally exhausted, put your needs first and then those of others. Focus on staying close to a smaller number of close friends, rather than trying to maintain lots of surface level connections,' she tells Red. 'Quality is more important than quantity. You will find that your stronger friendships will survive the pandemic pause.'

She also highlights how important it is to practice self-compassion, especially during this time: 'If you are feeling like a bad friend, remind yourself, you are doing your best in this incredibly challenging environment.'

Book in time for a catch-up with friends, so you both know when it's happening. Sue also advises that when you do chat, it takes place via FaceTime, or another form of video call, as eye-to-eye interactions 'trigger brain activity in the regions linked to social cognition and are more rewarding than other ways of connecting'.

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'Hearing the voice of someone you care about will decrease your stress levels, and video calls can make you feel connected and bonded with someone, releasing oxytocin which makes us feel good,' she says.

And when you do catch up, make sure it's also quality over quantity. It's better to spend 20-minutes on the phone really listening and feeling heard, than it is to spend an hour chatting while feeling one, or both parties, are distracted.

Try and find a quiet space in your house, away from things that might distract you. Video calling also helps for this, as it gives us something to focus on and also prevents us from doing other tasks while on the phone as the other person can physically see whether we are paying attention or not.

a person wearing a hat: Young Muslim woman using phone © Lilly Roadstones Young Muslim woman using phone

And if you feel you have nothing to say, or words fail you at the moment, then try and organise an online activity where talking is not the focus. There are all sorts of workshops and classes that can be organised over Zoom, both free and for a fee, from life drawing to wine tasting. Gather your friends together for some downtime and share in an activity — at the very least it will give you something to talk about next time you catch-up.

If you are struggling with face-to-face conversation, then factoring in small acts of kindness for your friends can do wonders for the protecting the friendship.

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Write them a letter or, if budget allows, send flowers, drop off baked good or send a thoughtful letterbox gift. Being reminded we are thought of and cared for deepens our feeling of connection with another being, even if we haven't physically spoken to them in a while.

And remember, the pandemic will come to an end, life will resume, and many of our friendships will bounce back from this. Just like the restrictions we currently live under, our emotional and physical distance from friends is also temporary, and before we know it, we'll be sitting round the table catching up like old times.

If you are struggling with loneliness and feel you have nowhere to turn, contact Samaritans, call: 116 123 or email: [email protected] for a safe space in which to talk.

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