You look at your phone and there are 50 unread Whatsapp messages. You barely bat an eyelid. In this new era of digital-only interaction, group chats have become frenzied hubs of hour-by-hour activity.
For some, these small but regular interactions with friends are curbing those feelings of anxiety, isolation and boredom we’re experiencing while in lockdown. But for others, the constant flow of messages is having the exact opposite effect, preventing any respite from the C-word. Throw in some questionable memes and fake news about a COVID-19 “cure,” and the anxiety can bubble into frustration at those who we know, deep down, are just trying to help.
The way friends and family are using Whatsapp – and the way we’re reacting to it – can tell us something about how each of us handles uncertainty, explains psychotherapist Lucy Beresford. When life feels out of control, sending information, GIFs, jokes and distractions can make us feel proactive.
“For the person sending material, they can feel both purposeful (which can flatter our ego) as well as momentarily in control. It’s also a way to feel like you’re staying in contact, even though the contact is actually quite impersonal,” she tells HuffPost UK.
However, if you’re on the receiving end of unexpected or unwelcome material, it can “arouse the very sense of helplessness we’re trying to avoid.”
Something the sender thought was a good connection can, unintentionally, end up driving a wedge between members of a Whatsapp group.
“We can also feel guilty, for being annoyed, or for not finding the material hilarious or useful,” Beresford adds. “And of course we get stressed, believing we need to respond ASAP – and perhaps more wittily than the previous responder. Gah, who needs the pressure?”
So how do you stay connected while looking after your own wellbeing?
Digital detox consultant Martin Talks says if you’re finding the flow of messages too much, try to ration your use of the app.
“Only participate in any WhatsApp group once a day and not first thing in the morning or last thing at night. You do not wish to start your day feeling anxious or try and go to asleep anxious,” he suggests. “Keep your technology out of the bedroom altogether to prevent you checking your smartphone and finding yourself sucked down the rabbit hole of scary coronavirus stories.”
Turning off notifications will help you to cut down your usage. “As humans we find alerts almost impossible to resist and one glance at your phone can lead to an anxiety inducing exchange of communication,” Talks says.
While group hangout platforms such as Zoom and Houseparty are booming, Beresford recommends the power of a one-to-one interaction – especially if you’re using faceless technology like Whatsapp as your primary mode of communication.
“The problem with Whatsapp is you have no other cues to guide the interaction. The sender can’t see your distaste as you open yet one more GIF about alcohol being the only solution to COVID-19,” she says. “Nor can they see the anguish on your face, or any other facial or body language cues that would alert them to your preference to not be exposed to this material.”
“One-to-one, you can convey your differences more freely without fear of judgement.”
Sharing jokes – or indeed distress – with one trusted friend, rather than posting in a group, not only protects others who may be feeling anxious, but also allows someone to attend to our needs better, she adds. “One-to-one is much easier because it’s more personal,” she explains. “Whatsapp assumes everyone in the group will have the same reaction to the material sent. At least in a one-to-one you can convey your differences more freely without fear of judgement.”
If you do want to partake in group chats during this time, Talks recommends trying to be a positive influence when doom and gloom hits. “Steer your WhatsApp group to a more positive theme by encouraging everyone to post about a pleasant and calming topic, such as nature – as we are having fine spring weather at the moment – or cooking,” he suggests.
Beresford says that if you’re the serial poster in your group, pause to think about your intention and the potential impact of a comment or piece of information before hitting send.
“It’s tricky, because some groups exist to lighten the tone, or are built around a shared hobby. But once the material starts being about medical issues, recognise that some people might feel overwhelmed or triggered, or might be squeamish,” she says. “The motto is: if in doubt, don’t post.”
If you’ve noticed a particular group chat is repeatedly having a negative impact on your mood, Beresford advises muting or leaving a group altogether. “Set boundaries for yourself, because some people enjoy ramping up the drama,” she says. “During a stressful time like this, make sure the people in your life are bringing healthy, joyous energy.”