The floating red bubble on my iMessage app currently reads “333”—meaning, I have 333 unanswered text messages. Before the advent of COVID-19, my text-answering rate was average at best; now, it’s downright deplorable. The very obvious solution for tackling my anxiety and guilt over my growing list of unreads would be to tackle them one by one. So, then, why am I not answering my text messages?
The exhaustion so many of us feel right now due to the stress of COVID-19 may be seeping into our communication with others, says Aimee Daramus, PsyD. “Even during social distancing it’s possible to exhaust your social energy, especially if you’re an introvert. Digital communication is fantastic for staying connected in some ways—imagine this pandemic but with no internet!—but it takes up social energy without giving us things like touch or shared experiences that we can only have in person,” she says. “You might be getting socially exhausted, just like you might at a party but even more so because of the lack of physical sensation.”
That texting fatigue you’re feeling is a message from your brain that digital communication (at least in this quantity) just isn’t filling your social fuel tank. And equally as taxing, says Dr. Daramus, is the guilt we serve up to ourselves as punishment for not offering the timely answers we feel we owe people over text and email. “There’s that urge to put others first and not be rude,” she says. “The guilt often comes from the assumption that it’s never ok to put yourself first, so maybe think about exploring why you’re uncomfortable treating yourself as if you were just as important as other people.” This desire to answer is pretty much hammered into us from the time we get our first cell phones, but it’s hardly a compass to live by during a pandemic—when it’s more crucial than ever to prioritize your own mental health.
Fortunately, Dr. Daramus says it’s fine to leave messages unanswered if that means stronger mental health for you—and those in your quarantine inner-circle. But if you do want to offer a nice sign to the outside world that you’re perfectly healthy, Dr. Daramus recommends setting up an automated response for anyone who may reach out and ask you for time. “Just set a quick auto-response to let people know you got the message or send one quick text to people likely to text you, letting them know you won’t be available to respond for a while but you’re fine,” she says. “It’s not a lie. You’re busy taking care of yourself so you can be better for them as well.”
If you have an iPhone, you can set up an auto-reply via the “do not disturb” tab in your settings app. You can make the big move of setting up read receipts or download a more customizable app—like AutoSender—which will allow you to choose particular days and times to block off as “leave me alone!” periods. Remember, your phone works for you—not the other way around.
Oh, and if you’re reading this and I haven’t answered your text, I’ll be in touch as soon as the fog of COVID-19 lifts—promise.
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