Opinion

Social distancing: “Why I’ve muted my WhatsApp groups to protect my mental health”

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Hollie Richardson
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Mute your phone updates during coronavirus.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the number of WhatsApp notifications on your phone right now, here’s why it’s totally OK to ignore them.

I’m scared, I’m knackered, I’m a squiggly anxious mess. My concentration span is less than a discombobulated goldfish, I’ve been wearing the same sports bra for a solid week and, judging by how much I watch them in my living room these days, I think Matt Hancock and Rishi Sunak are my new flatmates.

I know you are experiencing all these things too. My friends, colleagues and family members definitely are, because coronavirus is all we’re talking about with each other. Voice notes, messages, missed calls – my phone has been alive with the latest updates from people. I have the 100+ WhatsApp notifications on my phone right now to prove it. 

But last night, I decided to mute them all, because it’s just becoming too much.

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Don’t get me wrong, I know what a total privilege it is to have people texting and calling during this incredibly tense time, especially as loneliness is an epidemic in the UK. It’s so important to be there for each other, to offer support and to try and help in whatever way we can. 

Over the last week, I’ve joined pals on the Houseparty app with a gin and tonic in hand. I’ve been thankful to friends who thought to add me to their WhatsApp groups. I’ve – shock shock, horror horror – realised that making a real-time phone call is not as scary as it once was. In fact, it’s really bloody comforting right now. 

I want to know if my family members are losing jobs. I care deeply about the friends who really aren’t coping well. And I hope my colleagues know I’m 100% here for support and help. 

Also, selfishly, I just want to try and recreate something normal – hanging out with people I like. 

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But the reality is that it’s impossible to keep on top of WhatsApp conversations when I am being constantly inundated. I’m totally guilty of sending 50 exploding head emojis in one message myself (actually, I sent three voice notes of me singing underwater in the bath to one group over the weekend). But whether you’re on the sending or receiving end, it’s overwhelming and only feeds the anxiety and panic beasts. 

Just as I finally start to escape into the book I’ve been picking up and putting back down for the last two weeks, my phone flashes with a message stating the latest death toll. While momentarily forgetting the shit storm we’re in, someone will bring me back down to earth by sending the latest tweet that shows “just how bad it really is”. And I feel bad if I don’t know the latest on a friend’s job situation because their update got lost in a sea of memes and emojis.

Right now, we need to take responsibility for looking after our own mental health more than ever. It’s made me realise I find it so much easier and calmer talking to others one-on-one. A group chat only works for me if it’s to have some occasional LOLZ and banter. It’s not the right medium for me during a pandemic.

So that’s why I’ve decided to mute WhatsApp groups. 

It's totally OK to mute your WhatsApp right now.
It's totally OK to mute your WhatsApp right now.

Does this make me selfish? Do I look like I don’t care about friends by stepping away? Am I missing out? After speaking with colleagues, I feel reassured that the answer to all these questions is no.

SEO editor Lucy tells me: “It’s just a mood sapper and SO distracting when trying to work and be productive, when it’s already hard to stay focused. Also when there’s various different groups, a lot of the time with the same people, it’s hard to keep up and remember who has said what or what you haven’t remembered to reply to.”

And freelancer Lara also admits: “I’ve been off messages and social media all weekend because I was feeling that social overwhelm and pressure to be supportive of all your friends, when you actually just want to take some time for yourself… which is something I didn’t think I’d experience in isolation!”

Just in case you’re going through the same thing and still feel a little guilty about muting, mental health advocate Jo Love tells Stylist exactly why you shouldn’t.

“There is a tricky balancing act to perform between keeping up our connections with others, which we know is beneficial to our mental health particularly while we are self-isolating, and not becoming completely overwhelmed by it,” she says.

“WhatsApp is a brilliant tool to stay connected with family and friends, but even in the best of times, it has great potential to cause a lot of stress. It’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to change the way people communicate with you, but you can change the way you handle such situations and manage stress.”

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Explaining what to do, she advises: “What it really boils down to balance, balance and more balance. Leave or mute groups that are stressing you out, block negative people, turn off your notifications and create boundaries for how long and when you will look at your phone. 

“If you feel comfortable, you might even want to try explaining to your friends that it is nothing personal but you’re finding it all a bit stressful right now so won’t be as active as usual in the group before you mute. You may actually find others feel exactly the same as you too.”

Of course I’ll be checking in on friends and family, and I’ll let them know that I’m here if they want to talk directly or if something urgent comes up. And I know for sure that I’ll be seeking the same comfort from them in the coming weeks. 

But, at a time when the whole world is on pause, it’s perfectly OK to turn the sound down too.

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Hollie Richardson

Hollie is a digital writer at Stylist.co.uk, mainly covering the daily news on women’s issues, politics, celebrities and entertainment. She also keeps an ear out for the best podcast episodes to share with readers. Oh, and don’t even get her started on Outlander…