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Tips for managing group chats and notification overload

We’re more interconnected than ever before, but does such instant and far-reaching communication come with a hefty emotional price tag? Here’s how overactive group chats can leave us feeling overwhelmed, isolated, and downright exhausted. 

Left untampered with, the notifications function on my phone would drain its battery within a couple of hours. I’m not alluding to some unimaginable level of popularity, but rather a standard example of modern communication fuelled by oh-so-mighty group chats. 

I’m talking separate conversation chains with my family, high school friends, my favourite former housemates, and even subsects of my current work team. At least four channels are devoted to birthday drinks for different friends, three to organise group presents, and another exploring the possibility of a ‘girls‘ trip’ that will never eventuate

When the pandemic hit Aussie shores, I had only recently moved to Sydney from Perth, a city so isolated from others that it eventually made global headlines for its sheer lack of Covid cases. Suddenly, as I was living through the first of many lockdowns, restrictions and RAT tests, my notifications were filling up with messages disputing where my West Coast friends should meet for coffee, or what dresses they should buy for an upcoming party that weekend. Needless to say, these frivolous topics didn’t quite match my circumstances at the time and left me feeling pretty isolated from my most intimate group of friends. 

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This isolation-turned overwhelm left me resorting to switching the entire chat to mute, which while effective in the early days, now has me feeling three steps behind any time I open a message chain. Stella Ladikos, therapist and founder of Meraki Mental Health Training shares her insight on group chat overwhelm with Body+Soul, and some easy ways to minimise your anxiety and FOMO.

The overwhelming reality of group chats

As the therapist explains, these days the nature of group chats (and communication in general) demands immediate responses and activity, meaning you either ride the wave or drown in its wake. As most people have experienced, keeping up with this pace at all times is next to impossible, leading to missed information, missed opportunities for connection, and missed inside jokes. 

“Maybe you’ve had a really long day and haven’t had a chance to look at your phone, and when you do, you’ve missed 100 group chat messages, two dinner plans, and a major crisis that has now been resolved without your input,” Ladikos says, demonstrating just how easy it can be to suddenly feel overwhelmed or isolated by the constant notifications. 

On the flip side, as season four of The Kardashians has so perfectly demonstrated with Kim’s controversial confession of the existence of a ‘Not Kourtney’ message chain, group chats that exclude you can have a devastating impact on your happiness and mental health.

“If your only means of communication and connection is via group chats, then the chance of your mental health worsening as a result of exclusion will definitely increase,” explains the therapist, often seeing her own clients finding themselves questioning their worth and what they potentially did wrong in the eyes of their excluders. “However, if you can strike a healthy balance between real life, in-person connection and online forums, I don’t believe the impact will be as dramatically damaging,” she adds. 

While highly efficient for planning events or sharing a piece of information or funny meme with multiple people at once, the group chat method of communication isn’t for everyone, with many people still preferring to get their intimate social connection from one-on-one in-person conversations on the phone or in person. 

“In these group chats, where larger volumes of communication may be going on, being the quiet one or feeling overwhelmed might actually come at a bit of a disadvantage,” says Ladikos. 

Leaving the chat isn’t the only way to combat group chat overwhelm

But group chat (GC) overwhelm extends far beyond the ongoing conversation chains between your intimate selection of friends. While I’m an active contributor to my immediate family chat (a steady stream of updates about our dog, Barkley), I’ve found myself unable to withstand the sheer tidal wave of notifications coming from the two WhatsApp groups belonging to both sides of the extended family tree. 

Of course, I love my enormous family, but it has to be said that they tend to have little respect for time zones and language barriers. And depending on the global news cycle, a sense of political neutrality also tends to go missing. So, in order to preserve my sleep and sanity, I’ve simply pulled out. 

But withdrawing completely from group chats is a risky move, with the simple phrase ‘Mia left the chat’ holding the potential to stir up some ongoing issues and leave your former familiars greatly offended (or at the very least butt hurt). So what are some ways we can manage the daily dump of notifications that won’t make our next family gathering a tense, awkward mess?

First and foremost, tune in to how you’re feeling about the group chat, and if you find that it’s getting overwhelming, take some time out!” says Ladikos, suggesting muting all notifications for a period of time to allow yourself a little breathing space. 

Additionally, the therapist says if the opportunity to connect with your loved ones and friends is still important to you, opt for an in-person connection as a more manageable alternative. There’s also no shame in asking someone in the group to provide a summary of key events or topics– sometimes life gets busy!

“If keeping up with 100 messages a day is too overwhelming and anxiety-inducing, opt for a five-minute catch-up call with your loved ones instead,” says Ladikos. “The actual outcome there is the same, and in fact might even be a higher boost of connection as opposed to a group chat message.” 

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