Loneliness during the holidays can affect anyone. ‘Tis the season to be jolly, which sometimes exacerbates existing mental health conditions. The pressure to join in on holiday cheer can put a spotlight on our own feelings of sadness, grief and isolation.
Other factors that contribute to feeling low during the holidays include seasonal depression, the ongoing pandemic, travel restrictions and family tensions. Due to the commercial nature of Christmas, it’s almost impossible to avoid in many places. November 1 arrived and so did the holiday decor in every store window. Even Mariah Carey has declared it Christmastime.
The media we consume from movies like “Love, Actually” and “Home Alone” to music from popstar holiday albums and classic Christmas carols center on themes of love and family. For those who might not be able to celebrate with family, friends or significant others, the widespread coverage of seasonal joy isn’t always well-received.
We all need healthy tools to cope with loneliness, regardless of the time of year. So, TMS spoke exclusively with two mental health professionals to learn more about how to combat loneliness during the holidays.
Our digitized life in the pandemic
Christie Hartman, a mental health expert on the medical review board of The Roots Of Loneliness Project, explains that loneliness during the holidays may be especially prevalent this year.
“The pandemic has definitely done a number on loneliness levels across the US, and we have the data to back that up – loneliness tripled after the start of the pandemic,” Dr. Hartman says. “And yes, those feelings can intensify during the holidays. The pandemic is still going on, and many people still haven’t gone back to the office yet and miss seeing their coworkers and interacting with humans in person (including holidays parties, which can be a highlight for many workplaces).
“Let’s face it, Zoom isn’t the same,” Dr. Hartman points out. “And winter is coming, which often means a rise in infection rates and hospitalizations due to people gathering indoors. As a result, many people still feel uncomfortable getting on airplanes or sitting in indoor spaces (which are required during the winter holidays), especially if they have vulnerable family members, which then means yet another year of possibly missing out on seeing friends or family during the time when we most want or expect to. All of this can lead to more loneliness. There are also those who don’t have family to spend time with during holidays, COVID or not, who can find this time of year lonely.”
Combating loneliness during the holidays
Dr. Hartman has three tips for overcoming loneliness during the holidays: virtual celebrations, finding new ways to celebrate and hosting instead of waiting for an invitation.
“You can still engage in virtual celebrations with loved ones or friends, if you can’t see them in person,” says Dr. Hartman. “Is it the same? No. But it’s far better than not seeing them at all. Even Thanksgiving dinner can be shared remotely – cook your own meals ‘together’ on Zoom and share a long-distance dinner party with those you’d normally be dining with in-person.”
Finding new ways to celebrate or enjoy the holidays can include self-care or finding a new hobby. Whether you binge a Netflix show, volunteer at a soup kitchen or learn how to ice skate, filling your day with new activities can create a sense of purpose.
Lastly, instead of bemoaning your lack of invitations to holiday parties, which is unproductive for your well-being, organize your own event. Team up with your neighbors to throw a holiday block party or host a dinner at your house. You’ll likely connect with others experiencing loneliness during the holidays, and you can overcome it together.
Embrace your feelings and stay present
Boston-based psychotherapist Angela Ficken recommends embracing your feelings of loneliness. “It’s OK to feel lonely and to experience that emotion,” says Dr. Ficken. “Loneliness is just a feeling, and you don’t have to push it away just because it might feel bad. All feelings give us important information. While feeling lonely might not be the greatest experience in the world, being present with it could help you gain more insight into what you are needing at that moment.
“What can you do to stay present with loneliness without going down an unhelpful rabbit hole?” asks Dr. Ficken. “Journaling and writing out your thoughts and feelings is a great way to be present with your emotions, it can be a cathartic release, and it can help declutter your brain so you can think about how you want to take care of yourself.”
She also recommends getting out of the house, even if it isn’t for social activity. Quotidian errands like grocery shopping or physical activity like going for a run can boost your mood and surround you with people. Just being in the presence of others can help stave off your feelings of isolation.
If you’re feeling empty or devoid of purpose, Dr. Ficken recommends giving back to your community. “When you give back, it evokes a sense of meaning and purpose which can definitely fend off feelings of loneliness because when you give back, you feel connected to others,” explains Dr. Ficken. This can include “holding the door for someone, letting someone go in traffic, helping a friend with a problem or volunteering or giving money to a cause that is important to you."
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