We asked mental health experts how to cope with a lonely Thanksgiving

Millions of Americans will be having Thanksgiving alone thanks to the pandemic

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published November 25, 2020 7:00PM (EST)

Woman eating turkey on couch (Getty Images)
Woman eating turkey on couch (Getty Images)

Loneliness often defies stereotypes. A traveler in a foreign country may be surrounded by strangers yet feel utterly alone, while someone living alone can have a rich social life. Loneliness is not something our society is well-accustomed to discussing; indeed, "lonely" is often synonymous with "desperate." Yet humans are social creatures, and socializing is an innate need, like food, loneliness expert Cat Moore told me. "And like hunger, it signals that a social need isn't being met," Moore said.

This year, Thanksgiving — one of the most social holidays — is apt to be a particularly lonely affair for millions of Americans. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention urged Americans to stay home and celebrate Thanksgiving with people in their households, or alone. "Travel may increase your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19," the CDC explained in an advisory released Thursday. "Postponing travel and staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others this year." (Notably, record travel numbers suggest that not everyone is following this guidance).

Those pandemic heroes with few or no guests in attendance during Thanksgiving might be especially lonely given the unusual circumstances. Holiday blues aren't a new thing — and before the coronavirus pandemic, there was a loneliness epidemic, experts say — but this year's sense of loneliness is deeply exacerbated by the necessity of social distance.

Because this is the first modern pandemic Thanksgiving, there's no playbook for how to cope with being alone when it feels like others around you are with loved ones. We asked four mental health experts how to tangibly deal with loneliness this Thanksgiving.

It might sound cheesy, but do something nice for someone else

In the worst-case situation, loneliness can lead to a mental downward spiral that motivates one to reach for the next-best-unhealthy thing to immediately ease the discomfort — i.e. drinking too much alcohol, doing drugs, doom-scrolling, or descending into nihilism and being social without precautions. This is referred to as "maladaptive coping" in the therapist world, which is when a person turns to something specifically to escape their problems.

"When individuals are at that point and they're headed towards maladaptive coping skills, the first idea [that] comes to mind is to get outside of oneself and help others," Ken Yeager,  the clinical director of the Stress, Trauma and Resilience (STAR) Program at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, who has been a mental health practitioner for over 30 years, told me. "It's not until you get out of yourself and give to somebody else that you can move your mood forward and address the loneliness you're experiencing."

Yeager said if you sit and focus on what you're missing out on this Thanksgiving, you stay "inside of yourself."

"You're only musing and perseverating over your issues," Yeager said. "And it's not until you get out of yourself and give to somebody else that you can move your mood forward and address the loneliness you're experiencing."

Volunteering is usually top of mind when one thinks about helping others. Since food banks across the country are struggling to keep up with the surge in demand, one COVID-safe way to help out this week is to clean out your pantry and donate to your local food bank. Another way to cope with your loneliness by helping others could be to plan out the gifts you'll give to family and friends this year, or spend part of your day writing your holiday cards.

"You don't have to be out in public to do something nice for somebody," Yeager said, adding that you could also write a nice letter to the people who have helped you this year, too.

Skip the stuffing, skip the turkey

Why try and force something that's not happening? Thanksgiving isn't officially cancelled, but it's definitely not the same. Hence, Yeager said another way to cope with loneliness is to "make yourself a kid again" and do something "different." Don't feel the need to force yourself to eat turkey alone, especially if you don't actually enjoy turkey that much.

"If you've got a fireplace, roast some marshmallows over your fireplace, if you've got some hot dogs, roast those over the fireplace," Yeager said.

The point is to not try and recreate a traditional Thanksgiving, because that will only "conjure up memories of previous gatherings by cooking those things," Yeager said. "If you try to recreate Thanksgiving, it's never the same," Yeager added, emphasizing this is especially true for people who might be grieving the loss of a family member. Over 260,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the United States; that's a lot of people who will be without their friends and family this year.

Another way to move through the grief, Yeager said, is to share funny stories about the people you've lost.

"And what that does is very suddenly begins to move people from the grieving process into the appreciating process," Yeager said.

Put some pants on and go for a walk with a friend

Nathalie Theodore, a psychotherapist in Chicago, told Salon that another way to cope with loneliness this Thanksgiving is to think of different, unique ways to stay connected with friends and family.

"We are all experiencing Zoom fatigue at this point (not to mention overall pandemic fatigue), so it's important to think outside the box to make this holiday fun, even under these unusual circumstances," Theodore said via email.  "You can meet outside and go for a walk, or meet online for a yoga class."

Theodore added that if one is planning a "Zoom Thanksgiving," it might be worth trying to make it "more festive."

"Make your Zoom Thanksgiving more festive by inviting friends or family members you miss and haven't connected with recently," Theodore said. "After dinner, get together with friends online for a game or movie night."

"Finding creative ways to connect with friends and family will help stave off feelings of loneliness and make the day feel more festive," Theodore said.

Remember, it's just one day

Remember, Thanksgiving is just one day out of the year. And if you're lonely, so are millions of other Americans going through the same thing.

Dr. Carlin Barnes, MD, and Dr. Marketa Wills, MD, MBA, who are the co-authors of "Understanding Mental Illness," told me that it's totally normal to feel lonely this Thanksgiving. "It can be easy to lose sight of the fact that Thanksgiving is one day and not a week or season," they said. "Shifting your focus to a day instead of managing a holiday week or holiday season can help reduce anxiety."

"It is important to acknowledge and validate if you are feeling lonely on this Thanksgiving holiday," Barnes and Wills added. "If you are feeling some loneliness, this is very normal, many of us are having these same feelings."

Together, Barnes and Wills sent me a list of activities they recommend:

  • Connect with family and friends virtually (with use of Zoom, FaceTime, or other video conferencing platforms)
  • Participate in a drive by, socially distant potluck dinner
  • Reach out via phone and reconnect with family and friends with a phone call
  • Plan activities that allow you to use your alone time enjoying fun or relaxing activities (e.g. exercise, volunteer by dropping food off to a shelter or writing letters to nursing home residents or veterans, read a good book, watch a good movie, cook a special holiday meal)
  • Meditate and/or create a gratitude list of things you're grateful for
  • If possible, get out in nature
  • Start planning how you will spend next Thanksgiving when things are (hopefully) back to normal

Understand your needs

The suggestions from mental health professionals above might be helpful for some people, but not everyone. Yeager told me that coping mechanisms for loneliness can often depend on whether or not a person is an extrovert or an introvert.

"Extroverts need other people to gain energy," which is why COVID-19 has been so hard on them and this holiday season might be even more challenging, Yeager said.

"When they're alone their energy level goes down, they're not smiling as much, they're not building the energy that they do when they're around people because everything they do is built upon the response of others," Yeager explained. "If the extrovert is alone, and they're feeling that loneliness, they really need to find a way to connect with others via technology."

During a "normal" holiday season, Yeager said, introverts usually struggle with anxiety, and thus might find relief in a change of plans this year. However, loneliness is experienced by both cohorts. "If you're an introvert, you need to find the pieces of solace that help you to build energy and to thrive during this difficult time."

In other words, check in on your extroverts. 

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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