When one thinks of the holiday season, the images that come to mind are generally communal moments: friends toasting at a holiday party, or a family opening presents on Christmas morning in matching pajamas. In other words, the holidays means being around people — à la pre-pandemic times.
Yet in 2021, we find ourselves in another holiday season marked by a coronavirus surge. Yes, some families are gathering; but others have seen their plans change abruptly out of health concerns, and still others have seen their flights cancelled last-minute by fearful airlines.
For those who are doing the holidays solo, whether by choice or by force, uncomfortable feelings of loneliness are bound to arise. Even in non-holiday seasons, loneliness is tough. Before the coronavirus pandemic, psychologists characterized America as going through a loneliness epidemic. Today, in a time where people want to so badly be back to "normal," a lonely holiday season could be extra tough.
If you're feeling afraid of being alone for Christmas, know you're not alone — at least, on a macroscopic level. In 2020, one in nine adults spent the holiday season alone. According to a more recent Red Cross survey in Australia, one in five people who live alone, or who are over the age of 70, said they had not made plans for Christmas Day this year.
If you find yourself feeling lonely during the festive season, here's how therapists and psychologists advise you to cope.
Remember loneliness is just a feeling, like joy and happiness
Like happiness, anger or joy, loneliness is just a feeling. And no feeling lasts forever. Just because you're not celebrating the holidays in the company of others this holiday season doesn't mean you're not worthy of doing so.
Rebecca Tolbert, a therapist in Washington DC., said it's important to give yourself space to feel lonely and acknowledge what you're experiencing.
"I think the first thing is to acknowledge and admit how sad and painful it can be to feel lonely, especially on days, like holidays and birthdays, where we have such high expectations," Tolbert said. "Acknowledging how we feel and honoring that feeling can be really vulnerable . . . but if we don't, we shove those feelings down, and they're going to come out somewhere else.
With this in mind, it's possible to replace loneliness with laughter instead of wallowing in it all day.
"Loneliness can be chased away by laughter and connection with others; whether you pop in a holiday DVD comedy or rom-com allow yourself the joy of laughter," Dr Manly said. "Laughter relaxes tense muscles and even lowers blood pressure; when we laugh, endogenous opioids are released in the body, and feelings of calm and pleasure naturally result."
Dr. Manly added that laughing can reduce stress and feelings of depression.
Don't suffer in silence
Suffering in silence will only amplify the noise going on in your head, which will likely include a slew of negative thoughts. It's easy to spiral while feeling lonely, but it's important to try — as hard as it might be — to refocus your attention and ask for support.
"Reach out for support so that you don't worsen your loneliness by suffering in silence; if you're feeling isolated, reach out to friends and family to let them know you feel lonely," said Manly. "Although you may feel uncomfortable doing this, it's an important first step. Openly and honestly let others know what you need, such as texts, phone calls, or a safe holiday outing. Be as specific as possible."
As author and professor of social work Brené Brown once said, ""Staying vulnerable is a risk we have to take if we want to experience connection." I'm pretty sure she was talking about a situation like feeling really lonely during the holidays.
"If you are feeling lonely or isolated, trust that there are thousands of people — likely within a mere few miles of you — who feel the same," Manly said. "By reaching out to connect — whether to chat, exchange cookies, or take a walk — you may be solving another person's loneliness plight as well as your own."
Another way to connect with other people, if you don't want to call friends or family and open up about feeling lonely, is to volunteer to help others. Scientific studies continue to show that helping others comes with a variety of physical, mental and emotional health benefits. Specifically, it's been linked to lower blood pressure, increased reports of self-esteem, feelings of belonging and purpose, which can all help ease loneliness.
"Volunteer efforts can reduce loneliness," Dr. Manly said. "When the setting is safe, volunteering can be a tremendous way to meet others as you give back to your community; many communities have volunteer centers that can help you find the right fit, and needs are often highest during the holiday season."
Kevin Gormley, PMHNP-BC, nurse practitioner at Minded — a psychiatry telehealth platform — agreed.
"Get out and give back," Gormley said. "Even though we may be hurting, there is healing in sharing the journey of others, often the laws of reciprocation come into play and we find joy in our ability to share with others in this life."
If you can't find a group to volunteer this Christmas, there are ways you can help on your own, according to Rebecca Phillips, a licensed professional counselor.
"Donate some change (or more if you have it). Research shows that giving to charity activates the same regions of the brain that respond to monetary rewards and sex," Phillips suggests.
Phillips also advised using online forums, like Reddit, as a way of connecting and casually talking or providing encouragement to others online. "Places like Reddit provide ample opportunity to connect and lift someone else up," she said.
Or even in one's own neighborhood, you can take a walk with the explicit intention of being a good Samaritan. "Take a walk and leave the neighborhood better than you found it," she advises. "There are ways to be helpful every time we leave our homes. We just have to look for them."
Remember, it's just one day
"For many of us, the holidays are painful — they can bring up feelings of sadness and loneliness, or they might remind us of people we loved who have passed away," said psychotherapist Sarah Kaufman. "Once we've allowed ourselves to sit with our feelings, we can try to remember that a holiday is just a day. It is a day on a calendar, and it is temporary."
On that note, social media can often be a trigger — particularly if, say, you've lost a loved one around the holidays, being bombarded with photos of others' happy families may not be so happy.
If this is your situation, remember that there's no pressure to go on social media — and indeed, avoiding it might even be healthy.
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