When everyone from Starbucks to your niece is reveling in holiday spirit, it’s a tough time to be lonely. You might be dreading the holidays, in fact, because instead of bringing you close to loved ones, they might only make you feel more distant.
If you are someone who feels lonely during the holidays, you aren’t the only one. One survey found that 31 percent of people felt lonely over the holidays at some point and 41 percent have worried about a family member or friend potentially feeling lonely.
People feel lonely or sad during the holidays for many reasons: missing a loved one who has passed away; having to spend the holidays away from family and friends; having to spend holidays with family or friends who are difficult to be around; high expectations for the holidays that aren’t being met; or mental or physical health struggles. This is actually a prime time of year to feel lonely.
This year, in particular, the holiday season may have the potential to be extra lonely due to the way that COVID-19 has impacted our lives. Many people are already feeling isolated and alone, especially those who are in an identified at-risk group — young adults; women; and those with lower education or income, who live alone, or who live in cities. Travel restrictions or health concerns are changing the way we celebrate the holidays, too, disrupting beloved traditions and connections.
There are several strategies you can use to help you feel more connected and less lonely during the holidays.
Get to the source
Seek insight into what might be contributing to your feelings of loneliness. For example, if you are unable to travel during the holidays and you won’t be able to spend time with your family, you can tailor your plan to addressing this reality. You might make a plan to video chat with your family to open gifts, or ask a friend if you can join their holiday celebrations so that you won’t be alone. Or, if you’ve lost a loved one and you are grieving, you might find a way to honor their memory during the holidays. By knowing the factors that contribute to your loneliness, you can create a more effective plan to feel more connected during this season.
Let go of expectations
Sometimes, the high expectations we place on the holidays can contribute to feelings of loneliness and sadness. If we tell ourselves that family celebrations must be exclusively merry and tension-free, we may feel let down and disappointed when an argument erupts, or when your least favorite uncle asks you about your love life, job prospects, or political views. Instead, recognize that if you are spending more time with family and friends, there is a greater chance of conflict. It will never be perfect — and that is okay. By letting go of your expectation for a “perfect” holiday season, you are freeing yourself to be fully present to the joys of the season in whatever form they take. Fostering gratitude instead of unrealistic expectations can help you roll with the stressors without letting them “ruin” your holidays.
Identify what the holidays mean to you
Instead of focusing on what you think a “perfect” Christmas or Thanksgiving should be, spend some quiet time reflecting on what you specifically love about this time of year. Is it time with friends and family? Maybe it’s the religious traditions or the seasonal songs. Maybe it’s the Christmas decorations or the hustle and bustle of Christmas preparations. Or perhaps it’s cozy evenings with a hot beverage and your favorite Christmas movies. Whatever it is, focus on doing more of what you love about the Christmas season, and let go of what you think it should be.
Highlighting what brings meaning will help you be more present and connected (and less lonely or sad) during the season. Consider making a list of these things along with any other activities that are uplifting to you (even if they aren’t holiday-specific) such as listening to music, going for a walk or exercising, journaling, watching or listening to funny stories, practicing gratitude, or doing something nice for someone else. The list you create can serve as an easy reference when you need to take action and address any feelings of loneliness that come up.
Create a support network
Even if you aren’t able to spend time in person with your family or friends — or if you will be spending time with family or friends you don’t get along with — it is so important to have a support network. This network can include anyone who helps you feel more connected and grounded — even people you don’t actually know personally. Yes, really! For example, if there is a podcast or public figure whom you find inspiring, add them to your support network list and listen to their thoughts or read their writings when you are feeling low. Family and friends can certainly be part of your support network, as can your therapist, clergy member, mentor, coworker, or pet. Write down a list of these people so it can serve as an easy reference point when you need to reach out to someone. No one wants to be a burden to others, but remember: those who care about us most want to be a source of emotional support. That’s the power of community!
Consider professional help
If you are feeling overwhelmed at the thought of navigating the holidays, or aren’t sure what the source of your loneliness is, don’t be afraid to reach out to a qualified mental health professional. They can help you figure out any specific pain points that may be contributing to your feelings of loneliness. They can also help you create a plan to reduce your feelings of loneliness and increase your feelings of connectedness. You wouldn’t think twice about going to see a doctor if you were experiencing unusual pain — going to see a mental health professional for any emotional pain you are experiencing is exactly the same. Don’t be afraid to get help, especially in this stressful season.