When you think of the holiday season, the images that come to mind are usually common moments: friends clinking glasses at a Christmas party, or a family opening presents on Christmas morning in matching pajamas. In other words, vacations mean being surrounded by people – like in pre-pandemic times.
Yet in 2021 we find ourselves in another holiday season marked by a wave of coronavirus. Yes, some families come together; but others saw their plans abruptly change for health reasons, and still others saw their flights canceled at the last minute by fearful airlines.
For those who take the vacation solo, whether by choice or by force, uncomfortable feelings of loneliness are inevitable. Even outside of vacation periods, the loneliness is hard. Before the coronavirus pandemic, psychologists characterized America as going through an epidemic of loneliness. Today, in a time when people are so eager to get back to “normal”, a lonely vacation period could be very difficult.
If you are afraid of being alone for Christmas, know that you are not alone, at least on a macroscopic level. In 2020, one in nine adults spent the holidays alone. According to a more recent Red Cross survey in Australia, one in five people who live alone or are over 70 said they had not planned Christmas Day this year.
If you find yourself feeling lonely over the holiday season, here’s how therapists and psychologists advise you to cope.
Remember that 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 aren’t celebrating the holidays with other people during the holiday season doesn’t mean you are unworthy to do so.
“Remember that you are not unworthy or unwanted if you are alone; you just feel lonely,” said clinical psychologist Dr Carla Marie Manly, author of “Joy from Fear” and “Date Smart.”
Rebecca Tolbert, a therapist in Washington DC, said it’s important to give yourself space to feel alone and recognize what you’re going through.
“I think the first thing is to recognize and admit how sad and painful it can be to feel alone, especially on days, like holidays and birthdays, when we have such high expectations,” said Tolbert. “Acknowledging how we feel and honoring that feeling can be very vulnerable… but if we don’t, we push those feelings away and they will come out elsewhere.
With this in mind, it is possible to replace loneliness with laughter instead of wallowing in it all day.
“Loneliness can be driven away by laughing and connecting with others; whether you’re playing a vacation DVD or a romantic comedy, indulge yourself in the joy of laughing, ”said Dr Manly. “Laughter relaxes tight muscles and even lowers blood pressure; when we laugh, endogenous opioids are released into the body, and feelings of calm and pleasure naturally result. “
Dr Manly added that laughter 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 multitude of negative thoughts. It’s easy to go around in circles when you’re feeling lonely, but it’s important to try – as hard as it may be – to refocus your attention and ask for help.
“Ask for support so that you don’t make your loneliness worse by suffering in silence; if you are feeling isolated, reach out to your friends and family to let them know you are feeling lonely, ”said Manly. “While you may feel uncomfortable doing this, it’s an important first step. Let others know openly and honestly what you need, like texts, phone calls, or a safe vacation outing. Be as specific as possible. “
As author and social work professor Brené Brown once said, “’Staying vulnerable is a risk we have to take if we are to experience a connection. I’m pretty sure she was talking about a situation like feeling really lonely on vacation.
“If you are feeling lonely or isolated, trust that there are thousands of people – probably a few miles away from you – who are feeling the same way,” Manly said. “By reaching out to connect – whether it’s chatting, baking cookies, or going for a walk – you can solve another person’s loneliness problem as well as your own.”
Another way to connect with other people, if you don’t want to call your friends or family and admit that you feel 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 self-esteem, feelings of belonging, and purpose, all of which can help relieve loneliness.
“Volunteer efforts can reduce loneliness,” Dr. Manly said. “When the environment is safe, volunteering can be a great way to meet other people while giving back to your community; many communities have volunteer centers that can help you find the right fit, and the needs are often greatest during the holiday season. “
Kevin Gormley, PMHNP-BC, nurse practitioner at Minded – a psychiatric telehealth platform – agrees.
“Go out and give back,” Gormley said. “Even though we are in pain, there is healing in sharing with others’ journeys, often the laws of reciprocity 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 for this Christmas, there are ways to help on your own, according to Rebecca Phillips, a licensed professional counselor.
“Donate change (or more if you have it). Research shows that giving to charity activates the same areas of the brain that respond to cash rewards and sex,” suggests Phillips.
Phillips also advised using online forums, like Reddit, as a way to log in and casually talk or encourage others online. “Places like Reddit provide a lot of opportunities to connect with and uplift someone else,” she said.
Or even in its own neighborhood, you can walk around with the explicit intention of being a Good Samaritan. “Walk around and get out of 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 a day
“For many of us, the holidays are painful – they can spark feelings of sadness and loneliness, or they can remind us of loved ones who have passed,” said psychotherapist Sarah Kaufman. “Once we’ve allowed ourselves to sit down with our feelings, we can try to remind ourselves that a holiday is just one day. It’s a day on a calendar, and it’s temporary.”
On that note, social media can often be a trigger – especially if, say, you’ve lost a loved one while on vacation, being bombarded with photos of other people’s happy families might not be so happy.
If this is your case, remember that there is no pressure to go on social media – and indeed, avoiding it can even be healthy.
Want more health and science articles in your inbox? Subscribe to The Vulgar Scientist Show’s weekly newsletter.