Written by: Alicia Cassels, MA, OneOp Military Caregiving blog contributor
Not everyone looks forward to the holidays.
As the holidays tend to be a time for merriment, celebrating with family and friends, and enjoying time away from work and school, it can be easy to overlook the fact that not everyone looks forward to the holidays. During this season, media spots and advertisements highlight activities with groups of friends and family gathered around tables and fireplaces, basking in the glow of togetherness. While we know that these images do not represent real life, they do represent a sort of aspirational ideal for the holidays. At this time, more than any other time of year, just thinking about eating alone can evoke feelings of dread. For those dealing with loneliness, the holidays may serve to highlight the absence of significant relationships in one’s life, intensifying the thoughts and feelings of isolation or invisibility that they struggle with throughout the year. For many, the holidays can be one of the loneliest times of the year.
How significant is this issue of loneliness?
Loneliness is the awareness that your personal relationships don’t provide you with a sense of belonging and human significance. At a time in human history when we have more communication technology than ever before, it is troubling that loneliness is actually on the rise. The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) has cautioned that our country is in the midst of a, “Loneliness Epidemic,”
Two in five Americans report that they sometimes or always feel their social relationships are not meaningful, and one in five say they feel lonely or socially isolated (HRSA, 2019).
The experience of loneliness at the holidays, or any time of year, is not simply unpleasant. Loneliness can have very serious mental and physical health implications. A meta-analytic review conducted in 2010 by Holt-Lunstad, Smith, and Layton, provides evidence that the number and quality of our social relationships significantly impacts our mental health, physical health, and even our mortality. The study, which examined overall mortality rates, found that individuals with stronger social relationships had a 50% increased likelihood of survival regardless of their age, sex, initial health status, and cause of death. Holt-Lunstad and her team contend that sustaining relationships of good quality should be placed at a high level of medical priority, like engaging in exercise, eating right, and avoiding smoking. The team also points out that over the past two decades, the number of Americans who report that they have no close confidants has tripled.
How can we reduce holiday loneliness?
Given the negative impacts of loneliness, what can be done to reduce loneliness during the holidays? Consider incorporating one or more of the five strategies offered by Emily Holland of the Chopra Center:
(1.) Consider Celebrating the Holidays Differently
If the holiday traditions you engage in year after year are fueling your loneliness, it may be time to celebrate in a different way. Perhaps you’re yearning to make new connections or to immerse yourself in a new experience. Only you know what you need to do to reconnect to the world around you.
Creating new traditions may be the perfect way to combat loneliness, whether that means taking a trip or spending the holidays with a different crew of people. Isolation can look different for everyone as can ways to overcome it. Remember to let go of any ideas as to what the holidays should be and do what best serves you this season.
(2.) Deepen a Connection
A great way to connect with others is to deepen the connections you already have. It might be with someone you were once close to and drifted apart from or someone you recently met who you’d like to get to know better. It could be a coworker or a family member. Just remember to keep expectations realistic. You’re better off deepening a connection with someone who is in a place to do so than someone who is closed off or just not ready to open themselves up.
Open the door for a deeper connection by extending an invitation to meet them in person. Think of activities and common interests that would allow for a deeper connection.
Note: Keep in mind that when you’re making plans to get together with someone, it is more likely to happen if you invite them to do something specific at a designated time and date versus making a broad statement such as, “Let’s get together sometime.”
(3.) Use Social Media to Your Advantage
Social media can be a great platform for establishing connections. Reach out to a friend you’d like to catch up with or start a meetup group with others who share similar interests. Try to limit your social media activity or messaging to setting up in-person connections. If you’re already feeling lonely, mindlessly scrolling through photos of people sharing their holidays with others is likely to make you feel worse. Remember, people don’t share their entire reality on social media—just the good stuff.
(4.) Put Yourself in a Social Setting
If you’re seeking a connection, you’re more likely to find one in a social setting versus at home alone. Seek out settings where a conversation with strangers is likely to unfold organically such as a coffee shop or a bookstore. If that feels too uncomfortable, go somewhere you can feel surrounded by others such as a grocery store or shopping mall. Make small talk with the cashier or simply make eye contact and wish them a happy holiday. (A little eye contact can go a long way.)
(5.) Be Kind to Yourself & Focus on Self-care
You are most in need of self-compassion and self-care when you’re feeling fragile and vulnerable. Whether you’re physically isolated or feeling emotionally disconnected, loneliness can be an unpleasant experience. Keep in mind that everyone feels that way at one time or another, even during the holidays. Nurture your body and mind—you deserve it!
Practice yoga, meditate, take a warm bath, watch your favorite show, or engage in any other activity that brings you peace. Take advantage of the solitude so that when it’s time to reconnect with the world around you, you’ll be ready.
If you are experiencing loneliness this season, remember that you are not alone.
As we have explored, loneliness is an issue being faced by many this holiday season. If you are experiencing extremely troubling emotions or would like professional help in coping with distressing thoughts, consider engaging professional support. A medical provider or mental health professional can work with you to identify appropriate support or treatment options.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800-273-TALK (8255).
Julianne Holt-Lunstad, The Potential Public Health Relevance of Social Isolation and Loneliness: Prevalence, Epidemiology, and Risk Factors, Public Policy & Aging Report, Volume 27, Issue 4, 2017, Pages 127–130
Holland, Emily, et al. “5 Ways to Reduce Loneliness During the Holidays.” The Chopra Center, 18 Apr. 2019.
“The ‘Loneliness Epidemic.’” Health Resources & Services Administration, 10 Jan. 2019.