For some people, holiday gatherings resemble a Norman Rockwell tableau: a big family, all smiles, gathered around a golden turkey.
But for many -- particularly those who are divorced, widowed, or estranged from family -- that long stretch from Thanksgiving through New Year's can be lonely, stressful, and depressing.
That might have been the case for Dodie, a finance officer who moved to across country about 10 years ago. Though single and with no relatives nearby, she had no desire to fly home for Thanksgiving. Her father's illness had made holiday gatherings difficult at best. "We had to stop pretending a long time ago that we were having a Hallmark occasion," she says.
Instead, Dodie made her way to a monastery in California, where she created a new tradition for herself: sharing Thanksgiving with monks of the Order of the Holy Cross.
"There's a reception first that includes friends from town and people staying at the monastery guesthouse," she says. "Then dinner is usually cooked by the monks and served at round tables in the refectory with views of the mountains and the coast. It was a gift, a great relief, to choose how to celebrate the holidays."
Holiday Blues Basics
"This is the time of year when I see a lot of people who feel guilty or blame themselves if they're alone," says Jason Kornrich, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Nassau County Medical Center in East Meadow, N.Y. "They think there must be something wrong with them if they don't have a partner, or that they're being punished for things they've done in the past."
Such dark thoughts can be avoided with a little planning. "People don't want to prepare for depression," Kornrich says. "But early November is the time to analyze how you felt last year and come up with some proactive measures."
These can include letting friends and colleagues know you'll be alone for the holidays and would like to be included in some of their activities. But Alexander Obolsky, a Northwestern University psychiatrist, warns that if no invitations seem likely, "don't wait until the last moment. Plan to cook dinner yourself and invite somebody over. The important thing is to be with people."
That somebody could be a friend you haven't seen for a while, a new colleague at work, or an elderly neighbor who would otherwise be alone.
"It's a time of year when you may have obligations to family or elderly parents. But try to carve out time for something you want to do -- something that's meaningful to you," says Obolsky.
Do Something for Others
Volunteering offers another way to be with people while doing something good for others. Soup kitchens, nursing homes, and other organizations can use help during the holidays, she says.
"I've found people who say, OK, I don't have a significant other, I don't have a big family meal planned, so it was really nice visiting Aunt Milly in the nursing home because it did something for her and it filled part of my day," says Elizabeth Robinson, a therapist and manager of the Employees Assistance Program at the University of Connecticut's Health Center in Farmington.
"It's really important for people to be with other people in order to get out of themselves and be distracted from their own aloneness by helping others," she says.
Finally, don't overlook exercise. "If you're the type of person who likes to exercise, exercise more," says Kornrich. "Don't give up Friday night bowling and isolate yourself just because it's the holidays."