The holidays are supposed to be a time for festive gatherings, with family, friends, or new acquaintances. But for some people, it’s also a time to get through it alone, whether by circumstance or choice.
You might live far away from family, or you might be estranged from them. You may be single, divorced, or widowed. Perhaps the holidays stir up anxiety or loneliness instead of cheer.
“Those old memories can get stuck and replayed, particularly if those experiences happened around the holidays,’’ says JoAnne Pedro-Carroll, a clinical psychologist in Rochester, NY.
One client of Pedro-Carroll, author of Putting Children First: Proven Parenting Strategies to Help Children Thrive After Divorce, had her parents announce their divorce on Christmas Day. Though she’s now an adult, the woman avoids company during the holidays to avoid triggering memories of her family breaking up.
Adam Brown, a clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychology at The New School for Social Research in New York, says many people choose to be alone for the holidays to protect themselves from pain.
But “once it becomes a pattern over time we begin to miss out on so much of the richness of relationships and the positive experiences of unexpected opportunities,’’ Brown says.
Brown, who studies the mental health outcomes of traumatic stress, says you can look for ways to reclaim the meaning of the holidays, “a way you can have new experiences but feel in control. The key is to tolerate a certain amount of anxiety but not be overwhelmed by it.’’
What You Can Do
A key step to avoid loneliness during the holidays is to make a checklist and to plan ahead.
Volunteer: Sign up to help for a few hours with the Salvation Army, food banks, or another community organization.
Start a new hobby: Buy materials for a new hobby to start on the holiday, maybe a DIY project or craft that you’ve been meaning to learn.
Get outside: Schedule a long walk or hike for the holiday, alone or with a friend. Research shows physical activity boosts the mood and improves feelings of well-being.
Write letters: Buy some stationery and write letters or New Year’s cards to friends, relatives, former neighbors, and anyone you think of fondly.
Connect remotely: Find an online community to connect with others who are alone on the holiday. You can search Facebook groups, blogs, support groups through hospitals or community organizations.
Call someone: Reach out and talk to someone who has made your life richer.
Attend a service: Visit your church, temple, synagogue, or mosque for a spiritual lift.
Join a small celebration: Accept an invitation to a small holiday gathering and let your host know you’ll stay only for a short while. Bring a home-made dish or pick up something at a bakery. Anticipate that you’ll feel some anxiety but focus on getting through it.
Reframe Your Thinking
With time and practice, it’s possible to forge a new attitude about the holidays.
“Be very gentle with your expectations. If you are able to do one thing this holiday season that feels like you are going out on a limb, that’s wonderful,” Brown says.
“When you attempt something new, something moderately challenging, and you succeed, you internalize your perception of what you’re able to do and not do,’’ he says. “We call that a mastery experience.’’
Pedro-Carroll suggests practicing self-care with uncomfortable memories. Thinking about your past experiences with compassion and understanding can actually rewire your thoughts, she says.
“I call it retraining our brain to be our friend,’’ Pedro-Carroll says. “This doesn’t mean ignoring sad thoughts, but acknowledging them with a ‘yes, that was tough … but I don’t have to be a victim of it.’”
If you’re lonely on the holidays, it’s good to remember that this time of year is filled with both high expectations and high anxiety for many people, whether alone or not.
Instead of thinking “I’ll be alone forever,’’ remember that difficult times don’t last forever, even if it seems so at the moment.
“Hope is the driver that gets us through the dark times,’’ Pedro-Carroll says. “Things can get better and there are things we can do to make them better.’’
If you’re really struggling, professional help may help.
“Don’t try to figure this all out for yourself,’’ Brown says. “This doesn't mean you’ll have to see a counselor or therapist forever,” but simply learn ways to manage the stressors during the holidays.