What to Know About Loneliness During the Holidays

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on October 25, 2021
4 min read

Social gatherings play a major role in most winter festivities, whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or another holiday. But it's entirely possible to feel isolated in the midst of all the joy. Here's what to know about holiday loneliness.

Loneliness is a personal concept. Some people don't need a lot of social interaction to be happy and healthy. Others may have contact with friends and family members all the time and still feel alone. Loneliness happens when you feel socially isolated, and it can have a powerful impact on your mental health.   

Much of the research about loneliness centers on older adults, but you can feel lonely at any age. When you feel socially isolated, here's what could be going on in your brain and your body:

Stress. Loneliness triggers your body to produce extra cortisol, known as the stress hormone. Cortisol is normally released in response to a temporary threat. When the body is exposed to cortisol for a long period of time, it can cause anxiety and depression. You can also have headaches, sleep disturbances, and digestive problems. Your heart health may be impacted. You may even gain weight.

Poorer brain function. Social isolation changes your brain's chemistry. This makes tasks that require thinking more difficult. Experts believe that this process may lead to reduced cognitive ability and eventually to dementia, especially in older adults. 

Faster aging and earlier death. Loneliness can cause the cells of your body to age faster than usual. It also increases the risk of early death from all causes.

Much of the loneliness that occurs during the holidays can be traced to these circumstances:

Unrealistic expectations. It's easy to jump to the conclusion that others are having more fun than you. People tend to share their good times more than their down days, especially on social media. If seeing other people's posts bothers you, then cut back on social media or leave it completely for a while. Also, don't compare your current holiday with ones from the past. Keep the present in perspective, as new traditions can be just as fulfilling as fondly remembered old ones. 

Grief or depression. If you are missing a loved one, those feelings won't vanish just because the calendar says it's time to celebrate. The same goes for other circumstances that make you blue. Give yourself permission to feel sad, but also check your mental tool kit for strategies that usually make you feel better. They’ll probably help during the holidays, too.

Missing family members. There are dozens of reasons why you might not be able to see all your friends and family members during the holidays. Bigger families may face the impossible task of visiting as many relatives as they can. Some people have to work over the holidays. A few may leave the holiday hustle behind and go somewhere relaxing instead. Try not to take their absence personally.

Seasonal affective disorder. Some people regularly struggle with depression and fatigue during the winter months. These symptoms may be due to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which may be triggered by low levels of sunlight. The body responds by producing less melatonin, a hormone tied to sleep, and less serotonin, a brain chemical that affects mood. You may feel better if you seek out sunlight on brighter winter days. You can also buy a lightbox and see if using it boosts your spirits. 

Whether you feel it coming or are caught off guard by holiday loneliness, these strategies may help to reduce these feelings.

Tap into technology. If you can't be with loved ones in real life, reach for technology to feel connected. Phone calls, texting, video chats, Zoom gatherings, and photo sharing can include you in each other's celebrations even when you can't be together.

Reach out to others who may be lonely. Almost everyone has friends and acquaintances who will be alone for the holiday season. Make plans with them. Another classic way of banishing the blues is to volunteer your time for a worthy cause.

Stick to healthy habits. Try to maintain a good diet. Watch your alcohol intake. Don't let cold weather keep you from being active. When it's too cold to be outdoors, find an online workout. Exercise is a proven mood booster.

Many people who have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder find the holidays challenging. Around a quarter of them find that their conditions are much worse during the holidays. Around two-thirds of them say that they have experienced loneliness during the holidays. It was once believed that suicide rates are higher during the holidays, but that has been proven to be a myth. Still, suicidal feelings should always be taken seriously. 

Work together with your doctor, counselor, or therapist on a plan to reduce holiday stress. There are many options that may work for you. You should also have an emergency number and a plan for getting help right away if you need it.