Coping With Loneliness and the Holiday Season

It’s all around us, come holiday time: messages of togetherness, harmony and family closeness.  For some of us, this is reflective of our family ties and traditions.  For others, it’s not.  Maybe because I’m a counselling professional, I meet with a number of folks who say that this is their worst and loneliest time of year.  But I don’t think this problem is unique:  this season brings with it a lot of pressure to get along.

I’d like to write a little about loneliness, which can be particularly intense during holiday time. I’d also like to make an important distinction: loneliness is not the same as being alone.  Acute loneliness can be felt in a crowded room, unhappy family situation or even in seemingly pleasant situations, such as in the company of close friends.  And, simply the act of being alone can be a loneliness trigger for some.

Understanding Loneliness

Loneliness is sometimes defined as what the Merriam Webster Dictionary describes as feeling “cut off from others: solitary.”

The experience of loneliness is also affected by factors such as:

  • A preexisting psychological state such as anxiety, depression or stress
  • Loss – grieving the loss of someone who has passed away and whose absence is acutely felt during the holidays
  • An unresolved personal situation in one’s life, including unresolved conflicts with family members or friends
  • Expectations that one has about the holiday season that are not being met
  • Geographical distance from loved ones or one’s home (homesickness)
  • Isolative or ‘loner’ lifestyle

Coping With Loneliness

What relieves loneliness?  There is no one-size-fits-all solution, as people’s needs are different; feel free to mix and match the following options to create a strategy that’s right for you.  Of course, you may have other solutions not listed here, that work for you.

  • Help Others – Before grimacing at the seeming cliche of it all, I can’t emphasize enough the value that helping others can bring, both to the recipient and yourself.  And this is a strategy that works best when one extends it throughout the year, not just the holiday season.  Some people like to help in ways where they can use specific skills they have such as making quilts for premature babies, while others like to help in ways they’ve never done before, taking them out of their comfort zone, in a manner that challenges and refreshes them.  For those in the Vancouver area, Volunteer Vancouver posts formal volunteer opportunities.  Asking around in your community, or offering help when you see it, such as shoveling an elderly neighbour’s walkway, are options which are just as valuable.
  • Make Time for People You Care About – I’m not talking here about the people you feel you should be seeing (and may actually have to see).  Rather, I’m referring to those you would really like and want to get together with. People can be busy over the holidays but with a little planning, or even spontaneity, such get-togethers can happen.  They may even be part of your regular routine, such as a men’s group or a close-knit book club.
  • Do What You Want to Do – Allow yourself a day for yourself, or more, if possible.  For some, that day is Christmas Day, when everyone else seems to have something better to do.  You may be alone, or not, so strategies will differ.  Allow yourself the permission to be creative: if knitting for 5 hours and subsisting on a bag of cheesies is your thing, go for it!  Again, barring any other important responsibilities in your life, the emphasis is on what you want to do, not what you think you should do.
  • Schedule Something Specific – plan events that you would like to partake in over the holidays, be it a play, craft show or a cookie making party.
  • Organize a Group Activity – Take the initiative to organize a get together, be it a dinner, snowshoeing day or anything in between!
  • Ask for Support – Talk with close friends, family, a priest or minister, or a counselor (or other helping professional).  Take an inventory beforehand about who is in your corner, so you’re prepared.
  • Express Yourself – Release emotions in a meaningful and healthy way: writing/journaling, creating art/crafting and playing music are all examples of this.
  • Get together with out-of-towners – a good friend of mine likes to organize a dinner for anyone who can’t visit loved ones over the holidays – people from various parts of the country who live in Vancouver come together for a lovely meal, all with a common bond.
  • Limit alcohol, which is a nervous system depressant. The chance of interpersonal conflict is also increased when alcohol is involved, particularly when there is pre-existing conflict between people.

Whatever strategy you choose, the key is to treat yourself compassionately and kindly.  While many good options exist to stretch oneself emotionally in ways that can greatly benefit ourselves and others, this can be a very difficult time of year.