This year’s holiday season will undoubtedly be unlike any other we’ve experienced. A global pandemic with no end in sight means the impact of social isolation will be more palpable than usual, making more people susceptible to loneliness.
While loneliness isn’t classified as a diagnosable mental health condition, it can either be detrimental to or exacerbated by the state of your emotional and physical health. That’s why it’s important to manage those feelings where possible.
We sought out the advice of licensed therapists to round up a few small things you can do to ease holiday loneliness during this very difficult year:
Organize virtual holiday hangouts with loved ones.
We’ll highlight the most obvious solution first: Stay in touch with your loved ones through video chats, phone calls and texts. Virtual gatherings are a simple, effective and safe alternative to seeing others in person, and you still reap the benefits of connecting with loved ones and feeling less lonely.
Try arranging weekly video check-ins, or maybe add a fun twist to the call by hosting a gift exchange or a virtual movie night (bonus points if it’s holiday-themed).
Get out of the house for a bit.
Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists holiday travel as an increased risk factor for contracting the coronavirus, you don’t have to go very far or jeopardize your health or others’ in order to get a change of scenery.
Darla Timbo, a licensed professional counselor at Atlas Counseling Services in Pittsburgh, recommends fighting off feelings of isolation by “at the very least … stepping out on your front porch, taking a couple of deep abdominal breaths and taking in some of that fall or winter air.”
Additionally, “talking to your neighbor while maintaining social distance will still provide some connections with people that might combat some of that loneliness,” she said.
Simply being in the presence of others can help to counteract some of the effects of loneliness, Martina Witter, a cognitive behavioral therapist and founder of Rapha Therapy Services in the U.K., told HuffPost. That could mean taking a walk in the park, taking a drive through town or going to the store (if it’s safe to do so, of course).
Implement a morning routine.
Being strategic about how you spend your mornings can offer a salve, since it helps build structure — “even if it’s just sitting down, having a cup of coffee and being mindful of how it tastes,” Timbo said, adding that having a set routine can help boost a person’s overall well-being.
If you can, spend time with pets.
We’ve seen animals work their healing magic in various settings ― including airports, nursing homes and hospitals ― and those same benefits can extend to one’s personal life at home, too.
“Research suggests that pets can help with combating loneliness and enhancing an individual’s mental health,” Witter said.
If you don’t have a pet of your own, Witter recommends becoming an animal’s foster parent. (You can visit your local animal services site or shelters to find foster programs.) Even spending some time by a dog park could help.
Talk about your loneliness.
Nothing feels lonelier than suffering alone. It may feel uncomfortable to talk about what you’re experiencing, but reaching out to a friend or family member you trust can build a sense of connectedness.
“We know that you can feel lonely even if [you have] many friends, family or are an extrovert,” Witter said. “Beginning to open up to family and friends about how you truly feel can allow you to authentically connect and develop more robust relationships.”
Start that new hobby you’ve been wanting to try.
“Learning a new language, learning a new skill such as cooking or writing or something aligned with your values can help to combat loneliness,” Witter said.
Not only does participating in a new activity potentially connect you with others who have the same hobby, but research shows that it can put you in a mental state of “flow,” which can help combat adverse mental health effects caused by the pandemic.
Volunteering can help someone who’s lonely by offering a sense of camaraderie and positive change, Timbo said. You’ll be making a difference in other people’s lives ― people who may also be dealing with isolation right now.
By volunteering, you might be able to help someone else out “just by interacting and engaging in conversation and encouraging that person,” she said. “It opens the door for people to begin to talk about something that they’re struggling with,” which can help ease loneliness.
Check out some virtual volunteer hubs to find an opportunity that appeals to you.
Create your own traditions.
Loneliness can often trick you into thinking that you lack control (because after all, no one chooses to feel this way). Combat this by creating your own holiday traditions. It helps you feel like you have a say in the circumstances right now.
Prepare special meals, choose holiday decor themes, create a holiday movie marathon or organize a gift exchange with others who are also lonely. This can help divert your focus to something that gives you a sense of anticipation and cause for celebration.
Adjust the way you use social media.
Your newsfeed may offer the mirage of feeling connected to others, but scrolling too often provokes the opposite. Research shows that spending just 30 minutes a day on social media can reduce loneliness and depression. However, prolonged, mindless scrolling can hurt your well-being.
Add the barrage of gift and smile-filled selfies of people seemingly having the best holiday of their lives during one of the most dire and consequential parts of the pandemic and it’ll only make things worse. Focus on protecting your peace: Reduce the time you spend on social media, mute accounts that make you feel bad about your circumstances and use your devices as mindfully as you can.
Start practicing any coping strategies now.
Whether it’s a combination of some of the tips above or a plan entirely of your own making, be proactive about implementing coping strategies. Address holiday loneliness as soon as possible so you don’t feel like you’re taking on too much at once.
“I would start now — kind of get into the habit of implementing small things and then try to keep it going throughout the year,” Timbo said. “Sometimes, I think we bite off more than we can chew. … The goal is too big and daunting, and then we’re overwhelmed.”
But by implementing tasks slowly, “we’ll have a hodgepodge of things we can do [to combat loneliness] throughout the holidays, and then throughout the year in general,” Timbo said.
Remind yourself why you’re staying home this year and that whatever you’re feeling is OK.
If this is your first year spending the holidays alone, remind yourself of the reason: You’re keeping your loved ones, your community and yourself healthy and safe. If this year isn’t the first time you’re dealing with holiday loneliness, know that it’s normal if it doesn’t feel any easier.
Regardless of your circumstances, whatever you’re feeling is valid. If it becomes too much to manage, reach out to a mental health professional or a mental health text line. There are people who can help you deal with what you’re going through right now.