1999 was the first holiday season I had without my dad. In June of that year, he passed due to complications from cirrhosis. Ten years later, was the first holiday without my little brother, who overdosed in 2009. The holidays for me, and for many people, can be tough.
There is a difference between being alone and being lonely. While I’m never alone on the holidays, I’ve certainly been lonely. You can be in a room full of family, friends, or strangers and still feel isolated. This distinction can sometimes be difficult to explain to people.
During the holiday season especially, it’s expected that you’ll be surrounded by loved ones and your troubles will melt away. With the promise of food, family, friends, and festivities, loneliness and struggles are expected to take a back seat.
Unfortunately, life doesn’t always work that way.
Whether this is your first holiday season with mental health struggles or the latest in a long history, remember that you’re not alone. A reported 64% of people claim that the holiday season makes their struggle with mental health worse. It’s also, regrettably, a time when those with substance abuse issues find their battle the most difficult.
So what can you do when the holiday season rolls around and your primary feelings are not of joy, but loneliness?
One idea is to redefine the holiday season. Perhaps thinking that the last six weeks of the year are supposed to bring us more joy than the other 46 weeks combined, is setting us up for failure. Try not to think about the holidays as a season, but as a day or two. It’s much easier to find joy over 24 or 48 hours than whole weeks at a time. When you expect two months of perfection, you’re bound to be let down.
Try to plan short, specific blocks of time that you can dedicate to trying to enjoy the holidays. For example, I’m going to enjoy dinner with my aunt and uncle the Saturday after Thanksgiving; my friends are hosting a gift exchange the Friday before Christmas Eve- it should be fun; on the first Sunday in December I’m joining my cousins to bake holiday cookies. This creates manageable expectations and even if things aren’t going well, you know they will be short-lived.
Another suggestion is to tell people how you feel. For those people who live for the holiday season, it might not occur to them that others don’t feel the same. Your family and friends want you to be happy. Many of them are walking around blissfully ignorant of your feelings of loneliness. They aren’t trying to hurt you, they just don’t know.
Taking a step back from social media over the holidays is another idea to help cope with feeling isolated. Scrolling through picture after picture of holiday parties where everyone looks like they are having a better time than you, can be difficult. Why are they having such a good time? If you don’t think you can curtail your Instagram time, try to remember that this is everyone’s highlight
reel. Don’t compare their highlight reel to your back of the house. And just because they look like they are having a good time, doesn’t necessarily mean they feel any better than you do.
However, if you are alone, as opposed to lonely, there are some other alternatives you might want to try.
Try other ways to feel connected. If you don’t have anyone in your life to be with physically over the holidays you can try to reconnect with prior relationships or try to cultivate some new ones. Send a holiday card to someone you haven’t spoken to in a while. Or, you could also send an online greeting or even just a picture you found online. Just the act of doing something we think of as ‘friendly’ can often lift our spirits. Worst case scenario, you spend 0.53 on a stamp or a few minutes choosing the picture with the cutest puppy. Best case, you rekindle a friendship.
Additionally, you can help someone else. Multiple studies have shown that volunteering or simply lending a hand to others, can both make us feel fulfilled and strengthen bonds with others. A good way to do this would be to volunteer for an organization that you believe in. Spending time with like-minded people will not only connect you with others but improve the chances of building long-lasting friendships.
The holidays are a good time to do this, as many of the usual volunteers get busy around the holiday season. Along with the holidays being a lonely time for many people, this creates the perfect opportunity for you, the organization, and the people they help. It’s not a win-win, but a win-win-win.
And that leads us into looking for other types of social support. Look for people with similar experiences to spend time with. In fact, RPSV hosts special events on both Thanksgiving and Christmas day. If you find yourself alone or lonely during this season, come and join others looking for a community. This helps everyone, yourself included, feel a little less lonely and a little more connected just when we all need it most. rpsva.org
Guest blogger and volunteer Dana L.