How to handle loneliness over the holidays

Tips for getting through the season amid the pandemic if your bubble is small.
Published November 24, 2020

The holidays can bring up all sorts of emotions in a normal year, but this year adds a whole other layer.

With social restrictions in place to limit the spread of the coronavirus, and the darkness of winter descending, many people may feel more isolated at this time of year, especially if they have a small “bubble” or live alone.

One of the most common feelings that may be coming up for people this holiday season is anxiety – about the pandemic, the economy, job stability, and safety – says Dr. Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of medicine and host of the Personology podcast from iHeart Media.

“People are also feeling guilt about whatever decision they make regarding being together or to see [one another] in person, as well as loneliness related to continued social distancing, disappointment regarding all the needed restrictions placed on holiday gatherings, [and] sadness about many losses of different kinds this year and possibly in the future.”

“Unfortunately, even before our world completely shifted over the past nine months, loneliness was a rising epidemic – with the majority of Americans saying they have only one close friend,” adds Katina Mountanos, author of On Adulting: How Millennials (And Any Human, Really) Can Work Less, Live More and Bend the Rules for Good. “So, while you might be feeling lonely or isolated as we navigate the holiday season in a different way this year, you can know that you’re not alone by any means.”

All sorts of feelings may come up for you this year, and that’s okay.

“This time may also bring up feelings of nostalgia, or even missing out on something, especially if you're celebrating alone. Regardless of what’s coming up for you, simply recognizing these feelings as clues about what you need most is a great start to making conscious choices.”

Mountanos says something that may help people deal with isolation over the holidays is to try to view the experience in a more positive light and appreciate what you have – even if you may have lost a lot this year.

“We can choose to view our experiences in different ways: as a stressor, or potentially, as an opportunity,” she explains. “If you’re celebrating the holidays alone this year, or in different ways than you’re used to, this is a great time to create your own rituals and memories associate[d] with this time. You might also use this time to nourish any parts of yourself you may have been ignoring or avoiding. The point of this season, at its core, is to slow down and appreciate all that we do have, regardless of what’s going on around us.”

Jen Ngozi, founder of NetWerk™, a women’s networking and dance fitness company, has some practical advice for handling isolation this holiday season.

Plan virtual networking dates – and don’t be afraid to get vulnerable

“Reconnecting with one’s support network can be a fun way to fight loneliness. But it doesn’t end there,” Ngozi says. “The key with virtual dates is to allow ourselves to be vulnerable and actually ask for what we need. Too often, we shy away from clearly communicating our needs to others, especially women. If you’re looking for a job or just feeling lonely, share that! Those that care for you will want to help. 2020 has been a challenging year for everyone; by being vulnerable with your network, you empower them to do the same.”

Self-care, self-care, self-care

Rather than travelling for holiday celebrations this year, Ngozi says she will be focusing on her own self-care and giving back to her NetWerk community.

“Self-care means doing activities that create joy rather than waiting for joy externally,” she says. “For me, this involves virtual dates with loved ones, reflecting and dancing! The holiday season is also a great time to find ways to pour into others.”

Stop comparing

“As a dancer, I can attest to how comparison can kill a great performance or show,” Ngozi says. “The same goes for comparing holiday plans! This holiday season will look like no other. Many family gatherings will be cancelled and, sadly, some will spend the holidays grieving losses. Regardless of how we spend the holidays, it’s important to avoid comparing our holiday celebrations with others, especially now. This could mean limiting social media use or better managing our expectations for this holiday season. 2020 has been the year of pivoting, and now we must redefine what it means to have a wonderful holiday celebration.”

Another thing you can do to combat all the feelings you may be having is just talk to people, Saltz says.

“Being physically apart does not have to mean being emotionally apart. Talk! By phone, by Skype, by text, even by letter! Stay connected to a variety of family and friends by communicating in various safe ways. Tell them you really value talking and need to ‘be with them’ even if by phone. Keep intimate conversations going, share your feelings, listen to theirs,” Saltz says.

For her part, she’ll be having Zoom calls with family members she normally would be seeing in person this time of year, but can’t because of the pandemic.

“We are discussing preparing the same dishes so we can sit down to the same meal and feel more like we are having the holiday together,” she says.

She’ll also be practising gratitude, “because, despite these tough times, I do have much to be grateful for.”

To keep herself feeling good this holiday season, Mountanos plans to spend time outdoors and focus on creating her own rituals.

“I moved back to the East Coast this year from living in California, so it’s my first time in a while experiencing the seasons again. I’ve been finding that spending time outside – even for a short walk in the park near my apartment – is really magical and grounding for me. It’s amazing to witness the small stuff, like leaves changing, or the first frost. This season, I’ll be really leaning into creating rituals around the little things, like getting fresh air, appreciating the changes, and giving myself space to slow down.”