For many people, December is an exciting time of year for socialising: exchanging gifts, meeting friends over mulled wine and gathering for a family feast on Christmas Day. But that’s not the case for everyone. According to research carried out by mental health charity Mind, one third of people are too embarrassed to admit they feel lonely at Christmas and one quarter feel unable to ask for help when struggling emotionally during the festive period.
If you find yourself feeling lonely, ironically, you’re actually not alone. More than nine million Brits ‘often’ or ‘always’ feel lonely, according to Campaign to End Loneliness. And in a year where social connection has moved online thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, more of us than ever before are likely to feel this way in the run-up to Christmas.
The good news? If you find yourself flying solo this Christmas – whether out of choice or circumstance – or you’re surrounded by people and still feel socially and emotionally disconnected (a different but very valid form of loneliness), there are steps you can take to lessen those feelings and cultivate fulfilment and happiness this festive season.
We spoke to Pablo Vandenabeele, clinical director for mental health at Bupa UK, Karen Dolva, co-founder and CEO of No Isolation, Dr Megan Jones Bell, chief science officer at Headspace and psychotherapist Jessica Boston, for their tips of tackling loneliness this Christmas:
1. Reframe the idea of loneliness
You may be alone this Christmas, but that doesn’t mean you have to feel lonely. In fact, being alone and feeling lonely are two very different things. ‘If we can accept that loneliness exists in the mind, and is not dependent on us being physically alone, then there is the possibility that loneliness can be reframed in our mind,’ explains Dr Jones Bell.
‘The first step to working with our mind constructively is to let go of external blame,’ she continues. ‘It is not others imposing loneliness on us – it is our own perception and experience. This shift of perspective and mindset can take time, as loneliness is a complex emotion. And it’s okay to feel sadness and negativity, and be overwhelmed by these feelings. Nevertheless, it’s also possible to be open to them – meditation can help.’
Try to reframe the idea of loneliness as neutral, rather than negative. These negative connotations are often why it can feel so painful, says Boston – because we associate these feelings with wrongness, failure and being other. ‘We feel have been punished, chastised, judged and left outside the castle walls for our bad behaviour,’ she says. ‘When you realise it’s not who you are – just your circumstance – you won’t fall into the story behind the emotion and it becomes easier to plan your next steps.’
2. Connect as much as you can
Make the most of any opportunities to catch up with friends, family or new acquaintances, says Vandenabeele. ‘Whether it’s through a quick video call, or a socially distanced walk, there’s lots of ways to still spend time together. Try to reframe social distancing as physical distancing – while you may not be able to socialise in person, you can still meet in other, virtual ways.’
You could set up a family group chat and ask for photos and videos of presents being unwrapped, or head out for a socially-distanced meet-up if you’re lucky enough to live close to one another, says Dolva. ‘Though the weather may be colder, wrapping up warm and meeting for a short walk together can be a huge boost during a season when we would otherwise be celebrating with the whole family,’ she says.
3. Make it special, but different
If you’re spending Christmas alone, you get to write the rules. Don’t actually like turkey and sprouts? Make a pizza from scratch, slow-cook a curry, or make your own snacks for an indoor picnic. Pop on some new PJs and binge-watch a new box set, or try your hand at a new hobby – like painting – while listening to your favourite podcast.
This is a time for redefining what Christmas means to you personally, so take the day for yourself. ‘The greatest way to escape loneliness is to enjoy your own company more,’ says Boston. ‘It starts at home. If you enjoy being with yourself because you like and trust yourself, being lonely becomes enjoyable. Focus on self-care exercises that build these traits in yourself.’
4. Get some fresh air
Who says you have to stay home all day? If you have a car, take a drive to the beach or your nearest nature reserve – or simply go for a walk around the block if you prefer. ‘Spending time outdoors surrounded by nature has a heap of benefits, including boosting your mood, improving your self-esteem and reducing stress,’ says Vandenabeele.
It’s also a good opportunity to see other people, he adds. ‘You may spot people walking their dog or going for a run, and this can help to reduce your feelings of loneliness. Even if you don’t feel like it, try to take time out of each day over Christmas to head outside.’ To make the experience more fun, look for things to collect to make a collage or take some photos and frame them.
5. Listen to your inner voice
If you find yourself experiencing a wave of loneliness, let it arise and approach it with interest. ‘Don’t run away from your feelings, sit with them,’ says Boston. ‘Treat them as information, not definition – feelings aren’t facts, they are messages. When you get a feeling of loneliness in your body, be curious as when you might first have experienced it in your life, and how it came to be that in certain contexts this feeling reappears.’
Consider where the feeling stems from. What thoughts were you thinking that made you feel that way? ‘If you notice your inner voice is critical, take steps to change this, such as keeping a diary of everyday achievements,’ says Vandenabeele. ‘Why not write the letter to yourself as though it’s from a close friend? This can give you a greater sense of perspective and reflect on your feelings – plus, it’s easier to show kindness to yourself this way.’
6. Build new social habits
Don’t let the days trickle by – make a plan. ‘Now that you have listened to your feelings and you are aware that loneliness is part of your emotional spectrum at the moment, what plan can you make to combat it effectively,’ asks Boston. ‘Talking to friends more often? Speaking more honestly about how you are feeling? Taking a walk? Strolling to the shop and buying a coffee? Going to a Christmas market, dropping off a freshly baked loaf of bread at a friend’s house? Little plans make a huge difference. It all adds up.’
7. Offer a helping hand
Why not donate your time to the local community and help others who are less fortunate have a merrier Christmas? ‘Not only can helping others improve your mental health and boost your mood, it’s a great way to expand your social network,’ says Vandenabeele. ‘A quick search online for your local area will bring up volunteering opportunities, many of which are looking for support over the festive period. Or, you could ask existing local groups in your area whether they need any more support.’
And if volunteering isn’t an option due to your local restrictions, ‘simply checking in on neighbours, or making an effort to spark up a conversation with someone in the line at the supermarket can make the world of difference,’ says Dolva. ‘You might find that helping others can be hugely rewarding for yourself. The more little gestures and acts of kindness each of us makes, the less isolation there will be, and not just at Christmas, but all year round.’
8. Create online connections
With so many people stuck indoors and seeking entertainment, there’s never been a better time to join an online forum and meet like-minded people who are passionate about the same hobbies and activities as you are. ‘Maintaining an active online social life can stave off feelings of loneliness at a time when you would normally be attending Christmas parties and festive gatherings,’ says Dolva. ‘From book clubs to dinner clubs and charities who are working for a cause you believe in – online, the opportunities are endless.’
9. Stay in the present moment
If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or stressed, pause for a moment to collect your thoughts. ‘Try not to worry if you’re having a difficult day – take a few deep breaths and concentrate on your next step – such as getting dressed, wrapping presents or reaching out to a loved one,’ says Vandenabeele.
Christmas is also time for reflection, so try putting pen to paper. ‘We’ve been faced with a difficult year, so it’s more important than ever to reflect on your achievements, no matter how small you think they are, he continues. ‘Write any achievements down as a reminder of how much you’ve done over the past year, as these can help to boost your mood and improve your self-esteem.’
10. Look for the positives
Expectations are often what drive our feelings of loneliness, says Dolva. ‘That is why Christmas is especially trying for many, as we expect it to be a holiday filled with joy and family,’ she says. ‘When those expectations are not met we feel disappointed, hurt, and even lonely. It is not your fault that these feelings come – they are closely tied to your surroundings, but you can manage how you handle the feelings.’
Part of this involves seeing the holidays how they really are – rather than the Hallmark version. It’s a myth that everyone else is enjoying a blissful family Christmas. And in fact, while you’re eating, drinking and doing whatever you please, a huge chunk of households across the UK will be rowing over the remote control or seething about who should tidy up the discarded wrapping paper.
According to relationship support service Relate, 68 per cent of Brits expect to row over the Christmas holidays, with 39 per cent citing Christmas Day as the most likely day for a bust-up. So, warm another mince pie and top up your festive tipple. Guaranteed, there are people out there who would choose a quiet Christmas to themselves, if only they could.
11. Reach out if you need to
The festive period can be a difficult time for anyone, even without the pandemic, as Vandenabeele points out. ‘There are many different reasons you might feel lonely at Christmas, particularly if you’re not able to see your family and friends because of the COVID-19 restrictions that are in place,’ he says. ‘Seeing others celebrating Christmas on social media can exacerbate how you’re feeling, too.’
If you’re facing Christmas alone, know that there’s lots of support out there to help. ‘It’s important to remember that there are always people around us who are ready to give support and help us reconnect, regardless of distance,’ Vandenabeele continues. ‘Whether this is through helplines, local groups or charities, it’s important to reach out to seek support if you’re feeling lonely.’
Help and support
If you're struggling and you need someone to talk to, for additional support try one of the following resources:
The Samaritans: a charity providing support to anyone in emotional distress.
The Silver Line: free helpline providing friendship and advice to older people.
Mind: a charity that makes sure no one has to face a mental health problem alone.
CALM: helping to reduce stigma and reduce rates of male suicide.
Glyde.co: telephone and video calling therapy sessions.
Last updated: 16-12-20
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