Mental health experts help demystify the causes and coping strategies for those yearly holiday blues.

By Elizabeth Yuko
December 16, 2020
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Ah, the holidays: that special time of the year filled with cheer, good will, and crippling loneliness. Some people truly love the season (especially the ones who start decorating immediately after Halloween); others are able to tolerate the festivities, knowing that if nothing else, they’ll likely get a day off from work. That leaves the rest of us, who spend the first 10 months of the year dreading all the mandatory joy and hall-decking foisted upon us in November and December.

And while there are plenty of reasons why some might prefer to hibernate from mid-November through the beginning of January, one of the biggest is loneliness. As a quick refresher, “being alone” and “loneliness” are two different concepts. Someone can be physically alone and feel completely content, feeling no pangs of loneliness. And someone who is alone might feel lonely, but it’s also entirely possible to experience loneliness while surrounded by friends and family. 

Either way, feeling lonely or down around this time of year is common, and completely normal—whether or not we’re living through a global pandemic (which we definitely are this year). If you’ve ever wondered why the holidays have this effect on people (perhaps including yourself), and are looking for strategies for dealing with seasonal loneliness, we have insight from mental health professionals that might help.

To those who have never experienced loneliness during the holiday season, even the possibility of facing unpleasant emotions during the so-called “most wonderful time of the year” seems far-fetched. Of course, in reality, it’s not, and there are several reasons for that:

Not everyone feels loved and supported.

The holidays are often hardest for those who don’t have family or a reliable support system, says Adam L. Fried, PhD, a clinical psychologist practicing in Phoenix and assistant professor of psychology at Midwestern University. This includes people who have lost loved ones, and those who have strained relationships with their families. “The holidays are full of scenes of people spending happy times with family and friends, leading some to feel like they are the only ones without loved ones in their lives during this time," Fried says.  

There are so many triggers.

One person’s source of happiness may be another person’s trigger. This is true year-round, but can be even more pronounced during the holidays. One reason for this is because this time of year can be a highly sensory experience, according to Marian Grace Boyd, a psychotherapist and the author of the book series Remember, It's OK. For example, it can include things like the melody of a certain seasonal song, the smell of a favorite baked good, or the sight of an empty chair.

Our thoughts and feelings can also be triggers—both pleasant, sentimental memories, as well as ones that are far more difficult to process—especially during a time when emotions are heightened. “Many are reminded of longings—for a partner, for a child, for a career, for friends,” Boyd explains. “We can experience emotional overload.” And as Boyd points out, it doesn’t help that many people are also adjusting to colder weather, fewer hours of daylight, and changes in their routines.

Expectations don’t usually match reality.

For someone who experiences loneliness during the holidays, the constant barrage of commercials, decorations, and posts on social media depicting what this time of year is “supposed” to look like can also make things worse. “With the holidays, we may be comparing ourselves to those around us, but also to how we imagine others are spending the holidays, how the holidays are portrayed in movies or television, or recreating experiences from our childhood,” Fried explains.

These comparisons can lead to negative self-evaluations, where we measure our own (possibly sad) situation against what we see others doing—regardless of whether it’s staged Facebook photos of a family happily baking cookies together, or literally any Hallmark holiday movie.

“If we’re already feeling a little uncertain or vulnerable about our holiday experience and we see those around us are having what we perceive to be a perfect holiday experience, this can lead to us feeling bad about ourselves,” Fried says. “Many feel a need to create what they believe to be the ‘perfect’ holiday experience, and that a failure to execute even the most minor component of this plan will ruin the entire holiday experience for everyone. This pressure can lead to frustration and self-criticism.”

Loneliness doesn’t always (or even usually) involve a person clutching the blanket wrapped around their shoulders, staring out the window into the distance as it rains or snows, while “The Sound of Silence” plays in the background. If you saw a character on a TV show do this, you’d probably know right away that they were lonely, but in real life, loneliness can look many different ways. 

“How loneliness will feel and manifest will be unique to each of us,” Boyd says. Some examples include fatigue, anxiety, tension, isolation, melancholy, frustration, having no initiative or drive, procrastination, lacking self-confidence, finding it harder to make decisions, having less patience with family members, feeling empty, or experiencing anhedonia (when things that once brought joy no longer do). Loneliness can also cause physical symptoms like headaches, tight shoulders, the feeling of a knot in your stomach, or an increase in self-medicating food, alcohol, or drugs,” Boyd notes.

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Whether or not you’re someone who deals with the holiday blues on a yearly basis, it would be hard to keep 2020 from getting you down. To start with, recommendations to stay home instead of traveling to celebrate with friends and family will leave many alone during the holidays—possibly for the first time in their lives. But that's only the beginning. 

Since March, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought wave after wave of loss—including mourning the deaths of people we knew personally, as well as the more than 290,000 lives lost to the virus in the United States alone. Others mourn the loss of their health, job, financial security, and/or any semblance of normalcy and certainty about the future. “Any time we experience loss and change, we experience grief,” Boyd says. “In essence, we are grieving globally. Taking that into the holidays, we are at a different starting place for December and for all that the holidays bring. This can have the impact of magnifying our holiday loneliness.”

Meanwhile, those who actually enjoy the holidays are now faced with the loss of many of the traditions and celebrations that come with their favorite season. There may also be some people who aren’t typically into the holidays, but were looking forward to the distraction this year—or at least reuniting with family and friends after long periods of separation or getting a much-needed break from a stressful work-life grind. “With all of the disruptions and stress over the past year, we want more than anything for our holidays to approximate some degree of normalcy and to restore our sense of how life should be,” Fried says. “This may not be possible given the current environment, and this reality can lead to feelings of sadness and frustration.”

Even though the holidays look different this year, it’s important to remember that all is not lost. If you’re dealing with loneliness, know that there are coping strategies galore out there—both specific to 2020, and general tips for making it through the holidays with your mental wellbeing (at least mostly) intact. Here are few more that might help.

Reimagine the holidays.

Instead of stressing over a preconceived notion of what you think the holiday should be, Fried recommends focusing instead on making it what you want it to be: a low-stress, enjoyable experience. “This recognizes that trying to make a perfect holiday can be incredibly stressful and it may not even be what you enjoy the most,” he says. “Sometimes it’s easiest to start with some simple questions: What brings you joy? What would your ideal day look like? How can we create a day that incorporates as much of these as possible?” Plus, this is your chance to create your own holiday traditions, Boyd adds.

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Plan something to look forward to.

We may have to postpone get-togethers with family and friends this year, but that doesn’t mean we’ve lost our chance to spend time with loved ones until the 2021 holiday season (fingers crossed). For example, Fried says that some families have decided to pool their resources and plan a group experience (like a vacation) after the pandemic ends. “For them, this exemplifies the true purpose of the holiday: to spend time together with loved ones engaged in an enjoyable experience, even if it’s somewhat delayed,” he says.

Be kind to yourself.

Sure, we know this in theory, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s something we actually practice. “It’s OK to acknowledge that you're frustrated by the circumstances preventing you from doing something different during the holidays,” Fried explains. “It can be helpful to ask yourself what would make you feel just a little bit better and then do it.” And it doesn’t have to be elaborate: Boyd says that something as simple as logging off social media for an evening can make a difference. 

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Remember that families come in different forms.

As Fried points out, it’s important to keep in mind that your “family” doesn’t solely consist of people who are biologically or otherwise related to you. “They can be your friends that value and understand you, and with whom you spend important moments,” he says. (We dare anyone to even suggest that The Golden Girls weren’t a real family.) Fried recommends making it a point to spend time (either virtually or in person, if that’s a safe option) with the people who mean the most to you. 

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