If You're Spending the Holidays Alone: Here's How to Cope With Loneliness

holidays alone


As we near the end of one of the strangest, most difficult years, we have one more hurdle to deal with: the holiday season. With the CDC recommending people hang tight over Thanksgiving, which will likely be followed by suggestions to do the same over Christmas and New Year's, too, many of us are struggling to come to grips with the fact that we're going to have to spend the holidays without the people we love.

Despite knowing this is the right thing to do for safety reasons, it doesn't make seeing our loved ones over Zoom any easier. In fact, many of us are facing intense feelings of loneliness and rejection right now.

First, know those feelings are completely normal, and you're not alone. And, there are things you can do to feel better. We chatted with Harvard-trained psychiatrists Dr. Carlin Barnes, MD and Dr. Marketa Wills, MD, MBA — here's their best advice for navigating the holidays this year.

Make a Plan

A little planning can go a long way, especially when it comes to days you'd usually be spending with your loved ones. "Engage in acts of volunteerism or community service to help others," suggests Barnes. Send holiday cards to armed service members or nursing home residents, participate in food drives. Or plan a drive-by party with family and friends, and arrange FaceTime or Zoom calls."

You can also plan a full day of self-care, complete with a yoga class, long meditation, walk outside, a good book and a bubble bath. Whatever you think will make you feel better, do that—but be sure to make a plan and stick to it.

Meet the Expert

Carlin Barnes, MD is a board-certified psychiatrist. For the past 17 years, she has practiced child, adolescent, and adult psychiatry. She is a Behavioral Health Medical Director at a Fortune 250 health insurance company. She trained in the specialty of psychiatry at programs at Harvard University and Emory University Schools of Medicine. 

Acknowledge Feelings of Rejection

Even if you know keeping your distance from family this year is the right thing to do, it doesn't necessarily make it easier when your family members tell you they don't feel safe seeing you.

"Acknowledge that you’re feeling hurt. It’s always good to let yourself know your own pain," suggests Wills. "Then challenge yourself to see the glass half-full. Focus on the extra time that you will have to rest, enjoy quality time with yourself or immediate family, spend time engaging in self-care or relaxing hobbies. And keep the focus on health and safety—of yourself and your family—and do your best to not take it personally."

Meet the Expert

Marketa Wills, MD, MBA, is a board-certified psychiatrist with a Master’s in Business Administration from the Wharton School of Business. She possesses a valuable combination of skills—sharp, analytical business acumen coupled with a natural ability to build impactful, transformative relationships with others.

Invest in Habits That Help Keep Sadness at Bay

It's great to find specific ways to cope on the actual holidays, but with a long winter ahead of us, it's good to invest in self-care in a more longterm way. "Shortened days and longer nights may lead to seasonal affective disorder, so make sure to get outside and get some vitamin D or get a light box," suggests Barnes. "Many people indulge in extra alcohol during the holidays, but if you've been extra sad, avoid alcohol, which acts as a further depressant."

Another solid suggestion from Barnes? Stay off of social media. "People will post their highlight reels of the perfect decorations, the perfect tree with tons of gifts," she says, noting that this isn't necessarily an accurate depiction fo what they're actually experiencing.

Above all, Wills says, try to release the notion of the "perfect holiday"—because it's not going to happen this year. "Take the pressure off of yourself," she says. "If putting up a tree and sending out greeting cards brings you joy then do it, but if it adds to your stress, let it go."

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