Home alone this holiday season? A therapist shares how to deal

Erin Donnelly
·9 min read
Many folks will be spending the holidays solo as the pandemic rages on. (Photo: Getty Creative stock image)
Many folks will be spending the holidays solo as the pandemic rages on. (Photo: Getty Creative stock image)

December is at last upon us, and while normally this would officially usher in a heavy blast of holiday spirit, tidings of good cheer are few and far between as COVID-19 cases climb and Americans return from Thanksgiving gatherings health experts warned would result in further spread. And so, the coming days will see not just gift-buying and tree-trimming, but also some tough conversations with loved ones as many folks take a hard look at their holiday plans and come to grips with spending the festive season at home, alone.

The possibility of celebrating solo can fill many people with dread, and even prompt some to forge ahead with plans that are considered high-risk just to avoid feeling lonely during such an emotionally fraught time. Indeed, therapist, speaker and author Lauren Cook tells Yahoo Life that the holidays, even in the best of times, can trigger heavy emotions.

“The holidays, regardless of a pandemic, can be a lonely time that can induce or exacerbate depressive symptoms,” says Cook. “This is because it's often a reflective time where we evaluate our life situation. If we feel that we are falling short, or life has been difficult, the holidays can magnify that.”

The coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated that vulnerability. In a year of grief and immeasurable loss, it’s natural for people — many of whom may not have seen their loved ones since the holidays last year — to have negative feelings about how a holiday season amid the “new normal” will play out.

“As a therapist, I have never seen such a level of burnout,” Cook says. “So many people are starved for social connection but they feel like their relationships are weakening, so they are reaching out even less for support. Many families are also struggling financially but feel pressure to engage in holiday festivities, including buying gifts, because it's one of the few things that people can still do since experiential bonding is limited right now. People feel worn out and when we reach this level of exhaustion, and it can become increasingly difficult to get excited about the holidays. This ultimately creates a negative feedback loop where people feel even more distressed that fewer and fewer things seem to bring them joy.”

She adds that we are “evolutionarily wired to connect with our fellow human beings,” and therefore spending the holidays alone can feel overwhelming and upsetting. But with so many factors forcing the issue — local restrictions and recommendations against traveling or gathering with those outside one’s household; health issues that might put someone at risk; distance from family members and the inability to travel because of finances or a sense of caution; and, tragically, the loss of a loved one as the U.S. death toll nears 270,000 lives lost — going solo may be the only path forward.

Yes, it feels bleak, but it’s possible to get through it, says Cook. Here, she shares her tips for warding off pangs of loneliness and even finding moments of joy during the festive season.

Being isolated during the holiday season can trigger feelings of loneliness and disappointment. (Photo: Getty Creative stock photo)
Being isolated during the holiday season can trigger feelings of loneliness and disappointment. (Photo: Getty Creative stock photo)

Allow yourself to feel disappointed

“Accept and acknowledge the sadness and disappointment that you may feel that your holiday plans aren't exactly the same,” says Cook. If Plan A doesn’t pan out, you can come up with a solid Plan B — but it’s OK to feel a sense of loss.

Find creative ways to enjoy the holiday traditions you love

For many, the lead-up to the holidays, during which we might enjoy seasonal traditions like going to see Santa, looking at lights, attending religious services, cooking with family members or having holiday parties, is more thrilling than the actual main event. Some of those traditions have been dramatically changed this year — the office party canceled or moved to Zoom, Santa behind a plexiglass snow globe and so on — but it’s still possible to find ways to drum up some holiday spirit, even if you’re not physically with the ones you love. That could mean experiencing the novelty of a drive-through holiday parade, organizing a group family Zoom with Santa Claus or masterminding some sort of gift swap or cookie exchange using snail mail. Or maybe this is an opportunity to do that volunteer work you’ve been too busy to take on amid the hustle and bustle of holidays past.

“Consider some of the hidden benefits of having a change of plans this year,” Cook suggests. “How does this different year allow you to create some new traditions and get a little extra creative?

“It's also helpful to still engage with the holiday traditions that you can,” she adds. “For example, decorating a tree, wrapping presents and baking your favorite holiday cookies are all things that you can still enjoy fully this year.”

Figure out how you’ll spend the day

Whether your holiday plans cover the eight days of Hanukkah or Christmas Day, making intentions ahead of time will help you make the most of the time and gain some control. This is also an opportunity to fold in family time, even if it’s just a Zoom call while everyone opens presents in their respective homes.

“Have a game plan for the holidays,” Cook advises. “Decide what you will do to make the holidays special for yourself and write it down. Perhaps you can try a new recipe, decorate presents in a creative way or plan a holiday movie marathon. The key is that you give yourself structure rather than let the day ‘just happen.’ When people wake up without anything to look forward to, this is when they get really disappointed.”

Think ahead

Your thoughts about Christmas 2020 may be gloomy, but how about Christmas 2021? While this year has taught us that life is unpredictable — last year, giving someone a face mask as a stocking stuffer, for instance, would have been unthinkable — allowing yourself a dash of optimism and hope for the holidays to come may help you swallow the disappointment of things being different right now.

“It’s ultimately about instilling a sense of resilience and hopefulness that things will get better for the future,” says Cook. “This helps people endure difficult times, including missing their family and friends. If we can tell ourselves that it’s not too much longer, especially now that a vaccine is on the horizon, this can help us push through a painful period.”

Bottom line: If daydreaming about going caroling with your grandparents next year, or getting excited about sharing the new latkes recipe you perfected with all your free time, improves your mood, go for it.

Use social media carefully

For some, connecting with others on social media, especially in a year in which we can’t physically gather with friends and relatives, can help fill that social void. Maybe you enjoy documenting your festive decorations on Instagram, or use Facebook to catch up with your loved ones and pass on holiday greetings.

But Cook warns that social media can also have the opposite effect, as it invites unhealthy comparisons. For instance, seeing friends celebrating within their large, merry bubbles while you’re stuck at home for the first time may trigger feelings of loneliness.

“Test it out for yourself a few weeks in advance to notice if you feel more sad or uplifted after engaging in social media,” Cook suggests. “Studies show that we tend to feel worse after looking at social media — even when we think it will make us happier — so this is something to consider. It may be helpful to just put your phone in another room and practice being fully present in the moment, especially if you tend to fall victim to FOMO [fear of missing out].”

Give yourself space to grieve

With nearly 270,000 COVID-19 deaths attributed to COVID-19 in the U.S. alone, many people will be spending the holiday season without a loved one not because of lockdown restrictions or distance, but because they have been bereaved. Approaching the holidays with a tragic loss can be unthinkable, especially if you don’t have people around to offer support.

“The key is not to ignore or minimize the loss as this can ultimately exacerbate distress,” Cook says. “It's normal and healthy to grieve, especially during a time as sensitive as the holidays.

And just because that person is gone doesn’t mean they can’t be included in spirit.

“Find ways to honor your loved one this holiday season,” she suggests. “Allow yourself to feel the sadness and process this loss. It can be helpful to still find ways to bring your loved one into the holidays, whether it's having an empty chair for them at the table, writing them a holiday letter or simply talking about the person with other loved ones.”

Watch for red flags

Feeling lonely or down is understandable during this difficult time. But if you feel overwhelmed by negative thoughts and being on your own is unbearable, it’s important to ask for help — from a friend, relative, neighbor, therapist, support line, doctor or whoever else might be available. Cook also suggests looking out for others in our social circle who might be alone or particularly vulnerable during this time.

“If you notice yourself or others expressing any suicidal thoughts or signs of hopelessness, this can be an indicator that support is needed,” Cook says. “You'll also want to notice behavioral changes. Especially if someone you know is typically active and engaged in person and/or online, and they've recently gone radio silent, this is an indicator that a check-in would be helpful.

“Now more than ever, we need to express how we care about one another and how much we matter in each other’s lives,” she adds. “If we don't hear it and express it, we can forget that it’s true. This is not something to take for granted.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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