The holiday blues are an annual event for many, but this year it might feel different—or worse. Because of COVID-19 restrictions and our choices to keep others safe by physically distancing, this year might be lonelier than most.
Instead of the hustle and bustle of airports and large dinners, many of us are experiencing a different type of holiday stress. We might be facing isolation, guilt, grief, and the loss of holiday traditions and connection.
At this point, I know I can schedule a conversation or a cookie-decorating gathering over Zoom. But the days go by and I find myself not doing that. Or I’m burned out from all of my Zooms already. Or I log off of a virtual gathering and find that I feel lonelier than I did before.
It’s totally valid to be sad and angry and grief-stricken and lonely. If you’re reading this, and your holidays are going nowhere near as planned, and you miss your loved ones, and you’re mourning a year that was awful and weird, and you’re trying to look forward to the future but you realize we still have a while to go, we’re right there with you.
There is no magic activity that can make all of this better, but there are ways to feel your feelings, sit with the sadness and discomfort, try to find pockets of joy, and take care of yourself so you can cope.
I feel a bit silly talking about how lonely I am when I have my husband and my cats. My family and friends are just a Zoom away. I live in New York City, so if I look outside my window, I can see neighbors shoveling snow and walking dogs. And yet, I feel awful.
“The construct of loneliness is complex and it may have different causes and manifestations across individuals,” the authors of a letter published in Psychiatry Research said in November 2020. “Clearly, social isolation is one factor that increases loneliness in some people. Yet, we find that loneliness is also elevated even among those who report they are no longer under restrictions or sheltering-in-place. We speculate that this is because the ‘new normal’ is not normal.”
They go on to say that even in communities that have reopened, typical social interactions remain profoundly altered, as people maintain social distance, avoid congregating in groups, refrain from physical touch like hugs and handshakes, and wear masks that hide facial expressions and make it difficult to hear someone’s tone of voice. The social behaviors we use to express closeness, friendship, and a sense of community have been radically altered by COVID-19.
Of course staying at home alone can contribute to a sense of loneliness, but so can trying to adjust to this “new normal” where we cannot hug or see someone’s smile, or strike up a conversation with a stranger in a cafe or while standing in line, or gather around a table for a meal.
A friend of mine recently moved into her own apartment, living without roommates for the first time. She said that she is lonely, even though she sees her sister and boyfriend, who are in her pandemic bubble, regularly. She works, makes dinner, exercises, watches Netflix, and sleeps. Then she wakes up and does it all again.
While going outside, exercising, getting enough sleep, and maintaining a healthy diet are all proven to help us cope with a variety of things including the effects of anxiety, depression, and loneliness I, like my friend, feel like I’m on some sort of autopilot.
I’m a planner by nature, but in pre-COVID times, most events in my life would “come up” naturally. A friend came into town, so we’d get dinner. Someone’s birthday came up, so I’d get to see a group of friends I didn’t see so regularly. Someone would get tickets to a concert and see if I wanted to go. Coworkers would go out after work.
It’s not that there aren’t events now. But one can only attend so many Zoom happy hours. And there’s no conversations on the walk to the train or while waiting for food to come. For me, that’s where the stories are told and the inside jokes are created.
Especially over the holidays, it’s important to plan ahead to capture some of that same energy.
Grab a journal or open up a note on your phone and make a list of all of the holiday activities you love or are missing. You can even add ones that you haven’t done before, but always wanted to. Circle or highlight ones that would make you the happiest that you also feel like you could recreate in some way this year. Remember that not all activities need to be replicated exactly from their offline to online format. I can replace the feeling of doing one thing by doing something else, not trying to recreate it shot-for-shot online.
Proactively put things on the calendar, create cute invites, and reach out to family and friends to join you, whether live or on their own time. Set yourself up for success in advance by blocking time off on your calendar to do activities alone or with members of your household so you don’t find yourself looking around for things to do when you’re not feeling your best.
Loneliness was already an American epidemic, with more than half of Americans reporting loneliness even before the pandemic and half of adults say worry or stress related to the pandemic has had a negative impact on their mental health, including one in four who say it has had a major impact.
We know we say it a lot, but self care is important. Really and truly take care of yourself while we go through this pandemic holiday season and beyond.
Just like I will always feel better after ten minutes of meditation than three hours of watching television (even though watching television is “easier”), I will always feel better after I actually talk or type to someone for ten minutes than if I scroll social media for an hour.
Sometimes, we do just need to veg out. But activities that numb us or distract us often contribute to feeling low and lonely, or that disconcerting feeling that time has passed when we haven’t even realized it. As much as you can, do activities that make you feel fulfilled and supported, rested and refreshed. And, as much as possible, it’s best to have your self care practice and activities organized before you start feeling down.
With everything that is going on, the additional task of seeking mental health treatment can feel like a burden. Maybe you’ve seen a therapist in the past and have been thinking about starting again, or maybe you’ve never seen a therapist and this is your first time—either way, we’re here for you.
Many of us will probably feel lonely over the holidays and into 2021 whether we’re alone or not, but there are ways to cope and things to be hopeful for. We’ll be with you every step of the way.
Caitlin is MyWellbeing's Content Lead, a writer, speaker, communication coach, and the founder of Commcoterie, a communication consultancy. She teaches teams how to use professional coaching communication techniques in their everyday conversations, helps leaders engage their teams with effective and inclusive communication, and partners with service providers to activate their programs and offerings with their own clients through inspiring communication strategies. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.