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Holiday Season Begins

We celebrated Diwali last month, and now Thanksgiving is here.  Christmas and the New Year are around the corner. ‘Tis the season to be jolly, as the popular Christmas carol says.  

This holiday season is traditionally a time for celebration, when we meet family and friends, or take time off to travel.  Social gatherings abound and a festive cheer is everywhere. This is the time when most of us look forward to the new year, reflect on our lives, and reset our resolve with the expectation of better days ahead.  For some, however, this is not a season of joy and hope.  Instead, it brings loneliness, grief and stress. 

There are many reasons for this. Some people suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a type of depression that is triggered by low levels of sunlight, that returns every year, usually in late fall or early winter.

The loss of a loved one often leads to grief and depression, even if that loss occurred many years ago. The loved one may be alive but somewhere else, and unable or unwilling to be with you. Feelings of separation and loss do not go away just because it’s the holiday season. As a matter of fact, some take the absence of a loved one personally; their unhappiness accentuated because they cannot celebrate with that person. 

Happy Holidays Are Sometimes Unrealistic

A number of people find the expectation that they should be happy, cheerful and celebrate during the holiday season unrealistic and stressful. 

“The presumption that we should not be sad can create misery for some people,” says Dr. Punit Mahendru, a psychologist in the Bay Area, “while others see everyone around them enjoying good family time, and that reminds them that they are unable to be with their own family.”

Some are reminded of good times of the past, times they cannot re-live again.  People who are dealing with health issues, or taking care of someone who is, often struggle to find joy or be in a celebratory mood. Comparing ourselves with family, friends, neighbors or colleagues, and perceiving ourselves as coming up short can cause stress, anxiety and sadness.

Loneliness (Image: Unsplash)

How Loneliness Manifests

Marian Grace Boyd, a psychotherapist and author says that  loneliness will feel and manifest differently for each of us.  According to her, we could experience one or more of the following: 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

Are you among those who feel lonely during the holidays?

Hsuan Dai, a mental-health therapist at the University of Washington Counseling Center offers good advice on how to cope and overcome holiday loneliness. First, acknowledge that feelings come and go.

“Be mindful of and present for the thoughts and feelings you’re having. You can be aware of your loneliness without buying into the idea that you’re actually alone. Know that it will pass,” she says.

This will help to put things in perspective, so you can challenge unhelpful thoughts that may deepen your loneliness.  Avoid the trap of expectations imposed by others and by social media. Don’t let them tell you what things should be like; take control and decide for yourself how things will be. Re-think your own expectations.

Create New Traditions

Ms. Dai also encourages people to create their own new traditions for the holidays, such as volunteering to help the less fortunate.

“Friendsgiving is a great example of a new way of celebrating a holiday,” she says.

Giving to others can be very meaningful and fulfilling, and a great way to combat loneliness. Ms. Dai also encourages people to remember and recount all the positives in their lives, and practice healthy coping strategies.

Healthy Habits

This advice also comes from many other experts.  These healthy habits include a good diet, monitoring and limiting alcohol intake, and exercising regularly to boost your mood. Avoid judging or being critical of yourself. Instead, practice self-compassion and self-care.

“Taking time to do things that will enhance your self-esteem, or at least give you a good dose of fun will not only take your focus off of feeling alone but can lift your spirits as well,” says Elizabeth Scott, an expert on emotional wellbeing.

Dr. Scott goes on to say that is important to cultivate gratitude. “One easy antidote to feelings of lack is to cultivate feelings of gratitude for what you have; it’s hard to focus on both at once.”

Seek New Connections

Seeking out social connections instead of withdrawing inwards is very important. Stay in touch with others. Leverage technology when you cannot be with loved ones; share photographs or use phone calls and video chats to connect with them.  

If you are among those who feel lonely during the holidays, you now know how that might affect you, and what you can do to overcome those feelings. If others in your family and friends circle are affected, be proactive.  Reach out and connect with them and make plans together.  Reassure them that they are not alone. Share these tips and help them implement them.

Mukund Acharya

Mukund Acharya is a regular columnist for India Currents. He is also President and a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area that advocates for healthy aging within...