Written by Emily Pedersen, MPH, M.Ed., Director of Clinical Development at Neuro Wellness Spa
It is December, and many of us are getting ready to celebrate the holidays. A time of year that significantly alters families’ daily rhythms, leaving us busier and more exhausted than ever. While seasonal ads fill our TV screens and social media feeds with celebratory images, the truth for many is the short, cold days can be difficult.
And this year, families around the world are facing the added challenge of stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines which continue to have real implications for physical and mental health. So, this season, it is more important than ever to pay close attention to our wellbeing and stay aware of the needs of our family members in order to protect against loneliness, depression, and isolation.
Loneliness and isolation, which are especially prevalent during the holidays, have been shown to be as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day and can have more of an impact on mortality than other serious risk factors, like obesity or a sedentary lifestyle. The good news is there are proven ways to promote connectedness, even during COVID-19.
So, if you or a loved one is feeling isolated this holiday season, consider the following strategies:
1. Take care of yourself
While this may not completely erase feelings of loneliness, taking special care of yourself this season can help you feel better. Whether you prioritize sleep, engage in a physical activity that you enjoy, practice deep breathing, go to therapy or learn something new, practicing self-care can boost mood.
Throughout this season, you could also consider taking a few warm baths or routinely enjoying your favorite warm beverage, which research suggests might help to counteract feelings of loneliness. According to one study from Yale, the body can be fooled into feeling welcomed by applying a little warmth in the right places. And the effect is reciprocal: studies have found that people are more social after they have touched something warm.
2. Make communication a priority
Whether you are saying hello to neighbors, exchanging friendly words with people at the office, or picking up the phone and calling an old friend, reaching out to people and strengthening bonds can help you feel more connected this season.
This year, in particular, many of us wish we could be with family. Others are mourning the loss of a family member and are struggling to celebrate the holidays. Talking to others who share that sentiment can help you to feel less alone.
While nothing beats an in-person visit, if you can’t see friends or loved ones around the holidays, talking on the phone—or video chatting with Zoom or Facetime —can make a world of difference. You might be surprised to find that there are other people out there looking for some connection just as much as you are.
3. Rethink your expectations
For many people, part of why the holidays feel lonelier is that our society has such high expectations for this time of year. This holiday season, let go of your assumptions about the holidays and any stigma about celebrating alone.
This year presents an opportunity to celebrate on your own terms. Give yourself permission to do something you enjoy. Consider saving a new project, movie or book for the holiday, sleeping until noon, indulging in nontraditional foods or spending all day curled up with your favorite book.
It can also be helpful to avoid some of the traditional holiday hype by turning off unrealistic commercials and remembering that most peoples’ holidays do not unfold like scenes from the movies. When it comes to your holiday plans this year or anything else for that matter, you have the power to choose how to go about your day.
4. Cultivate gratitude
Giving thanks for a warm meal, a peaceful moment, another year, or any other gift of life is a great way to fight feelings of loneliness. Calling loved ones and expressing gratitude together can help cultivate joyful feelings, even if you can’t be with them on a certain holiday.
Not to mention, research has found that people who regularly practice gratitude reap a wide array of other benefits including stronger immune systems, lowered stress, and improved sleep.
Although the only way through a difficult time is forward, you don’t have to press on alone. If you find yourself struggling, seek help from friends, family, support groups or mental health professionals to ensure you get the support you need.