When the holiday season arrives, it can feel like the rest of the world is scampering through a winter wonderland of parties and family reunions. Popular culture and social media feeds filled with celebratory images prime us to believe that our troubles should, in the words of the ubiquitous Christmas carol, be far away.
But the truth is, the dark, cold days of December can be difficult. While we often hear people acknowledge their overeating or overspending or stressing about having too many social obligations, this is also a time of year when many people are deeply lonely.
“At any given time, roughly 20% of individuals—that would be 60 million people in the U.S. alone—feel sufficiently isolated for it to be a major source of unhappiness in their lives,” write John John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick in their book, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. And that feeling doesn’t disappear when December hits.
So, if you’re feeling isolated this holiday season, take some comfort in the knowledge that you’re in good company. Then, consider the following salves to soothe your December melancholy.
1. Lower Expectations
Holiday hype is hard to resist. You probably don’t realize it, but movies and advertisements and songs leak into your subconscious. And suddenly, you’re wondering why you don’t have a tiny wrapped box under the tree or a date on New Year’s Eve, even though you were perfectly fine with your single status in November.
“There are commercials filled with images of couples getting engaged, children opening presents with their smiling parents in the background,” says Matt Lundquist, a psychotherapist in New York City. “What’s particularly challenging around the holidays is the contrast between the ideal and the reality.”
So switch off those jewelry commercials and remember that most people don’t have holidays that unfold like a movie. No party invites? No boyfriend? Who cares? What about hosting a movie marathon with a couple friends? When it comes to holiday plans, or anything else for that matter, you can write your own script.
2. Warm Up
There’s research to suggest that the simple act of taking a warm bath or having a cup of hot coffee might help to counteract feelings of loneliness.
“It seems as if the body can be fooled into feeling welcomed by applying a little warmth in the right places,” write researchers Hans IJzerman and Justin Saddlemyer in The New York Times. “And the effect is reciprocal: Studies in our own lab and at Yale have found that adults and young children are more social after they’ve touched something warm.”
Now, hot chocolate isn’t going to heal your heavy heart if you’re suffering from intense loneliness, but treating yourself to physical warmth could be just the daily boost you need. Interestingly, another 2009 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology showed that a “warm television” can drive away feelings of loneliness. While it’s no substitute for human interaction, your favorite program might just keep you company for a bit.
3. Reach Out
Maybe you didn’t really make plans for the holidays—after all, if you’re lonely, then you probably waited for others to call or reach out to you. But if you’d really like to spend the days around Christmas with others, it’s not to late to do something about it.
“I think there are very few people who could not post, ‘No plans for Christmas—anyone want to hang out?’ and not get at least a few invitations,” says Lundquist, who also suggests reaching beyond your inner circle. “The holidays are also an opportunity to build new relationships. Churches and synagogues offer lots of programming and volunteer opportunities abound.”
In other words, take a risk. Make a few phone calls. Find a local organization or a Sandy relief effort still looking for volunteers. You might be surprised to find that there are other people out there looking for some connection just as much as you are.
Loneliness is something we all experience from time to time. It’s not always rational, either—for instance, it’s possible to feel more disconnected from others in the middle of a Christmas party than you do by yourself at home with a good book. But no matter where or when the holiday blues strikes, remember that you’re not alone. Try to keep realistic expectations, take care of yourself, and make a little effort to connect with others in the same boat.