With the Christmas season upon us, it’s worth pausing to consider that, despite that Christmas is seen as a time full of festive cheer and is advertised as a magical time full of joy, good times and quality time with family and friends, it is often a time of loneliness, sadness and isolation for many. Almost a third of us report a near-constant state of loneliness. In fact, a 2021 survey of loneliness showed that 31 percent of us report feeling lonely often, always, or some of the time.
Loneliness is a subjective emotional state, meaning that it is how we feel inside us. So, many can feel lonely even when surrounded by crowds of people or even loved ones. This can be difficult for those around us to understand. Perhaps you feel a sense of disconnection, maybe you have experienced a loss of someone close, or are struggling with anxiety or depression. These are all things that can contribute to a person’s experience of loneliness.
Social isolation, on the other hand, is different to loneliness, it is an objective experience, of being physically distanced or apart from those around us. For example, a person that lives alone, are far away from family/friends, or who does not connect with the community around them may be termed as “isolated. People who are socially isolated are more likely to experience feelings or thoughts of loneliness if they are socially isolated, however the two are not the same.
Christmas is a time where loneliness and social isolation can be more deeply experienced and felt, due to the pressure from media and those around us to be with family, friends and community. Remember, this Christmas could be the first that a person is spending alone. It could be the first Christmas following the death of a loved one, perhaps that person’s only connection. It could be the first Christmas following a relationship break up. It could be a time without family members who are unable to get home to spend the festive season with their loved ones. Family disputes may be happening for various reasons resulting in loneliness and isolation within families. You may be someone who is living away from family and friends or someone who is struggling with a long term disability or terminal illness. All of these reasons, including many more, can make Christmas a very lonely time for people.
It is important to note, however, that not all of us are affected by loneliness equally. Younger people have reported feel lonely far more often than older generations. Women report loneliness more than men (though it is likely men underreport loneliness, due to internalised stigma and shame related to mental health). If you are single or widowed, and in poor health, young, or part of a new community, loneliness is likely to be a highly likely to be part of life.
The impact of loneliness is often made worse by our hesitancy to admit that we are lonely, blaming ourselves for a situation that is often not of our own making. The worst part of this is not just the emotional toll loneliness causes. It also undermines our resilience when bad things happen. Lonely people tend to be less likely to reach out to those around them, and engage with social networks, hence causing increasing feelings of loneliness.
What can I do to combat Loneliness and Social Isolation?
There are things to explore that can help us feel less lonely and strengthen our social networks at Christmas. Much of this comes down to finding connections in a friend group, family, or community, whether in the workplace or even online.
Consider some of the following if you notice feelings of loneliness, or you are socially isolated during the Christmas and New Year period.
1. Volunteer in your Community.
Volunteering can be formal or informal. There are plenty of opportunities for formal volunteering over Christmas, such as volunteering for a local charity (e.g. St Vincent De Paul, ISCPA, Alone, Big Brother Big Sister) there are many opportunities out there. We can also engage in more informal volunteering, such as helping out family and friends in any way we can. Even helping a neighbour around the house or in the garden can make us feel closer to our community. Giving back and volunteering has been shown to release oxytocin, our connection chemical. So by volunteering, we feel naturally more connected to others.
2. Let others know that you are feeling lonely.
This can be a difficult thing to do, as there is a lot of stigma and shame around loneliness, particularly at Christmas. You don’t need to tell them very much, however, even dropping a hint to people around you e.g. about how long the evenings are, or how you have no plans for Christmas, might elicit an invitation to a dinner or at the very least a chance to drop by for a short visit. This allows for more opportunities to connect with others, combating isolation and increasing feeling of connection.
3. Build routine into your day.
This is one of those hidden loneliness-busters that people forget. Ensure you have a structured routine you follow each day, such as going to bed and getting up at the same time, eating meals around the same time each day. This goes a long way in maintaining our wellbeing. Get out and about - walk at the same time each day along the same route. People come to "see" us when we are present in their lives. We are far more likely to receive a wave or get a friendly "hello" from people if we are out and about. Even those small acknowledgments help sew together a community, one that helps us feel less lonely.
4. Do Self - Care Each Day.
Each one of us has different ways of caring for ourselves, think of ways that work for you. This can be through exercise, cooking a nice meal, doing something creative, or taking a long bath. Challenge yourself to show gratitude every day for a small thing that went well. Get outdoors. Each of these small acts of self-preservation has the potential to elevate our mood. People who feel happier and are physically healthier are more likely to have the emotional resources to reach out to others when there is an opportunity to feel included.
5. Call someone.
Whether it is a friend you haven’t spoken to in awhile, or maybe family overseas, pick up the phone and give them a ring. Many of us can get stuck in a rut thinking “why aren’t they calling me?” but these thoughts can often stop us from connecting with others. So be the one to reach out, it may lead to a long conversation and catching up, allowing us to feel less lonely and isolated.
It's not easy to beat loneliness in our modern society, but it is possible. The more we change the opportunities around us for social interaction and the kinder we are to ourselves and our minds, the more likely we are to experience Christmas as a time of connection.
If you are struggling with ongoing feelings of loneliness, or can’t seem to shake it no matter what you do, please reach out. We can explore this in a safe space in therapy and find ways to improve your wellbeing.
Wishing you and yours a peaceful and happy Christmas and New Year.