The holiday season is notoriously thought of a time filled with joy, love, and celebrations. However, for many individuals, holidays can be overwhelming both emotionally and physically. Prior to COVID-19, loneliness during the holidays was commonly felt by others who lacked family connections, frontline responders who are required to work, military personnel stationed away from home, etc. Due to the continued presence of COVID-19, this loneliness will be felt more widespread and may be more acute.
Here are a few tips for taking back control of your holiday season and coping with potential feelings of loneliness and disappointment that may arise this time of year.
- Plan Ahead and Develop Specific Rules: It is never too early to make plans for the holiday season. I actually advise you to make these plans as early as possible! Anxiety is most often caused by feelings of unpredictability and not being in control. Therefore, planning ahead is essential for you to manage your expectations and take back control during a time when the pandemic is dictating the majority of everyday life. Waiting to see the percentage of cases or for a rapid or PCR COVID-19 test is only going to delay this uncertainty and potentially lead to increased frustrations and disappointment. When setting plans and rules, clearly and directly communicate with your loved ones what you specifically need to feel connected while staying safe during the pandemic. Remember, people cannot read your mind despite how close you are to them. Once you set your plans and rules for the holiday season, hold yourself accountable and do not deviate.
- Foster Gratitude: Desires to withdraw and isolate are common when feeling lonely. Combat this sadness and grief with building gratitude and acting opposite to emotion action urges associated with loneliness. The powerful emotion of gratitude has been scientifically proven to have psychological, physical, and social benefits. Research has shown that adopting a gratitude practice can enhance dopamine and serotonin (neurotransmitters responsible for pleasure and happiness) and decrease norepinephrine (neurotransmitter associated with stress). Practicing gratitude also has been shown to rewire neural circuits in the brain to strengthen pathways associated with positive memories and emotions. Here are a few examples of ways to build gratitude practices: a) develop a gratitude list or journal, b) complement and appreciate yourself, c) express thankfulness to others, d) share thoughts of gratitude with others.
- Accept Things Out of Your Control and Validate Yourself: Many of us tend to think about the future in negative ways and anticipate grief and anxiety (i.e., “this pandemic is never going to end,” “my holidays are going to be horrible,” etc.). This is natural! As humans, we tend to view things with a negative filter as our minds are more prone to pessimistic and/or fatalistic thinking and feeling. This negative filter is often beneficial for people because it sparks problem solving and motivates us to take action toward making change. Try to notice when you are thinking in this way and provide yourself with validation by granting yourself permission to feel lonely and disappointed because it makes sense! You can also become unstuck from these thoughts by identifying that you do have a choice in the way you think or feel about a situation. You can choose to view the situation differently or tell yourself that your thoughts and feelings are temporary. Focus on the here and now and be mindful of the presence moment.
- Honor Old Traditions and Create New Ones: Allow yourself permission to have a more simple holiday season. Pick one tradition that you normally do with friends and family and find ways that you can honor this one your own (i.e., cook or bake a family recipe, decorate your apartment or home, watch a holiday movie). Traditions bring comfort and connectedness. Then find one novel activity that you can do during the holiday season to create a new tradition for yourself. Here are some thoughts on various activities that you can add to your holiday traditions: a) send out holiday cards with personalized, handwritten notes, b) mail gifts to friends and family and open over a virtual platform, c) create small holiday gift bags and drop them off at neighbors’/friends’ homes or give small gifts to your doorman or convenience store workers, d) volunteer at a soup kitchen or animal shelter, e) set up a personal spa and take a relaxing bath, f) pick a new charity to support and plan a fundraiser. New traditions can also be a way to practice gratitude and then you acquire double the benefits!
- Stay Connected and Be Mindful of Social Media: When making your plans for the holidays, make sure to include times in which you are able to stay connected to your loved ones. Plan virtual holiday gatherings with friends, coworkers, and family members. Attend a virtual worship or spiritual service. Find ways to connect through platforms other than social media. To avoid FOMO or unnecessary judgments about people’s glorified social media posts, curate your social media filters ahead and curate your social media and place filters on accounts. Consider taking a break from social media and focusing on finding alternative ways to bolster your interpersonal connections.
- Reach Out to Others for Support: It is probably that others are struggling with similar feelings of anticipatory grief, sadness, and loneliness during the holiday season. Lean on others for support during this difficult time and offer to lend an ear. Consider talking to a professional to receive additional mental health support.
Lauren Latella, PhD, is a New York based psychologist working with children, adolescents, and young adults struggling with a variety of mental health issues including anxiety and depression.
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