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Why We Feel Lonely Over The Holidays

12/21/2016 07:55 EST | Updated 12/21/2016 07:56 EST
Seth Joel via Getty Images
Pedestrian with shopping bags walking in downtown shopping area at Christmas

As the holiday season begins, our environment changes significantly. Decorative lights, a deluge of advertisements for gifts and holiday accessories, movies filled with holiday cheer. The radio plays festive music all day and night, blasting out of speakers in every store we visit. We're constantly bombarded with a flood of reminders to be merry.

However, for many people, the holidays strike a painful chord.

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In fact, even when we're surrounded by loved ones, the holidays can trigger feelings of disconnection, isolation and loneliness. For those who have experienced a recent loss -- such as death, divorce or an empty nest -- loneliness is greater. Same goes for people who don't have family, whose family is far away, or who are estranged from their relatives.

Let's look at why.

We Miss People We've Lost

As we age, losses are more frequent, and the memories of lost loved ones can be painful during the holidays, particularly when everything is focused on celebration and togetherness.

We're Prone to Feeling Lonely

Some people, based on personality characteristics and past experiences, are more prone to experiencing loneliness. For example, people are vulnerable to feeling lonely when they think they are being misunderstood, or if they tend to misperceive other people. The holidays, being a time of togetherness, exacerbate these feelings.

Pressure to Be Festive

The pressure to be festive can make us feel disconnected from others. This has gotten worse with social media. It's common for my patients to be distressed after seeing pictures of their friends' celebrations on Facebook: decorating, food preparations, gifts, parties. They compare their circumstances to those of their friends, and may feel inferior as a result. (Ironically, many of those posts are only an outer representation of friends' lives. Privately, they have similar struggles; they are just not announcing it on their social media status.)

If any of this resonates, here are five suggestions for reducing loneliness over the holidays:

1. Acknowledge How You Feel

We can't combat painful feelings until we first identify them. And there's no shame in admitting your feelings, and even sharing them with others. Once we acknowledge how we feel, we're better equipped to find ways to reduce distress.

2. Reach Out to Others

When people feel lonely, they're often inclined to avoid others. This is a mistake. Being around others may not totally rid you of loneliness, but it will reduce the feelings. It can also prevent twinges of loneliness from evolving into a more severe depression. If you fear a negative reaction from others, know that most people are receptive and welcoming, particularly around the holiday season.

3. Honor Your Memories

It can help to develop a ritual in memory of lost loved ones. Some people find comfort in visiting the cemetery where loved ones are buried. Lighting candles, volunteering or donating money to a meaningful charity, cooking a signature dish of food, or maintaining traditions shared with lost loved ones, are all ways of keeping memories alive. By carving out time to remember the ones we've lost, we can actually reduce feelings of loneliness. Again, one of the worst things we can do is avoid how we feel. Just as dwelling and ruminating can grossly exacerbate feeling lonely, so can trying to deny it's there.

4. Realistically View Social Media

If you find it upsetting to see all of your friends posting festive pictures on Facebook and Instagram, you may want to reduce the amount of time you spend on social media.

On the other hand, social media can be a great way to connect and reduce loneliness. Be honest with yourself about how you feel while on social media, and use it with discretion based on how it affects your mood.

5. Practice Self-Care

We are less likely to practice self-care when we're feeling poorly. Make sure you're doing things that foster a sense of well-being during the holidays. Healthy diet and regular exercise are important; so is getting enough sleep. Try going out to a movie or show, being in nature, deep breathing, repeating positive affirmations or spending time with a friend. Anything that carves out time for well-being and inner nourishment is considered self-care.

Also, if you know someone who is alone or struggling with loss, and they're expressing distress around the holidays, invite them to do something with you. After all, the best way to combat feeling lonely is to create time and space to share moments with others.

Dr. Jacqueline Simon Gunn is a Manhattan-based clinical psychologist and author. She holds master's degrees in both forensic psychology and existential/ phenomenological psychology, and has a doctorate in clinical psychology. Her specialties include eating disorders, trauma, interpersonal and relationship difficulties, alternative lifestyles and sports psychology.

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