It's supposed to be to most wonderful time of the year. But for many people the holiday season is anything but joyous. Feeling left out when others celebrate and exchange gifts can be devastating and even lead to despair and depression. The so-called "holiday blues" are actually widespread, and if you are affected by them, you are certainly not alone.
While it is a myth that suicide rates spike around Christmas, it is true that feelings of loneliness and isolation become more pronounced in those who have little to celebrate. And it's not always a passing phenomenon.
"Loneliness is not only painful emotionally but it can have a devastating impact on one's long-term psychological and physical health," warns Dr. Guy Winch, a psychologist and author of numerous books on emotional health. "Loneliness predisposes us to depression and increases our risk of Alzheimer's disease," he says. "It suppresses our immune system functioning, it stresses our cardiovascular systems, and when chronic, it affects our very longevity."
To be sure, it is not the holidays themselves that carry the potential for emotional upheaval, but rather the baggage we bring along that becomes heavier to bear on these occasions.
Around the holidays expectations are high, and comparisons run rampant. People feel tremendous pressures to put on a happy face and be especially socially inclined. There is a false sense that everyone is living a Hallmark movie with an ideal family and perfect celebrations. That is, everyone but you. And this can trigger feelings of isolation, writes Margarita Tartakovsky, editor at PsychCentral.com, a website specializing in topics of mental health.
Loneliness, she writes, can be rooted in early, sometimes traumatic, childhood experiences. Lonely people often lack confidence in their own abilities and suffer from low self-esteem. They can feel easily rejected and tend to interpret other people's responses as confirmation of their own inadequacy.
The best way to counteract such feelings is to negate a person's instinct to withdraw and isolate, according to Dr. Ross Rosenberg, a psychotherapist and author of books on a wide spectrum of psychological issues, including addiction and relational problems.
"Loneliness feeds on itself," he says. The worst someone can do is to cultivate these emotions by setting a stage where they foster. Instead of separating themselves from their surroundings, people with such tendencies would be better served if they opened up and went out to join the world, he recommends.
This doesn't have to be a big thing. Reaching out to just one other person, or volunteering for just one small project can be a great start.
Also, we should not confuse loneliness with an occasional need for solitude. While feeling lonely is a negative state of mind, aloneness can be pleasurable and quite important at times.
Unfortunately, it has become increasingly harder in our perpetually connected world to find some peace and quiet. Yet, for relaxation, recovery, concentration, creativity, or simply for the sake of one's sanity, the ability to shut out our surroundings once in a while can be crucial.
The desire for solitude in our culture gets too easily equated with antisocial tendencies, according to Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D., a psychologist and author who focuses on stress issues. The fact is that there are many physical and psychological benefits to spending time alone, she says.
For this, too, the holidays can provide a perfect opportunity.
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