5 Ways to Manage Loneliness During the Holiday Season

A behavioral health expert explains why loneliness is common over the holidays — and how to cope if you feel isolated.

The holiday season is filled with expectations for a joyous time, with family and loved ones gathering together. But for many people, that merriment we so often see portrayed in movies and commercials is not really a reality. “The holidays are actually a peak time when we see people needing more mental health support,” says Dr. Sheau-Yan Ho, a clinical health psychologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center. “For some, this time of year is laced with difficult memories, grief, or stressful relationships. This can result in loneliness.”

Loneliness is defined as a gap between the social connections that we need and the social connections that we have. It is a perceived feeling of not having support or people you can turn to. Says Dr. Ho, “Loneliness may come with feelings of hopelessness or depression, especially if it is prolonged over time.”

Dr. Sheau-Yan Ho

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, about half of U.S. adults reported experiencing loneliness, and rates among young adults have steadily climbed every year. The health consequences are not only for mental health — a report from the Surgeon General included the statistic that the mortality risk of loneliness is equivalent to that of smoking 15 cigarettes a day and is greater than that of obesity and physical inactivity.

While the holidays are especially tough for many people, the good news is that there are ways to combat loneliness. Health Matters asked Dr. Ho for simple strategies to cope with feeling isolated.

1. Volunteer

The act of volunteering — giving your time and energy with no expectation of anything in return — benefits both physical and mental health. Serving others activates the reward system in the brain and releases dopamine and serotonin, which are neurotransmitters that help reduce stress and boost pleasure. If the volunteer activity involves being physically active, the built-in activity can lower the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.

In terms of countering feelings of loneliness, volunteering provides natural opportunities to build a sense of belonging and community. “It’s something you can do with family, kids, a friend, a religious group — or just show up for an activity and meet strangers who may share similar values,” says Dr. Ho. “When different types of people from all walks of life come together for a unified purpose, it can help you feel less alone.”

2. Call someone.

With text and email now the norm, phone calls are increasingly rare and can feel daunting. People may feel overwhelmed by the pressure to have a meaningful conversation, especially if you’ve missed a special occasion, such as a birthday. But Dr. Ho says a phone call can be short-and-sweet way to connect. “We can meet each other in the moment, even if it’s a two-minute call to say, ‘Hey, I was just thinking of you. Do you have time to talk right now?’,” says Dr. Ho. “If the other person doesn’t pick up or can’t talk right then, leave a message or try to find another time to talk and keep the conversation going.”

3. Join a group activity.

“Pick something you like to do or have an interest in, and turn it into a social opportunity,” says Dr. Ho. “It’s a great way to connect with people you don’t know and make new friends.” Do you enjoy running? Join a local run club. If you love animals, volunteer at an animal rescue shelter. Doing something creative, like painting or a craft project, is also a rewarding way to reduce loneliness, especially if it’s a group activity. Research shows that people felt less lonely on days where they were more creative than usual, and that art promotes social engagement and improves mental health.

4. Find the positives in alone time.

 There are many ways we can distract ourselves and stay busy, but it’s also important to work on the acceptance of being alone and on seeing it as a positive. This strategy can help reframe our thinking when we feel isolated. “Find solitary activities you enjoy doing,” says Dr. Ho. “It might be an old hobby, exercise, watching a funny movie, cooking — anything that allows you to feel present in the moment with yourself. When we can find peace in alone time, it helps us manage negative thoughts about loneliness.”

5. Schedule some fun.

Another way to counter loneliness is to make plans and look forward to what’s on the horizon. Plan a trip or schedule a fun weekend event that breaks up the month. “If you think this is going to be the worst time of the year, chances are you’ll look for all the negatives,” says Dr. Ho. “Changing your assumptions about the holiday season by making plans to do things you genuinely enjoy can help shift your mindset.”

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