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Managing loneliness during the holidays and beyond

The holidays are upon us, and the irony they bring is the potential for isolation and loneliness. Holidays’ essential identity is getting together with loved ones, but some people do not feel as connected as they would like or expect. In 2020, add COVID-19 and its quarantining dictates, and the potential for such feelings can strengthen.

The holidays, therefore, present an excellent time to discuss how we can reinforce connections during a time that requires us to be apart to protect our physical health, a requirement that paradoxically can have a damaging effect on our mental health. We can, however, take charge of improving our mental health.

Loneliness and isolation and our health

What is the difference between loneliness and isolation? “Loneliness is the feeling of being alone, regardless of the amount of social contact,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Social isolation, on the other hand, is a lack of social connections. Put differently, one can have many social connections but still feel lonely.

The physical and mental health risks of loneliness and isolation are significant. They include but are not limited to:

  • Social isolation increases the risk of premature death by 29 percent, rivalling smoking, obesity and physical inactivity.
  • Social isolation is associated with increasing the risk for dementia by approximately 50 percent.
  • Loneliness is connected to higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide.

A 2020 report by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) states that more than one-third of adults 45 and older feel lonely, and approximately one-fourth 65 and older are socially isolated. Add the holidays and COVID-19 to an already preexisting condition, and the time is ripe for all of us to take action to protect our mental health.

Simple steps for better mental health during the holidays

Specific to the season and the times, there are common-sense tips that we all can practice to help manage loneliness. For example:

  • Talk to someone about your sense of loneliness and isolation. There’s stigma around loneliness so it can be hard to do. However, you may well find that you’re not alone in those feelings, and sharing them can help lessen their effect.
  • Manage your holiday/COVID-19 expectations. The holidays can fall short of expectations, but this year it may be worse. Understand that the pandemic won’t last forever, and that we’re all in this together. Indeed, many people’s holiday gatherings will likely be different this year.
  • Remember to take care of yourself, now more than ever. Sleep, exercise and good nutrition — with the proper amount of holiday indulgence — go a long way in addressing mental health.
  • Avoid social media, such as Facebook or Instagram, especially during the holidays. It’s easy to negatively compare one’s life to the “perfect” lives posted on social media, forgetting that people mostly post only the positive.

Loneliness and isolation as its own pandemic

The holidays don’t last forever, and we will get through the COVID-19 pandemic. However, loneliness and social isolation may persist, which presents a challenge for behavioral health providers.

The recent NASEM report explores interventions that the healthcare system can take to address loneliness as a societal condition, such as engagement in support groups, cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness, social determinants of health, social prescribing and more.

Social prescribing is arguably one of the more interesting interventions in that it puts a clinical lens on non-clinical solutions. While there is no hard-fast definition of social prescribing, it is generally accepted as a way to connect people to non-clinical sources of support, according to the NASEM. Specifically, it is a “non-medical referral, or linking service, to help people identify their social needs and develop wellbeing action plans to promote, establish or reestablish integration and support in their communities, with the aim of improving personal wellbeing.” Examples of secondary services that improve social concerns affecting health include housing and food insecurity services.

While known to varying community-based organizations, social prescribing is not common among practitioners, but it’s a common-sense solution. An analysis of one pilot program from the NASEM report — albeit a small one — found that social prescribing reduced inpatient admissions by as much as 21 percent and emergency room visits by 20 percent.

A modern world — without COVID-19 — is more connected than ever due to social media and other technology. However, studies have shown we are more lonely now than in any other time in recent history. It’s time to think out of the box as we realize more and more how non-physiological conditions — such as issues ranging from a public health emergency to social media — can affect our health. 


22 Comments. Leave new

Kathleen Ann Sirois
December 9, 2020 4:00 pm

Thank You Dr. Hagen
It is so well said …

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Marilyn Green
December 9, 2020 4:14 pm

I have found that due to covid the need for therapist is high demand. Therapist are having a difficult time keeping up with the referrals. I myself have been making referrals because I am working until nine PM most days six day a week. We all need to be mindful and do self care. Thanks for the information I will share it.

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In my opinion, for those who are able to drive, or get out via electronic means, it is a self-inflicted wound to isolate from others. More importantly, it is a spiritual issue/crisis if we believe that we are alone. My Christian faith reminds me that “I am never alone” because I trust in my relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Even though I may at times “feel” alone, I am not. Another way of recognizing my feelings of being alone, is that the feeling is a prompt from God to get up and do something about it!

I pray for those who do “feel” alone to ask for the energy to get energized. If you have a faith, you ask for the author of that faith to help you. For those who have no faith, you must depend on yourself or another who loves or cares for your welfare.

And for those who, for whatever reason can not get up or get out, I pray that God would provide someone to intervene in their life. I trust in His perfect will for those in this condition.

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Great thoughts, thank you for sharing 🙏

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I tell my clients about the history of the family centered, holiday cheer infused, high expectations of wonderful family connectivity idea. Apparently around 1920, government got concerned about too much partying going on around the holidays and put on a big push to make it family centered instead. So if this is a relatively new idea, then we can invent other new ideas and traditions that are less commercial, less determinant of a healthy functional family, etc. And reduce our stress.

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printed and shared with all of our clinicians.

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Thomas Johnson
December 9, 2020 4:50 pm

Very helpful and thought provoking.

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And of course with many of our clients the holidays can hold both happy and hurtful
memories. As therapists working during these times of COVID we can share with our
clients perhaps new rituals and ways to creating a holiday time that enriches and
empowers them in recognizing personal choices and holding dear that which they
cherish or may wish to bring into their life at some time. Our relationship with our
clients is true emotional medicine. Let us model that in a healing and healthy manner.

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Angela L Newman, LMFT
December 9, 2020 5:41 pm

Thank you, a very timely article.

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Morgan Wangerin, LPC-S
December 9, 2020 5:50 pm

The services of mental health therapist is not only in high demand it is also becoming increasingly difficult to meet client expectations in light of the pandemic. For example, I have client’s who are craving human contact and wanting to meet in person while not able to understand the need for continued safety precautions.

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Barbara Block
December 9, 2020 6:03 pm

Thank you. These occasional articles about the impact of Covid are helpful

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Thoughts that I think we are all seeing and maybe even experiencing among our clients, staff and self.
Good common sense suggestions to share.

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Charlotte Goodwin
December 9, 2020 7:00 pm

This was well said. To be able to break this down on a level that we can understand is very appreciated. This need to be share across the world. Loneliness and isolation the meaning!!!!

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Denise Gagnier
December 9, 2020 8:56 pm

Thank-you for this thoughtful article!

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Dr. Fazeeda Rahman
December 10, 2020 12:14 am

Good points. I love the idea of social prescribing as well as encouraging others to be mindful of their expectations.

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Michael Howard
December 10, 2020 3:27 pm

Awesome article…great awareness

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Douglas Strange
December 10, 2020 5:54 pm

The value of serving another person has been written about for millennia. Through the simple acts of service, we can provide to a fellow human being a sense of belonging and community arise. A connection at a social level and as well at a spiritual level is formed. Deep satisfaction comes from an action taken to benefit the other rather than the self. And from this small act, we also reaffirm our connection with others, driving away feelings of loneliness and isolation. The more my gaze turns inward toward the self, the less connected I feel. The more my gaze turns outward to the other, the more I am able to commune with others, nature, and my God. One of the most influential modern writers to present this way of thinking is Viktor Frankl, the founder of Logos Therapy. He points to the “last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” That is, choose an attitude of freedom over captivity, community over aloneness, service to others over magnifying negative emotions. Think Freedom.

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Definitely stay away from all social media, especially during the holidays, any holidays. They will only constantly remind you how terrible your life is comparing to others’ glamourous and happy times. Worst of all, you do not even know if it is true; a lot of them are staged but carefully done, make you think they are real.

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Veronica McKoy
December 10, 2020 7:58 pm

Thank you for the article. Very helpful.

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Thanks for commenting on this important topic which is often a problem for people but worse now with mandates to isolate. I have had a few introverted people on my caseload actually comment to me that isolating has been a relief as “everyone has to do so” and they don’t feel as different.

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Pat Rodriguez, LCSW
December 11, 2020 12:21 am

Interesting that Psychologists always seem to come up with new, clinical or pseudo-clinical terminology for activities that have been conducted by professional social workers for decades. “Social Prescribing” = concrete, community resources. Otherwise, accurate article.
Therapists are also at high risk of burnout, anxiety and depression during this difficult time.

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I think that people need to feel some control over their choices. This article gives a great opportunity to remind clients of the choice of what to watch, how to interact, what self- care favorites they will choose. Thank you!!

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