From hosting Thanksgiving dinner to feasting with friends on Eid to sharing apple cake on Rosh Hashanah to decorating the Christmas tree, holidays throughout the year are different for everyone. But no matter how — or what — you celebrate, there’s always one thing in common: spending time with loved ones.
So what are you supposed to do if you don’t have family, friends or a significant other to celebrate with?
“The whole world is talking about the holidays and what people should be doing,” explains Hsuan Hsuan Dai, a mental health therapist at Hall Health Center on the University of Washington campus. “If you’re alone during this time, it can feel like you don’t fit into the expectations of the holiday season.”
To help you cope with this potentially difficult time of year, Dai shares her tips for overcoming holiday loneliness.
Acknowledge that feelings come and go
Peace, love and joy? More like ugh, ugh and ugh.
Despite what all those greeting cards tell you, it’s perfectly fine to feel sad or lonely during the holidays. The important thing to keep in mind is that these feelings won’t last forever.
“Feelings are temporary — they come and go like waves,” Dai says. “Be mindful of and present for the thoughts and feelings you’re having. You can be aware of your loneliness without buying into the idea that you’re actually alone. Know that it will pass.”
In other words, go ahead and feel all the feels, but acknowledge that they’re not here to stay. Doing this, Dai says, can help you understand how your emotions are impacting you. That, in turn, can help put things in perspective so you can challenge unhelpful thoughts that may deepen your loneliness.
Avoid the holiday expectations trap
While they may seem trivial, the barrage of holiday pics on Instagram, festive displays at the store and seasonal movies on TV (looking at you, Lifetime) are actually setting you up for disappointment. Why? They create unrealistic expectations of what the holidays “should” be like, not what they’re really like.
“Be realistic and focus on the here and now,” Dai says. “Avoid comparing your experience to others' and falling into the ‘should’ expectation trap.”
To do this, take a break from social media for a while and make a plan for what you want to do on the specific holiday in question. It can be as simple as taking a bubble bath and reading your favorite book or as elaborate as booking a special getaway. Whatever it is, having a firm idea of what you’ll do on that certain day will solidify your expectations and help you feel more in control of the situation.
Create new traditions
Ever heard of the phrase out with the old and in with the new? This is the perfect time to remember that.
It’s easy to get caught up reminiscing about how the holidays used to be in the past when you lived closer to family or when you were still together with your ex. But just because your holidays aren’t the same doesn’t mean they can’t be enjoyable.
Try creating new holiday traditions that you can do solo or with a group of friends who are also on their own. Volunteer at a homeless shelter, attend a local event or go out to watch the latest blockbuster at the movie theater. Over time, these new traditions can reshape how you view a particular holiday.
“Friendsgiving is a great example of a new way of celebrating a holiday,” Dai says. “Get creative and find ways to celebrate — or not celebrate — through the holiday seasons.”
Remember the positives in your life
While the holidays can trigger your feelings of loneliness, it’s important to keep in mind that you’re not actually alone.
“Remember the close relationships you have in your life, even if you’re not in close proximity,” Dai says. “Reach out to people to talk about your feelings and thoughts. Expressing your truths to people you trust can help reconnect and deepen your relationship with them.”
Calling loved ones to express your gratitude can help you realize that you do have relationships in your life, even if you can’t be with them on a certain holiday. You can also recall other positives, like having a job you enjoy or excelling at a certain hobby, to cultivate good feelings.
If you’re having trouble with this, try reaching out to a mental health expert. They may be able to identify barriers in how you’re viewing things and help you work through them.
Practice healthy coping strategies
Watching a movie to take your mind off things for a couple of hours? Totally fine. Drinking one too many glasses of wine to forget feeling lonely? Not so much.
That’s the difference between distraction and avoidance, Dai says, and it’s important to know each affects you.
“Distraction can be helpful when it’s done with the intention of proactively giving yourself a break,” she explains. “When you take a break from stressful thoughts, it prevents burnout and helps you deal with the problems better when you’re revisiting them. Avoidance, on the other hand, is a passive coping strategy to momentarily inhibit uncomfortable feelings in such a way that prevents you from getting to the root of an issue.”
In essence, if you realize you’re lonely and consciously decide to stop thinking about it for a couple of hours to let yourself recharge, that’s a distraction. But if you instead downplay your emotions and try not to deal with them by throwing yourself into work or drinking too much alcohol, that’s just avoiding the problem.
When you do need a distraction, Dai encourages you to employ healthy coping techniques. Pamper yourself, indulge in a favorite activity or take a mental break with a movie or book.
“While it won’t take away the feeling of loneliness completely, taking extra good care of yourself can help you feel better and enjoy your solitude more,” she says.