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The holiday season, as festive and jolly as it might seem, can also be a stressful time. Add in a global pandemic that has required separation from family and friends as well as altering or canceling annual traditions, and not only might this holiday season feel stressful, but it might also feel lonely and depressing.
"I think there are probably people who have gone months without a high-five, hug or kiss on the cheek, and they’re starting to realize what it feels like to not have that physical connection with other people they care about," says Dr. JaNaé Taylor, a licensed psychotherapist, and owner and operator of Taylor Counseling and Consulting Services. "They might feel emptiness or a void."
As coronavirus cases continue to surge in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that we replace our high-risk, large holiday celebrations with small gatherings that include the family and friends in our social distancing bubble. For some, this could mean not seeing children, grandchildren or siblings. For others, it could mean spending the holidays isolated.
And for people who have lost loved ones to the virus, this holiday season will be the first that they won’t have those people at the dinner table.
The negative health effects of loneliness have been compared to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. If the thought of the holiday season makes you feel alone, anxious, sad or a combination of the three, here are tips from Taylor as well as Incia A. Rashid, a licensed professional counselor on the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Team at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, to help you get through this time.
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It might sound redundant, but perhaps one of the worst parts of feeling lonely is that you also feel alone in your feelings. However, you can take some comfort in knowing you're not the only one struggling with this emotion. “We’re all feeling lonely together,” Rashid says. “Recognize that everyone is feeling this feeling of loss or that something is off this year, and know that it’s OK to feel lonely."
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If you have been social distancing with family or loved ones and you still feel lonely, that doesn't mean you don't love your family any less. According to Rashid, we've all experienced a tumultuous year that has affected us in different ways. “Even if you’re quarantining with family, you might have a tradition that you like to do with a group of your best friends and you might not be able to do that,” Rashid says. “Regardless, there is going to be something that feels out of place. This situation looks different for everyone, and all of us might be experiencing a sense of loss.”
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Unlike other events, the holidays occur at the same time every year. Taylor recommends taking advantage of that knowledge and shaping your new holiday plans ahead of time. “We know the holidays are coming up, so there’s something we can do about that,” Taylor says. “While you might not be able to spend it with your loved ones, you can plan — to some extent — some ways in which you can celebrate, commemorate and memorialize those people that you’re missing.”
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Extravagant holiday parties and family dinners are out of the picture this year. Being realistic with yourself and understanding that this is the case for almost everyone will help you handle the emotions that might come with missing these events, according to Rashid. “I think keeping your expectations realistic about what you can and can’t do this year will be a good place to begin,” Rashid says. “We’re often expecting the holiday season to look and feel a certain way because it’s what we’re used to being exposed to. For example, [you might have] the expectation that you need to have a lot of presents under your tree or that you need to be the perfect host of a New Year’s Eve party. These are both ideas that might not be realistic for many this season just because of financial and safety reasons.”
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To compensate for a lack of gifts or grand celebrations, you might feel the need to make the holidays bigger and better than before for yourself or loved ones. However, your priority shouldn't be having the most decked out house on the block. You should take care of yourself and your mental health first. “Take it easy on yourself,” Taylor says. “Don’t feel like you have to buy the best Christmas tree or have the best decorations. I get that we want this holiday season to be really great, especially given the year we’ve had. But for the same reason, you should give yourself some grace. Understand that it might not always look like it does, but the way you figure it out is enough.”
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According to Taylor, loneliness and grief often go hand in hand. The best way to handle feelings of grief is to allow yourself to feel instead of swallowing it down like a tough pill. “Grief is one of those things that we have to embrace because if we don’t, grief will be a bully,” Taylor says. “If you choose to not let yourself feel the feels, it’ll come upon you. You’ll find yourself crying in a space where you didn’t anticipate or being brought to your knees where you can’t move because you haven’t created a space for yourself to feel the uncomfortable unpleasantness of grief. You have to let yourself feel the feels.”
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If you've lost a loved one, thinking of celebrating the holidays might feel unbearable. Rashid suggests finding a way that you're comfortable with to honor them this holiday season. “For those who have lost loved ones this past year, I always recommend that they think of ways that they can honor them during their own holiday celebrations,” Rashid says. “This could mean, if you’re having an intimate Thanksgiving dinner with whoever you’re quarantining with, maybe you put a framed photo of the deceased loved one there. Maybe you cook one of their favorite meals, listen to their favorite songs or watch one of their favorite holiday movies. Even just sharing stories about them makes you feel close to them.”
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What we all might miss most about the holidays this year are the holiday traditions we typically enjoy with friends and family. Instead of disregarding those celebrations, Taylor suggests recreating those special moments in your own home. “I would reconnect with the things your family does around the holidays that you enjoy to get in the holiday spirit,” Taylor says. “In your own home, you get to recreate that. You get to put up the decorations that you like and put on your music. You get to continue the traditions that you like. Maybe you won’t have all the folks around you, but it doesn’t have to stop just because you’re by yourself.”
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Food is a universal love language. Cooking classic recipes with loved ones is not only a bonding experience but also an expression of love. Finding ways to incorporate recipes that remind you of your loved ones into your holiday celebration can help when you're feeling lonely and craving grandma's cooking. “Maybe there are things you can incorporate in your meal that will remind you of a time with family,” Taylor says. “Maybe someone will be willing to pass you that macaroni or pound cake recipe. You can create a tradition in which you share the recipe and cook it together on the phone.”
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We've all had to find creative ways to stay in touch with family and friends during the pandemic. Whether you choose to have a virtual game night or hop on the phone when it's time for dinner, find a way you can be apart together with your family. “For those who aren’t able to safely travel to see family or friends, I recommend trying to think of other ways that you can both be connected while being apart,” Rashid says. “This could mean having a virtual holiday where each person makes a similar meal and enjoys it together over video chat. Or maybe you can call family and friends just to hear their voices. You could also watch movies that you would normally watch with your family.”
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Some of us might not have family and friends to depend on this holiday season. That's OK. According to Rashid, when you're feeling alone, volunteering can help you feel a sense of community you might be lacking. “For those who maybe don’t have any friends or family available to them and are quarantining by themselves, I would say try to find ways that you can get involved in the community,” Rashid says. “That could mean volunteering or working with certain organizations that assist with distribution on Thanksgiving. If you are a spiritual person, try to connect with whatever religious community that you’re a part of if there’s a virtual event happening.”
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When you're encouraged to stay indoors and not socialize, planning anything to look forward to might feel like a lost cause. But planning a go-to, positive activity can help dissipate feelings of loneliness and inspire a new avenue of joy this holiday season. “Having little things to look forward to really helps combat the loneliness that you might feel and gives your brain something positive to focus on,” Rashid says. “It can be hobbies, crafts or baking. Surround yourself with as many things that bring you joy as possible.”
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Before the holidays roll around, Rashid also recommends jotting down a list of fun activities you can turn to when you're feeling your loneliest. “If you’re feeling down, have a list of go-to things that you can rely on when you’re feeling lonely and your brain won’t allow you to focus on what you could be doing,” Rashid says.
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During the holidays, the hustle and bustle of a crowded home might be the thing that annoys you most. But without it this year, you might realize how warm the sound of conversation once made you feel. If you're alone this year, Rashid recommends playing your favorite TV show or movie in the background as you go about your day to recreate that feeling. “For my clients who are alone, I recommend putting on a show that they like in the background so they can hear that dialogue and familiarity that makes them feel at ease,” Rashid says. “Take it one day at a time. You might feel particularly lonely one day and then feel happy to be alone the next.”
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The holidays are usually about togetherness. But this year, it's critical to find "me time" and practice self-care to avoid the physical and mental exhaustion this year's celebration might cause. “For everyone, I always recommend making sure that you’re regularly practicing self-care,” Rashid says. “That is the key here. It’s frequently monitoring what your needs are and how those needs might fluctuate. If you can be mindful of yourself during this time by taking care of your own mood and your own mental health preemptively.”
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You've probably heard the phrase "laughter is good for the soul." According to Taylor, there's truth to the statement. “Find things that make you smile and laugh [when you’re feeling down],” Taylor says. “Tune into that.” These feel-good TV shows are a good place to start.
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The pandemic has affected how many of us sleep. Finding a way to balance a healthy sleep schedule paired with the exhaustion of forming new, safe life habits can easily lead to fatigue. Taylor recommends finding time to rest to help your mind and body. “I think people are experiencing a level of pandemic fatigue on top of this onset of seasonal affective disorder on top of the fact that we’re so exhausted from the level of anxiety we’re managing,” Taylor says. “We’re having to spend so much time making sense of things on top of doing what we’ll traditionally do that rest is such an important resource for us now. Make sure you rest and give yourself permission to rest. Naps during the middle of the day are great as long as you’re not abandoning some major obligation.”
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Somehow we've jumped from March to the holidays in the blink of an eye. If you're wondering where the time went, you're probably not alone. But a great way to take care of your mental health this holiday season is to make those special days different from the rest. “It’s really easy to see — and this pandemic has shown us — that one day can bleed into the next,” Taylor says. “I think it’s important for these holidays that you don’t treat it like the other days. For your own sake and your own mental health, do something that shows that this day is different. Maybe you sleep in. You can celebrate the day or even just your life and your health.”
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You don't have to wait until you've exhausted your avenues to speak with a therapist. Rashid recommends finding a therapist to voice your emotions to, whether they're good or bad. “I think the last thing I really recommend is scheduling therapy,” Rashid says. “It’s always a fantastic way to have a space to feel seen and heard when the rest of the world might not feel that way to you. I encourage everyone to feel comfortable to reach out and ask for help. It’s been an especially difficult year and there is someone waiting on the other side of your computer that can help you through it.”
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As dreadful as the holiday season — and even this year — might feel, focus on the fact that what we're experiencing now is not permanent. “Hopefully next year, we can get back to the big celebrations we’re used to having,” Rasid says. “I think it’s a good reminder that, as long as we have been in quarantine, COVID is ultimately a temporary thing. We’re just waiting until we have that chance to get back to a state of normalcy. In the meantime, we have to get back to things we like and things that make us smile to get through it.” For more tips on how to navigate the holidays during the pandemic, here’s how to talk to friends and family about attending holiday gatherings.
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