As I established in my previous article, Christmas is generally thought of as a time of good cheer that people look forward to all year. However, not everyone is always feeling this festive spirit. Feeling lonely at Christmas is a serious problem for lots of people across the UK and the rest of the world. While feeling lonely is not technically an issue of mental health, the two can impact each other quite heavily. For example, having a mental health condition may limit your social interactions, making you feel lonely. Equally, feeling lonely may take a toll on your mental wellbeing.
Astonishingly, Age UK has found that 1.7 million older people in England can go for a month without meeting up with a friend and that 300,000 over-65s have not even had a conversation with family or friends over the same period. I say astonishingly, but whether I am part of that depends on whom I regard as a friend. The young experience loneliness also with 88% of 18 to 24-year-olds saying they experience loneliness to some degree, and this is likely to have worsened with the recent pandemic.
The good news is that it is all fixable. Of course, if things seem out of order or unfixable, health services can signpost you to various services. But for those able to take some level of personal responsibility, here are my top ways to proactively escape the holiday blues and combat seasonal loneliness:
Refrain from drinking alcohol habitually
Many people who drink too much over the holidays often use substances as a supportive tool. While it is definitely not a healthy choice, it’s often seen as the best way to cope with a painful situation. The first step towards shifting this kind of unhealthy pattern is increased awareness about why it’s happening. Try looking at websites and assessing your alcohol consumption. Honesty is difficult here, but there are signs. The second is to replace this unhealthy choice with healthier alternatives. Possibly the best way for us to deal with this is for a very good friend to converse with you about their concerns. If you’re the one speaking with someone you feel is overindulging in drink, avoid lecturing, just simply offer a view. Assess carefully if you qualify as a very good friend—if not, you could cause offense.
Keep a regular schedule and plan ahead
Maintain contact with friends and loved ones via video calls, WhatsApp, or just regular phone calls on a regular schedule. Maintain routines where possible; for example, I am still in employment, so I am obliged to keep to a pattern. Keep things in the diary and fill it proactively, planning and setting goals for 2023. For me, that would include various employment ideas as I change roles. I like to plan future events in my calendar that give me something to look forward to: this helps me strive for personal goals and aims. This is important as it means there is always something for me to look forward to. Holidays, meals, and days out are all important, as is regularly engaging your mind and body. I have kept my own exercise regime, focusing on my passion for cycling and walking. I’m considering joining a rambler’s club to create connections through walking. If I go really big on these ideas, I would definitely not be lonely next Christmas.
Find and explore your passions.
I have made music part of my everyday life. I am even rediscovering my old 40-year-old cassettes (remember them?) Pink Floyd, Radiohead, and REM are all there. Rediscovering my love of music is infectious—now I want to travel to concerts. These days, older people still attend Glastonbury! For kids, there are loads of internet activities around after-school club ideas—always talk to an adult about your ideas—but there are also great ways to connect to other fans and hobbyists online for adults, too.
Stay in touch with old friends
It’s vital to stay connected to loved ones where possible. The internet is great for this, especially when seeing family and friends in person is not an option. Calling people is the next best thing to seeing them, and it’s relatively easy to call on the phone or by video via Zoom, Google Meets, FaceTime, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger or Microsoft Teams. Whatever your preference, a video call can make a world of difference.
Get to know your neighbors
Getting to know new people can be scary at first, but great friendships must start somewhere, so start by planning what you would like to occur. If you live next door to someone, perhaps reach out with a note or a plate of cookies and ask if they want to meet. What’s the worst thing that could happen?
Connect to your community
Volunteering allows you to feel good about yourself while helping others and connecting with your neighbors. If this appeals to you and you have the time, popping “volunteering work” into your search engine can bring up a number of opportunities in your local community—so go for it!
Try to match the opportunity with a personal wish to get involved. What are you good at? I know people who volunteer to run beehives, that make jewelry and sell it. Remember people will be inspired by the enthusiasm that the group leader brings to a course—it can be infectious. If you are retired, what did you do as a job? Can this be leveraged as a way to help others?
In England, the Canal Trust or Rivers Trust offer some great experiences to help. The twist is that you will meet like-minded people and should have a good time fixing riverbanks and getting dirty with others while helping society. You inevitably develop friendships when you collaborate over a shared goal. Dance schools, continued education, educating others, allotments, and volunteering for football clubs and food banks are additional examples of volunteering possibilities. One of my friends helped redevelop the railway stations into a horticultural wonderland, gaining new skills while creating a host of new friendships.
For older gentlemen seeking camaraderie, Men’s Sheds are another great idea springing up in many cities across the globe. These are sheds that generally older men who have lived industrious lives can go to be creative and chat with other men. They share experiences, stories, and laughter. You can search for these locally on the internet.
Younger people in the UK should check out the government-run NCS; or National Children Space. Irrespective of where you live, something like this will be out there for you.
No matter the season, it’s always important to go outside: the worst thing for your mental health is to stay cooped up in the house. However, going out doesn’t have to be a ten-mile hike every day. A short walk is enough to get some fresh air, a change of scenery, and the added benefits of being around nature. You could also go out for a meal or to the cinema, and it doesn’t matter whether you do this alone or with others. Just getting out of the house will make you feel more connected to the wider world.
Treat yourself to comfort food
In my opinion, food is one of the best parts of Christmas, and just because you’re alone doesn’t mean you can’t have amazing food. Make the effort, cook yourself a festive feast, and make it your very own. Use ingredients you love so you can bake and cook your favorite things for the holiday. Cooking and baking can be mindful activities and can help with stress. Not only does it look good, but it also smells amazing!
Ultimately, being alone at Christmas is sometimes unavoidable. If this is the case for you, try to embrace it. You can plan days ahead that are full of your favorite things to do at the holidays, such as watching your favorite Christmas films or dancing to Christmas music. You can also cook and eat whatever you like without anyone squabbling over who gets the last sweet treat or what TV show to watch.
You can also use this as an opportunity to make more permanent changes in your life: try mapping out honestly and exactly where you want to be next Christmas, who you want to be with, and then plan how you might get there: a vivid plan to help you out of this thorny situation.
Lastly, please remember: people should never have to suffer alone. If you’re struggling with your mental health, speak to someone about how you’re feeling. Even at Christmas, there are helplines available. In the UK, Childline supports the interests of children and Mind is a great mental health charity, while Hub of Hope and Samaritans offer support for moments of crisis. In other countries, there are ample resources just a phone call or click away, like NAMI, SAMSHA, or 988 Lifeline in the U.S.: just search online for local services.
It’s important to remember that being alone on Christmas is okay. Whether you are solo or with others, I hope you all have a Merry Christmas!