A Mental Health Guide to Spending the Holidays Alone

It’s the happiest—and this year, the loneliest—season of all. While the holidays are typically when your calendar is overflowing with happy hours, office parties, family dinners, and gift exchanges, 2020 doesn’t allow the same kind of togetherness. If you are unable to travel to your hometown for fear of putting elders at risk, lack of financial resources, COVID-19 case numbers, your health, or any other reason—2020 has given us a lot of them—you may be anxious about a holiday alone. After all, it’s one thing to spend nine months quarantining by yourself, and it’s another to wake up all by your lonesome on a usually joyous day. 

First things first: remember that even if you’re physically alone, you are surrounded by other people, feeling the same nervous energy. And while Zoom isn’t a magical solution to cure sadness, your friends and family members are digitally within reach. Before we get into the thick of the holidays, take this advice from mental health experts on how to prep, deal, and breathe.

Accept that this year goes against your nature

If you tend to be overly hard on yourself—read: participating in self-hate language like ‘Other people have it worse, I shouldn’t’ complain—cut it out. You can’t help but feel isolated and upset since you are biologically conditioned this way. As psychologist and author Dr. Joanna Dodd Massey explains, humans are hardwired to resist change, particularly if it’s bad. As you imagine your past holiday celebrations and how this year starkly contrasts them, your brain reacts negatively because it forecasts change coming. 

“We gravitate toward that which is familiar, comfortable, and similar, and we reject that which is different and unusual,” Dr. Massey continues. “This is why many people are dreading the holidays—they’re going to look very different this year than they have in the past.”

Adapt, don’t fight

In moments of high anxiety—say, a global pandemic and a turbulent political climate—people react in two ways. They either retreat, ignoring the issue and redirecting their attention; or they stay and fight, giving it everything they have. This holiday season, neither of these responses is ideal to mentally prep you for a lonely experience. 

Instead, psychologist Dr. Yvonne Thomas, Ph.D., recommends a different approach: adapting. This is a healthy approach since it forces you to accept that everything right now is out of your control, and thus, you need to reconfigure ways to have some normalcy still. 

“Being able to adapt to the idea of spending the holidays alone due to the pandemic can free you to find different ways to celebrate the holidays still even if not in person with loved ones,” she continues. “Not only can you try to uphold holiday-time traditions as much as possible, but you can also get creative in finding other ways to feel joy even if you are physically alone.” 

Maybe that looks like ordering everything your tummy desires from your local Chinese restaurant and downing a bottle of vino. Or, it’s sleeping in until 11 a.m., doing yoga and meditation, followed by virtual coffee dates with your friends and family. There’s no ‘right’ way to spend this time, so take time to think deeply about what would make you the happiest.

Find a comforting phrase

The issue with anxious thoughts is that they tend to multiply. One negative inkling leads to dozens more, and soon, you’re feeling paralyzed in your emotions. To cut off the spiral before it begins, Dr. Thomas recommends coming up with a comforting internal message you can say to yourself. For 2020, it could be ‘Things will not always be like this, and there are still ways I can enjoy the holidays.’ By reminding yourself that the pandemic is temporary (even if it doesn’t feel that way), you help to ground yourself in the present moment. “When you’re flexible in your thoughts and feelings, and you aren’t having all-or-nothing thinking or solely focusing on the negatives and limitations, you can move forward,” she adds.

Put self-care first

When your best friend sends you a string of frantic text messages, you fire away at rapid speed, encouraging them to chill. Or, when your partner doubts his or her career performance, you become their personal cheerleader. Most of us are inclined to give to others, but we struggle to prioritize when it comes to carving time out for ourselves. If you are preparing to spend the holidays by yourself, self-care couldn’t be more important, Dr. Thomas urges. Nurturing and caring for your physical and emotional needs is giving yourself the gift of overall health, as well as a strong foundation to deal with sadness. This looks like exercising regularly, eating a mostly-healthy meal, staying hydrated, and sleeping well. 

And if you can muster up the motivation, Dr. Thomas also recommends dedicating 10 minutes every morning to engage in mindfulness, gratitude, or meditation to feel more peaceful and calm.

Keep your brain active

When your brain is bored, it starts to wander. And at times, it goes to a dark place that you don’t enjoy. Rather than punishing yourself for being cynical, give you noggin’ something to think about that’s not the holidays. 

“Try to keep your mind active by partaking in intellectually-stimulating activities like puzzles and games,” Dr. Thoms recommends. Or, picking up a new hobby or language can give you something to work toward every single evening, helping you to remain focused on a positive.

Reach out to loved ones

There’s nothing more powerful than a reliable support system—and even if you can’t hug ‘em right now, you can reach out to them. And you should, Dr. Thomas says, since we all gain strength and happiness through conversations with trusted companions. She recommends planning virtual holiday meals or cooking sessions, opening presents or gifts together, and so on. “Even if it is just by phone during these holidays, people can still be ‘with’ each other to celebrate, converse, bond, and create new memories,” she adds.

And if you were on the fence about decking your home with holiday tidings? Dr. Thomas says to please pull out the boxes and go to town. “It is healthy to decorate as you normally would for the holidays and enjoy some ‘me’ time listening to the holiday music and watching the holiday movies and shows you enjoy as other ways to honor and feel good about the holidays,” she explains.

To ensure these events actually happen, Dr. Massey says to make a schedule, check it twice and book your calendar. As she explains, by packing your nightly schedule with Zoom get-togethers, quarantini-parties and so on, you create celebrations to look forward to, spurring hope and excitement. And while you’re at it, make a list of things that bring you joy and keep it close. “When you’re feeling the bah humbugs, check the list and do one of the things on it,” she recommends. 

The bottom line is to focus on the strings of light that are shining through the pandemic… and let it guide your holiday and spirit.

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