For some, the month of December rings in with a strong sense of joy and glee, as it’s a time when families gather together, there’s time off work, and people shop for their loved ones. However, for others, it’s a reminder of broken or lost family ties and a marker of the passage of time, which might result in a deep sense of loneliness. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there’s a greater chance of dying during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays than at other times of the year — especially as a result of natural causes, which accounts for about 93 percent of all deaths.
While some people might acknowledge that stress is a contributing factor to the deaths that occur at this time of year, there has been little research to prove this. It’s more likely that those who were having health issues failed to seek treatment, either because they were too busy or were unable to get a doctor’s appointment, so they decided to put off visiting a physician until after the holidays. As such, the health issues they were concerned about ended up being life threatening. So, it’s a good idea to make an appointment as soon as you have a medical concern, particularly in December, when hospitals might be shorter staffed and medical personnel might be taking time off.
Many professionals believe that loneliness is, in fact, a public health issue, in the same way that obesity is. The late Dr. John Cacioppo, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, studied the effects of loneliness before his death earlier this year. After suffering a near-fatal car crash and having what seemed to be a transformative revelation, he concluded that love and social connections are what really matter in life. He equated loneliness with a type of hunger, noting that establishing social connections is essential for human survival. He also believed that chronic loneliness can increase the incidence of early death.
Although Cacioppo was an advocate of psychotherapy, he claimed that having a therapist was in no way a substitute for having friends and forming human bonds. “Loneliness, which compels us to bond with others, gives us what we call Humanity,” he once said.
Most will agree that there’s a difference between being alone and loneliness. Loneliness is something that can occupy the mind and soul but cannot always be cured by having coffee with a friend. It’s a sense of isolation, of being apart, or maybe feeling different from others. Loneliness is an inner experience and tends to be more difficult to “cure.” It might even be a personality characteristic, but often, when lonely people surround themselves with others, they might be able to develop a sense of community. However, there are also those individuals who can be in a room or city full of interesting individuals and still feel utterly lonely.
For some, reading books and/or hearing the stories of others serves as a good panacea for loneliness. These books or articles don’t necessarily have to be about loneliness, but they can be about characters doing things that people relate to, which can help them feel less lonely and mitigate feelings of isolation.
There are those who might not be lonely as a rule, but certain life events can trigger feelings of loneliness. For example, memories of loved ones who died during the holidays can trigger loneliness when individuals begin to think about past experiences associated with this time of year, and all the good times spent with friends and loved ones. Watching others revel in the joys of the season could be a reminder of past losses.
If you find that you’re experiencing feelings of loneliness, consider adopting an attitude of gratitude, which means reflecting on what you have rather than what you don’t have. Gratitude comprises love and appreciation and is a key component of a spiritual life. You never know what challenges will arise in your life, but you can acknowledge that miracles surround you every day—just watching a sunrise or sunset can be an example. Consider starting a gratitude journal as a way of expressing appreciation for all the good in your life.
There are a number of other ways you can help thwart feelings of loneliness when they arise:
- Be good to yourself. Buy yourself something you’ve always wanted—something that makes you feel better and increases your self-esteem. Consider developing a new hobby, give yourself a spa day, or indulge in a relaxing bath.
- Make a point of socializing with others. Be the person who puts a smile on other people’s faces and you’ll find that yours will come naturally.
- Surround yourself with supportive friends and loved ones. Think about those who care about you and reach out to them. This helps strengthen bonds and also makes you feel more connected and less lonely.
- Give yourself permission to experience a range of emotions from sadness to joy. Life is full of ups and downs—it’s all a part of being human. If there is no darkness at times, you won’t recognize the light.
- Make sure to eat and sleep well, which will affect your overall well-being. Eating a healthy balance of foods during regular mealtimes is very important.
- Create a new tradition for the holidays. Traditions and routines can make you feel more comfortable, but if those from the past are no longer working for you, then take the initiative to create your own.
- Share stories of meaningful holiday memories with others. Doing so can help you relive them in a positive manner and give you hope for the future.
- Lower your expectations. Holidays can make you feel lonely because you expect them to be a certain way. Remember that it’s fine to change the way you celebrate the holidays. Simply getting together with a friend can result in very special moments.
- Light a candle for a loved one. This is a good way of honoring those who you cherish who have passed on.
- Consider journaling on a daily basis, which can be a healing way to deal with loneliness. You might be surprised what emerges when you write. This might be a time when you examine all the joys in your life and reminisce about important people from your past.
- Write a letter or poem to loved ones who have impacted your life. This is an excellent way to connect with others, even if you don’t send the letters.
Also, if you know people who have lost friends or relatives during the holidays, it’s possible that they might feel sad and lonely at this time of the year. The best gift you can give them is to simply listen and offer a shoulder to cry on.
Kochanek KD, Murphy SL, Xu JQ, Arias E. Mortality in the United States, 2013. NCHS data brief, no 178. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2014.
Phillips, D., GE Barker and KM. (2010). “Christmas and New Year as Risk Factors for Death.” Soc. Sci. Med. October. pp. 1463–71.
Raab, D. (2017). Writing for Bliss: A Seven-Step Plan for Telling Your Story and Transforming Your Life. Ann Arbor, MI: Loving Healing Press.
Roberts, R. (2018). “John Cacioppo, Who Studied Effects of Loneliness, is Dead at 66.” The New York Times. March 26. Obituaries.
Scott, E. (2018). “Loneliness and the Holidays. Very Well Mind. Online.