Flo Schell looked forward to the holidays in years past, putting up the Christmas tree and baking cookies. This year is different.
Her husband has dementia, which makes it difficult for her to gather with friends and family. He’s often uncomfortable around other people, and she doesn’t like going out by herself.
“I’ve never been so lonely in my life,” says the 77-year-old artist, who lives in Brielle, N.J. “And the holidays make it worse.”
Sometimes the jolliest time of year can be the loneliest.
During the holiday season, it is easy to feel as if everyone else is surrounded by loved ones, laughing, toasting and all getting along. (Thank you, Hallmark Channel.) If we are not—if we feel isolated, disconnected or bereaved—our loneliness can loom larger.
“If you don’t have those kinds of connections or you feel they aren’t accessible to you, it can make you feel worse about yourself, like something is wrong with you,” says Jeremy Nobel, a physician who teaches about loneliness and public health at Harvard.
Many of us, no matter how long ago we dropped pandemic precautions, have a loneliness hangover. We are gathering again, but our social circles are still in rebuilding mode. And when we do see family and friends, we can be hit with something we haven’t experienced in a while: Feeling alone in a crowd.
Loneliness is that feeling of social isolation or dissatisfaction with our level of connection, what happens when there is a gap between what we want and what we have in our relationships. Scientists believe it is a biological drive, like hunger or thirst, that exists to motivate us to seek connection and fulfill our social needs. It happens to almost all of us at some point.
There are different types. Interpersonal loneliness is what happens when you don’t have enough people in your life who you care about and who you feel care about you.
Existential loneliness has nothing to do with how many people you have in your life. It is that alone-in-a-crowd feeling that no one understands you or relates to your experience. It happens a lot during poignant moments in people’s lives, such as times of grief, says Elizabeth Pinel, a professor in the psychological science department at the University of Vermont, who studies the phenomenon.
The feeling is especially common around the holidays. Ever been excited to go home and see family, only to get there and think: “Who are these people?” That is existential loneliness.
Here are some strategies for coping with loneliness this season.
Determine which loneliness you are feeling
Do you need more people in your life? Do you wish you felt more connected to others? Or do you need time away from the people who make you feel lonely?
Being curious about your loneliness will allow you to view it as a signal pointing you toward what you need, says Dr. Nobel, who runs Project UnLonely, a nonprofit initiative that works to combat feelings of isolation.
Remind yourself that others are lonely, too
Realizing that others share your experience can help you feel less alone. Look for books, songs and movies that share stories of people coping with loneliness.
Get out of your head
When we are lonely, we tend to ruminate, telling ourselves no one cares. This makes us pull away from others even more. To break this cycle, Dr. Pinel suggests doing something to stop overthinking: Mindfulness meditation. A walk in nature. Tug of war with your dog. Anything that gives you that glorious feeling of “flow.”
Picture what you would like it to look and feel like. Then practice a little art therapy. Write about your ideal connection, or make a drawing. (Not the creative type? That is OK. Try going through pictures on your phone and making a photo file that represents connection.)
Making art does three things to alleviate loneliness, Dr. Nobel says: “It fully engages your attention, inspires you and it gives you a sense of empowerment and agency.”
Connect through activities
Research shows that sharing an experience, and feeling we are having the same response to it, helps us bond with others. So don’t just sit around the holiday table making small talk (or bickering). Play a board game. Bake cookies together. Get outside and take a family walk.
Chances are you do have people in your life—you just haven’t heard from them in a while. Instead of waiting for others to call you, and telling yourself no one cares, contact them. And try sharing your feelings.
About a week ago, Ms. Schell sat down at her computer, opened an email and started typing. “Dear Family and Special Friends,” she started.
She wrote about what was going on in her life—her husband’s illness and decline and how the situation was taking a toll on her health. “It’s a lonely and stressful time,” she said.
Then she asked for help, giving suggestions: “Stop in for a short glass of Christmas cheer. Drop a line. Make a quick call. Share a memory. And anything else that will help us feel loved.”
Ms. Schell sent her email to about 45 people. Almost immediately she started to hear back via phone, text and FaceTime. Many told her they were proud of her for reaching out. One neighbor stopped by with sandwiches and wine. Another invited Ms. Schell and her husband over on the weekend to watch a ballgame. A friend drove four hours from Maryland to visit.
“I was so convinced that no one cared, that no one loved me,” Ms. Schell says. “My whole being has changed in a week.”
This article was originally published in The Wall Street Journal on December 13, 2022, and written by Elizabeth Berstein.
- Image courtesy of iStock
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