Curing the Holiday Blues

For some people, ’tis the season for loneliness
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curing the holiday blues

The holidays are upon us once again. Your take on that may depend on your personal history, but since the dawn of civilization, we have celebrated Earth days at their shortest and coldest. We make light of the darkness with festive decorations, gift exchanges, spiritual observations, office parties and rewatchings of “Die Hard.” Yippee ki-yay, winter solstice.

Embracing the season isn’t easy for everyone, though. It’s common to feel blue even as everyone else is grinning through the usual litany of customs. You might be missing people or places no longer in your life. Maybe the whole thing was ruined for you in childhood. Or perhaps you’ve become disillusioned over time. The oppressive commercialization and the pressure to participate can be immiserating. If that sounds familiar, let’s talk honestly about how you can deal with it and possibly emerge feeling better about the whole thing.

But first, let’s dispense with a common myth. Suicides do not increase during this time of year. However, according to Psychology Today, depression is reportedly higher around the holidays. Of course, depression covers a broad spectrum of experiences. It can be a debilitating and ongoing medical diagnosis. Chronic loneliness is associated with higher blood pressure. There’s evidence it may activate genes involved with inflammation—a risk factor for heart disease and cancer. But even if your depression simply amounts to holiday blues, it can take the fun out of “the most wonderful time of the year.”

Urmi Patel, Psy.D, is a clinical psychologist and manager of integrated care at Sutter Health. She says it’s common to live with a mild form of depression, sustaining everyday engagements at home, school or work without really realizing the need for help. November and December just make it a little worse. “The holidays are a time of social expectations,” she observes. If you feel unable to fully participate, “it can lead to an increased sense of loneliness. There’s a very close connection between anxiety causing depression and depression causing anxiety.”

Incidentally, regardless of the season, you may also be at increased risk of loneliness if you’re a millennial. A recent poll from YouGov, a polling firm and market research company, found that 30 percent of millennials say they feel lonely. This is the highest percentage of all the generations surveyed.

How To Think About Feeling Lonely

It’s easy to focus on the losses you’ve sustained or perceived. We love to list our disappointments, don’t we? However, focusing on the negative can literally make things worse. Patel recalls the familiar scenario in which a person, feeling the sting of a lost relationship, for example, seeks solace by overindulging in holiday food and drink, which leads to weight gain and feelings of guilt, followed by additional bad choices based on those experiences. “A negative event leads to an emotional reaction, leading to negative thoughts, which leads to destructive behavior that leads to another event, and you just keep cycling,” she says.

One way to avoid this downward cycle is to recognize what psychologists call “automatic negative thoughts.” It’s a concept popularized by psychiatrist and author Daniel G. Amen, M.D., who described them as “cynical, gloomy and complaining thoughts that just seem to keep coming all by themselves.” Automatic negative thoughts are characterized by certain common traits. One is black-and-white, “all or nothing” thinking in which one setback convinces you of total inevitable failure. Another common one is assuming the worst in what other people are thinking. Automatic negative thoughts often come in the form of self-labeling, such as “I’m such an idiot.” Perhaps the most toxic variety are the thoughts that deflect personal responsibility and pin blame on others, inflaming feelings of victimhood. The list of automatic negative thoughts goes on, but you get the idea . . . because we’ve all been there.

One approach to overcoming automatic negative thoughts is to recognize and identify them (e.g., “No one will ever love me again . . . wait, that’s an automatic negative thought”). Then, make the conscious decision to counter them with a positive reframing. (“I’m going to work on myself and good things will come of it.”)

Another suggestion is to practice mindfulness meditation. When you are having negative thoughts and can spare 10 minutes or so, sit with your eyes closed and focus on your breathing to calm down and take your attention away from those negative thoughts. If you think guidance would help, you may appreciate mobile apps like Headspace or free meditation tracks on SoundCloud.

Experts say another way to face your loneliness, trite though it may seem, is to count your blessings. No matter how bad things seem, it’s important to maintain perspective and recognize all the things you are lucky to have, as well as your ability to change your condition.

Remember everyone who loves you—not for what you can give or do, but for who you are. Focus on what you have instead of what you do not have. All this is not to deny your feelings. Give yourself permission to feel those feelings, then try to separate yourself from them. “Reflect on things that went well in the past year that you can re-create,” says Patel. “It’s OK to acknowledge that this year might be different.”

How To Talk About It

Practicing mindfulness and consciously recognizing your thoughts and feelings can feel like a Jedi mind trick that’s hard to pull off. Look to your family and friends for help in sorting it out. “Find those key people in your social circle that you feel safe enough to share with,” says Patel. Tell them you’re feeling lonely. Reaching out like that is a vulnerable and daring act, which most people will appreciate.

Sometimes we hope people will read our minds, and then we feel disappointed when they do not. Clearly communicate your needs to others. It’s OK to ask for a hug or some extra space.

The holidays can be especially stressful if money is tight. People worry they have to “match other people in their way of celebrating, whether they’re taking trips or doing gift exchanges,” says Patel. If financial pressure is getting to you, she suggests establishing a budget between you and your loved ones. It is a simple way to set expectations and stop worrying you won’t measure up.

Ways To Care for Yourself

Bow out as needed. It’s easy to feel like each holiday season amounts to a series of obligations. Remember you don’t have to do more than you can. Patel emphasizes the value of “learning how to say ‘No, I can’t do that this time’” when it comes to social expectations.

Or seek company. If you need alone time, that’s OK, especially if you’re avoiding negative people. But loneliness feeds on itself. Sometimes the best way to deal is to override your instinct to isolate. Surrounding yourself with positive people can help change your negative thinking. Attend a holiday celebration. Reach out to old friends or family. Visit your place of worship. No matter how lonely you feel, websites like meetup.com are guaranteed to connect you with friendly folks who share your interests and are eager to get to know you.

Avoid social media. So much sadness comes from feeling like your experience doesn’t measure up. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that when the Joneses post on Facebook or Instagram, they’re presenting an idealized version of their holidays and conveniently leaving out their alcoholic uncle’s unrelentingly sexist/racist comments. No need to make this a competition.

Practice self-care. Take the time to nurture your physical self. Get a massage or a pedicure. Do a yoga session. (If you’re short on money, or simply housebound, check out “Yoga With Adriene” on YouTube. My wife loves it. It’s free, occasionally funny, always thoughtful and offers a wide range of programs for different objectives, most of which are totally doable for the inexperienced practitioner.) Go to Asha Urban Baths and get a good hot soak. Pay attention to what you consume. This doesn’t mean being overly concerned with weight gain, but we all know it’s easy to stress eat or binge drink. On the other hand, this time of year brings with it so many special foods and drinks, and it’s OK to have a little more than you usually would. Try to strike a balance.

Give gifts. A sure way to be happy is to make someone else happy. Yes, you can buy stuff, but even simple acts of kindness—from thoughtful notes to handmade crafts—are a way to bring light to others and indirectly to yourself. It could include the people on your shortlist of loved ones, or random people who cross your path: office custodians, security guards, co-workers, Lyft drivers. In society, we depend on each other. Everyone appreciates being appreciated.

Volunteer your time. If you are lonely (or actually alone), one easy solution is to be with someone else who is also lonely. Your local food pantry, children’s hospital or senior living facility will surely appreciate your willingness to just be there and talk to people who feel like they’ve been forgotten.

Seek therapy. Many people resist this option, but honestly, you don’t have to hit rock bottom to talk to a professional therapist. It can be tremendously clarifying and help reset your perspective. And it doesn’t have to be an everlasting commitment. Patel speaks of the benefit of an approach called cognitive behavioral therapy that helps patients deal with (among other things) automatic negative thoughts. “It really tries to empower the person to almost be their own therapist,” she says. “You get homework assignments in between every session that challenge you to apply what you’re learning.”

Most of all, be kind to yourself. Recognize that these holidays too shall pass. “People more often than not end up finding their equilibrium again,” says Patel. You can do this.

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