Lonely this Christmas
It can affect anybody
Which age group do you think is most likely to say they experience loneliness at Christmas? Wrong. It’s not the elderly although half a million of them do find it one of the hardest times of year. It’s actually those between 16 and 24. And 10% of ten to seventeen-year-olds also say they often feel lonely. Quoted recently in The Mail Online, Richard Crellin from the Children’s Society said ‘This Christmas we’d urge you to think about young people and how you can help them feel that they’re not alone’.
The middle-aged are also susceptible – meaning that pretty well any age group can succumb to acute feelings of loneliness in the Festive Season. Research has shown that lonely middle-aged people drink more alcohol, eat less healthily and get less exercise than the socially contented. They also get more stressed and seek less social support, thus exacerbating their isolation. And loneliness is associated with a range of physical and emotional health problems. Simply put, Yuletide loneliness can be devastating.
The causes of Christmas loneliness
Why are people on their own at Christmas? It may be that they don’t have close friends or they live far from their relatives or they have no relatives left alive (even quite young and otherwise socially active adults can find Christmas painful because of that). Alternatively, a special relationship may have ended – including through death – or a person may suffer from social anxiety. Whatever the case, the fantasy tends to be that everyone else is having a whale of time except you.
What to look out for
There are tell-tale signs of loneliness. For the elderly it may be spending a lot of time at home, getting less social interaction than they used to, avoiding contact with family for fear of being a burden, watching more TV than usual or not eating properly. For a child or teenager it may be spending a lot of time in their room, being exceptionally quiet, disconnecting from family members and not arranging to see friends, having negative thoughts, playing video games (even) more than usual or withdrawing from participation in the planning and activities of Christmas.
• Getting out
A friend of mine who was a Church Minister once told me that whenever he was feeling a bit low he would go and visit someone and invariably come back feeling better. And it’s certainly true that simply getting out and doing something can lift our mood. A walk or run may help, as might going to a magical Midnight Mass. But volunteering can also be a tonic. It could be offering to serve dinner at a soup kitchen, taking presents to a children’s hospital or visiting lonely residents in a care home. Again, giving to someone else (and thereby taking our minds off ourselves) seems to have a real therapeutic effect. Research shows that it can reduce any tendency to avoid social situations too. In fact, new friends are sometimes made in the process.
• Not saying ‘no’ when you want to say ‘yes’
It sounds obvious but not turning down invitations may also make a difference. Social anxiety can trigger a knee-jerk ‘no thanks’ response but that may be followed by feelings of regret and loneliness. Calling someone to say that you’ve changed your mind and is it too late to accept the offer could be worth considering.
Then there are more specialist solutions such as hosting what’s – cringingly – been been called an ‘orphan Christmas’. That’s when people who are going to be on their own at Christmas get together with other people in the same boat. Technology can offer other alternatives. Apart from Skyping distant friends or family, some people have an online Christmas, setting up a Skype chatroom or Facebook group with people popping in and out at their leisure. Or else online research can turn up festive local community events, social groups and networking possibilities.
• Embracing solitude
If the worst comes to the worst and unsolicited solitude can’t be avoided, then it might be worth just embracing it and making the best of it. Time maybe to snuggle down with a really engrossing book or to enjoy a real treat of a present that we’ve bought ourselves in advance. Or else binge on some movies or cook our absolute favourite meal.
• Well I would say this, wouldn’t I
And while we’re at it, perhaps do one more thing. Make a point of planning ahead for next Christmas, if that’s possible, so it doesn’t all repeat. Particularly in cases where loneliness doesn’t just strike for one or two days a year but is more of a perennial companion then part of that might be entertaining the possibility of psychotherapy. If there are underlying relational causes for isolation or loneliness then therapy can be quite an effective tool for bringing change.
Helping someone else
Lastly, we may be surrounded by people at Christmas but aware of someone who isn’t. Is it possible to give them a call or pop in to see them or even invite them to join the party? In advance, ask them what they want and when they’ll be on their own. They may be fine for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day but not on Boxing Day. Or else, well before Christmas, see if there’s anything you can suggest in the wider community that could prevent them being alone. All these things which may be small to us could be very big for them.
I wish you a peaceful Christmas.
© Brian Shand 2019
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