Let’s get this out of the way first: Being alone over the holidays doesn’t mean you’re unloved or failing at life. Connecting with people in person is tough right now, and seeing loved ones — especially those who live far away — might not be an option. So, as the holidays inch closer, it’s understandable if you’re anticipating feeling lonely.
As a society, we’ve gotten used to the nostalgic images of holidays being full of family, food, travel, and quality time. If the picture changes or one of the aspects is missing, something feels off.
“Childhood memories of feeling together and having loved ones close can accentuate feelings of loneliness when that is not the case as an adult,” explains Dr. Gail Saltz, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and host of the podcast “Personology.”
“Socially and culturally, this idea of being surrounded by loved ones is reinforced, and when you are alone, or even not alone but still feel lonely, this difference in expectation can make you feel quite lonely.”
For many people, holidays have a tendency to dredge up past sadness.
“Individuals often have time away from work and fewer distractions and may begin to ruminate about lost relationships or loved ones who have passed away,” says Dr. Leela R. Magavi, psychiatrist and regional medical director at Community Psychiatry. “Post-traumatic symptoms may emerge or worsen around the holidays and exacerbate feelings of loneliness.”
Magavi stresses that spending this time alone isn’t something to blame yourself for. Being alone for the holidays is simply a statement about your environment, not your ability or your worth. Let’s look at some actionable steps you can take to feel fulfilled during the holidays.
1. Treat yourself in a memorable or nostalgic way
As long as you’re not spending outside your budget or doing something inadvisable, it’s perfectly fine to treat yourself this holiday season.
It could be by diving into a book you’ve been eager to read, taking a weekend getaway to your favorite spot, or taking a day off to relax. Taking care of yourself can go a long way toward protecting your emotional health.
“Self-compassion, gratitude, and positive affirmations help improve self-esteem and decrease feelings of loneliness longitudinally,” says Magavi.
2. Remember what (and who) you still have
It’s easy to fixate on who you can’t be with over the holidays and forget about the ones you can be with. Actively work on growing your relationship with one or two people you can rely on.
“This means calling, Zooming, or distantly getting together with them, talking about your feelings, strengthening the bond, and being willing to be vulnerable with them,” says Saltz.
You are far from the only person feeling lonely this holiday season, and you may be surprised how eager others are to connect if you give them a chance.
3. Set whatever tone you want
One of the best things about being an adult is that you make the rules (mostly). There’s no one way the holidays should look for everyone — and an upside to spending the holidays alone is that you get to decide exactly what yours will look like.
So, feel free to enjoy your latkes, stuffed turkey, or sushi instead of Christmas ham as you blare songs your family members could never tolerate.
On the other hand, don’t feel like you have to be in a celebratory mood. If you’re sad or disappointed to be spending a holiday alone, let yourself feel those feelings and process them in whatever way makes sense for you — maybe by journaling, making art, or listening to your go-to “sad songs” playlist.
4. Create new traditions with your substitute family
Get people you love together (either in person or over video chat) and decide on some new activities or traditions to start as a group. It could be an epic virtual game night, a dance party using your favorite playlists, or a no-holds-barred emotionally raw conversation.
Just because you aren’t with blood relatives doesn’t mean you’re away from family.
5. Reset expectations
Whether it’s dinner at your aunt’s house every year or pie from the bakery in your hometown, you probably associate certain traditions with the holidays. But if this year has taught us anything, it’s how to be flexible and embrace the unexpected.
Try to find joy in trying something new, like trying the pie from the bakery near your apartment that always looks so good.
6. Volunteer your time
Yes, it’s easy to sit at home and feel sorry for yourself, but why not get up and help others instead? Bonus: You can even do it from the comfort of your bed.
“Whether remote or in person, helping others can combat loneliness. It is another way to feel connected to other people and makes for an opportunity to meet new people surrounding a cause that you care about,” says psychotherapist and clinical director Tasia Milicevic MSW, LCSW.
7. Practice hospitality
Why not also do something nice for the people around you? It can be as small as leaving them a little treat and a nice note. Choose a dish that always makes you happy at this time of year or a recipe you’ve been eager to try and share it with your neighbors.
8. Get in touch with your spiritual side
Take time to think about what the holidays mean to you, what you’re looking for in the new year, and the beauty and complexity of being human, even when it’s hard to find.
Perhaps try some introspective or spiritual books that you may not have given attention to before. Some often recommended titles include “The Prophet” by Kahlil Gibran, “When Things Fall Apart” by Pema Chodron, and “Wise Heart” by Jack Kornfield.
9. Be strategic (and consistent) about combating loneliness
There are so many little ways to create a connection with others.
“Exercise or engage in an activity where you will interact with other people,” says Milicevic. “If you join a group or class that meets the same day and time consistently, you will begin to experience a sense of belonging and feeling connected to others.”
10. Start a gratitude journal for the holidays
There’s something undeniably freeing about releasing your thoughts onto paper. Magavi recommends creating short journal entries daily with letters to yourself and complimentary messages.
“I advise everyone to keep journaling fluid, fun, and creative,” she says. “Individuals can rejoice about any small victory. Some individuals even draw pictures linked to the content and share their journal and gratitude with others.”
11. Share your appreciation of the people in your life
When was the last time you thanked your barista for always adding an extra shot in your coffee?
“Writing thank you letters to loved ones or simply thanking others could release neurochemicals responsible for happiness, motivation, and the alleviation of stress,” says Magavi.
It will make you feel good too. “Thanking others also allows the one giving gratitude to appreciate the small things in life and live life mindfully,” she says.
12. Have a TV marathon
There’s nothing wrong with escaping into something entertaining. “Indulging in a fictional world is a good distraction to combat loneliness,” says Milicevic.
Rewatch your favorite TV show or start a joyous holiday fan favorite.
13. Attack the day
Every day that you wake up and set a goal — even just a little one — is a win. Plus, creating a reliable pattern is a good distraction from the abnormal.
“Routine and consistency are key,” says Milicevic. “Filling your days — in therapy, we call this behavior activation — gives you less time to ruminate on negative thoughts and feelings.”
Implementing these tips is a great way to get out of a solo holiday funk. But if your feelings of loneliness persist or get worse after the holidays, consider talking to a mental health professional.
“Individuals with chronic loneliness may experience symptoms of depression and anxiety, which impair their functionality. In such cases, I always advise individuals to receive professional help,” says Magavi. “This allows them to identify their anxiety pattern and tackle this by reframing thinking and partaking in healthy behaviors.”
Prescription anti-anxiety or depression medication may help you cope with these negative feelings.
If you’re engaging in potentially harmful behaviors like restrictive eating, misusing alcohol or drugs, compulsive spending or gambling, lashing out at others, or injuring yourself, or if you’re contemplating suicide, Saltz strongly recommends seeking help.
“Exploring and processing negative feelings such as loneliness will enable the person to identify and utilize effective coping strategies,” she says.
If you want to seek help but can’t start therapy immediately due to the cost or long wait time, at the very least, meet with a primary care physician to discuss what you’re experiencing.
They may be able to prescribe medication and provide more accessible options for mental healthcare. Trusted friends or family members are also excellent options for support — especially if you’re looking for help in changing your habits.
All in all, we can’t always predict the changes or challenges we face. And it’s true that many of the changes may be a little tough to process. While there are worthwhile ways to get some value out of your holiday season alone, it’s important to remember that your feelings (including loneliness) are valid.
As we work to navigate uncertain times, let’s hold onto what we know makes us feel whole and fulfilled.
Sarah Fielding is a New York City-based writer. She covers social justice, mental health, health, travel, relationships, entertainment, fashion, and food.