With the festive season upon us, many are facing the reality that they may be spending the holidays apart from family and friends. To help us prepare for potential feelings of the isolation and loneliness, we spoke with Dr. Carlin Barnes and Dr. Marketa Wills, two Harvard-trained psychiatrists and the co-authors of Understanding Mental Illness: A Comprehensive Guide to Mental Health Disorders for Family and Friends.
Drs. Barnes and Wills discussed how to deal with your feelings about the holidays, ways to celebrate if you can’t be with your loved ones, and how to talk to family members who may not understand why you’re keeping your distance. Here are the 10 key tips they shared to cope with being alone this season.
If you haven’t yet, start planning now
Accept that things may be different this year
She continued, “Be honest about how you're feeling about all of this, and once you've had that courageous conversation with yourself, your family members and your friends, challenge yourself to think outside of the box.” Even though the way you celebrate may be different, be mindful, and prepare yourself for this reality, then think of ways you can still make some good holiday memories.
Don’t feel guilty about finding joy in the season
She also said, “The guilt is real, feeling guilty that you’re OK while others are not and struggling with how to process those emotions.” If we find joy in things like decorating the Christmas tree or putting up lights outside, we shouldn’t feel bad about it. We can acknowledge the stress, uncertainty, change, and loss that we’ve experienced, and still find reasons to celebrate.
Remember this is temporary
Remember that though you may be celebrating apart from those you care about this year (perhaps to keep everyone safe and healthy), you’ll be able to celebrate together in future years.
Find other ways to celebrate with loved ones
Tell your family why you’re not celebrating with them in person
Both doctors prescribed telling those people in advance and being very clear and thoughtful about the reasons you won’t be joining them. One way to phrase it, according to Dr. Barnes, is to say, “I'm not feeling comfortable celebrating in the traditional way for the sake of safety.” Be sensitive and empathetic to their feelings and let them know it’s not a rejection. Offer alternate ways to celebrate with them, like a socially distanced exchange of food or a drive-by visit. Most of all, be respectful of their feelings, ask that they respect your decision, and let them know that even though things are different this year, we can still say we celebrated as a family.
Incorporate self care into your plan
Despite the loss, be grateful for what you have
Consider adopting a pet
Talk to a professional
“For whatever reason, if getting through the holiday season is something that is so terrifically painful for you to bear, it's definitely worth reaching out and seeking professional help,” recommended Dr. Wills. “That’s what professional mental health specialists are there for.”
A mental health professional can help you process negative emotions, find solutions, and gain insight into why you may be experiencing these feelings. They can also help by cognitively restructuring your thoughts so you can move forward.
If you’ve never gone to therapy but you’re overwhelmed by the holiday season, consider seeking out that extra support. And if you already have a therapist, Dr. Wills emphasized the importance of checking in with them, even if you’re not experiencing any symptoms related to the holidays.