Why The Holidays Can Feel So Lonely – And How You Can Cope

What makes the season from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day especially difficult for those of us living with mental illness?

Maybe it’s the pressure to feel merry and bright, even when we don’t. Or the idea we should buy lots of presents, regardless of any financial difficulties we may be facing. Or the notion that we should attend every family gathering, no matter how overwhelmed, sad or tired we feel.

These demands can lead to a profound sense of loneliness at the holidays. We may feel isolated because we don’t have the energy to travel and socialize the way we normally would. At times it may even seem as if we’re living in a different reality from everyone else. If you’ve ever walked along a busy street filled with twinkling lights and holiday shoppers, yet felt utterly and completely alone, you’ve been there.

Fortunately, there are ways you can ease the feelings of loneliness that you or someone you love may be experiencing right now. Here are some helpful strategies to try.

Seek out simple pleasures. If you’re not feeling up to the regular round of holiday celebrations, maybe a coffee date with a close friend or a choral concert in your neighborhood will lighten your spirits. Respect your need for quieter, less taxing ways of connecting with others.

Give yourself permission to say no. You may feel even lonelier after attending a huge holiday party where everyone else is happy and cheerful. Maybe you’d rather choose something more soothing and supportive this year. Consider having a massage, dinner with someone whose company you enjoy, or a long phone conversation with a friend you haven’t seen in a while. If others are surprised that you’re skipping the festivities, you can simply say, “I’m not feeling my best right now, but I hope you’ll have a great time.”

Share your feelings with people you trust. Who are the people in your inner circle — the ones you can always rely on for understanding and support? It may help you to tell them exactly how holiday pressures are affecting you right now. You can find comfort in talking with your therapist, your best friend or the people in your support group.

Be a friend in need. Are there people in your family or community that might be feeling lonely, too? Consider reaching out to them. It may take a little courage, but you will both feel less isolated. If you have the time and energy, you might even spend a few hours volunteering at a soup kitchen, hospital or senior center where people need extra care and support, especially at this time of year.

A special note for those in crisis. If you or someone you love is struggling with severe mental health symptoms, the holidays may deepen your sense of isolation and despair. Remember that NAMI is always here for you. Contact your nearest NAMI office for local resources and support, or dial the NAMI HelpLine, 800-950-6264, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. If you or someone you love is experiencing thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-800-273-8255, or text “NAMI” to 741741. Caring, experienced counselors are ready to help you 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

For more perspectives on holiday stress and mental health, visit NAMI.org.