How to Manage Feelings of Loneliness Over the Holidays

It may be “the most wonderful time of the year,” according to the Andy Williams carol, yet millions of Americans will be spending Christmas alone. One survey found that 61 percent of people in this country will feel sad or lonely over the holidays. Why do so many of us struggle with loneliness during a season that is supposed to be festive and full of joy, and what are some coping tools for reducing and overcoming feelings of loneliness?

Causes of Holiday Loneliness

One obvious cause of holiday loneliness is having to be alone at a time of year typically associated with family and friends. This reality affects a growing number of people in this country. “A record percentage of Americans are now living alone—nearly 30 percent,” a Yahoo Finance report stated in July 2023. It called “the rapid growth of ‘solitaries’” … “a stunning social change.”

The holidays can also be a particularly nostalgic time. We may remember happy family gatherings that once included loved ones who are no longer with us, whether because of physical separation due to an illness or divorce or because they have passed away.

Time off from work can amplify these feelings of isolation. It is much easier to ruminate about your loneliness when you have more free time on your hands and are not at least interacting with colleagues in a workspace.

4 Coping Strategies for Holiday Loneliness

As difficult as it can be over the holidays, loneliness does not need to ruin your celebration. To keep it in check, consider trying these coping strategies.

Acceptance ­– Loneliness may be more manageable when you are able to accept it non-judgmentally for what it is. Cognitive-behavioral therapists often say that a person’s life circumstances are less important than a person’s reaction to those circumstances. If that is true, then how a person reacts to their loneliness is what is key to feeling better.

Loneliness can create more distress when a person chooses to judge or fight it or attach negative meanings to it. Instead, acknowledge and normalize the loneliness. Avoid the temptation to buy into the higher expectations that often go along with this time of year.

Volunteer – If you know you’ll be spending long periods on your own over the holidays, volunteering is a great way to build immunity to loneliness. Volunteer opportunities abound at this time of the year, and some cities keep lists of service opportunities. Some examples might include serving a meal at a homeless shelter, distributing food with your local food bank, pitching in at an animal shelter, or visiting patients in the hospital or at a nursing home.

Acts of service can help reorient a person from being inwardly focused to seeing the need and beauty around them. The more they are outwardly engaging with their neighbor and the world around them, the more connected they will feel—and the less lonely.

Therapy – Therapy can be a helpful coping tool for anyone, not just those in need of mental health treatment. A therapist may be able to provide insights into what your emotions may be telling you and how to constructively respond to them. If loneliness is a signal that you need more connection in your life, a therapist may be able to help you explore what that might look like and how to access more of it.

Prayer/Meditation – Many people find help from prayer or meditation. If loneliness feels overwhelming, acknowledge it. Then, spend some time connecting with your breath and mindfully focusing on your breath. As you breathe, take a moment to remember all the people around the world who are experiencing the same feelings that you are experiencing in that very moment. If you believe in God or a Higher Power, you might also imagine all those same people in the light of God’s love.

This exercise can be a powerful reminder that even when we feel most alone, we are still connected.