But there’s joy to be found in solitude. We spoke to experts in stress and connection who told us how to navigate the complicated emotions around spending the holidays alone. It may not be easy or ideal, but we humans are capable of withstanding more than we know, including lonely holidays.
First — the holidays will feel different this year. And whether spending them on your own brings up grief, relief or something you didn’t expect, you should lean into those emotions. It’s healthy to feel them rather than shove them back down.
But leaning too deeply into the negativity can ground you in it for longer than you’d like.
“We should recognize what our feelings are and what they’re telling us,” says Lynn Bufka, the American Psychological Association’s associate executive director for practice research and policy. “But sitting in that doesn’t help.”
So try out some positive distractions — reading a good book, going for a walk or taking on a cooking project all put your mind and body to work.
If you still find yourself in a funk, that’s OK, too, says Jonathan Kanter, a psychologist who heads the University of Washington’s Center for the Science of Social Connection. There’s no right or wrong way to feel right now. Self-compassion is key.
And if all else fails, he says, you can wake up the next morning and try all over again.
Make the day your own
You’re on your own this year — time to play by your own rules. Bufka says doing whatever you want this holiday will make it a bit more fun.
“Think of it as an opportunity to slow down and do the things that you want to do,” she says.
Judith Moskowitz, a social psychologist and professor at Northwestern University, says her extended family is going to try out a Zoom escape room this year. How it’ll work is anyone’s guess. But to cope with the distance, she’s continuing her “normal holiday traditions — on steroids.”
“It’s not necessarily going to be awful,” she says of this year’s holiday. “There are possibilities for some good. It could even be better!”
Spread the love
There’s no reason for superficial small talk this year. Instead, use this time apart to “get back to the basic dance steps of relationships,” Kanter recommends. That means expressing our love for the people we’re closest to in new, slightly uncomfortable ways.
Be more vulnerable than you typically would this holiday, he says. Have meaningful conversations, and tell the people you love why you love them. Physical contact is off-limits for now, so wrap somebody in a warm hug of emotion — Kanter says you’ll emerge from the pandemic with stronger relationships.
Focus on the good
If you find yourself slipping into an unpleasant mood, train your mind to focus on some of the good things on the way, Moskowitz recommends.
Tiny, tangible moments of joy or reminders of good things to come can power you through an otherwise difficult day, she says.
Find the holiday spirit
A lot’s changed this year, but it’s still the season to give. So give, Kanter says — it’ll almost certainly make you feel better.
“When we engage in acts of altruism, it helps the person we’re helping, but research shows that it has mental benefits for the giver, too,” he says.
“It’s the cliche of the holiday season — take care of and be inclusive of others,” Kanter says. “But I think what the pandemic has taught us, more than anything, is that it’s important to go back to basics, to what really matters.”
Remember the ‘why’
It’s not going to be easy to turn down an invitation from the people you love this holiday season. It’ll probably be just plain sad. But when you’re feeling low, Bufka advises, remember why you made that difficult choice in the first place — to keep those people safe.
And while it may not feel like it, stressful situations like this holiday season (and really, 2020 as a whole) is what humans are built for. We’re more resilient than we know, says Moskowitz, who studies how people find positivity during periods of extreme stress.
There’s still light to be found even if our holiday is a bit more muted than we’re used to. You might find that light in volunteering, in a heartfelt phone call or a plateful of cookies.