Lonely This Christmas? Spoiler alert: it’s not because you don’t have anyone to hold
Sian breaks down what feelings of isolation and loneliness at this time of year might really mean.
By Sian Barnard
I’m worried for the state of people’s mental health this Christmas, more than ever.
Some people say it’s just one day and, in one sense, it is. I personally find it can be a bit of an anti-climax. On the other hand, it’s an entire social construct of expectations, hopes, dreams and fears that lasts weeks before 25 December. The build-up for Christmas is starting earlier and earlier, driven by the high street trying to claw back revenue being spent online. Advertising across all media platforms sell their products in conjunction with the idyllic, snowy-white Christmas intermixed with family values. Festive movies start being shown on TV and adverts for Christmas parties start popping up at different venues.
We’re literally brain-washed into a state of high expectancy, which is all underpinned by the necessity for family and children. Without these, Christmas is seemingly empty and a washout. As we grow older, there’s a tendency to fill the void left by the lack the magical and the mystical with food and alcohol. If you can’t be with a loved one this Christmas, it’s not the end of the world – worse things could be happening to you. It is really uncomfortable but it’s bearable. For most people, there are many more Christmases to come.
BREAK THE CHAIN
If you are going to be either alone or have a smaller Christmas than usual this year, you can begin to adjust your brain-washing right now. This mental conditioning takes the form of expectations and demanding thoughts about what Christmas should or shouldn’t be. This leads to anxiety and, ultimately, low mood if those demands aren’t fulfilled. Lower your expectations!
Here’s a fact: you will be no worse off on Christmas Day than you are today. You are not going to be loved less or more. Christmas is traditionally about family and, if you either haven’t got any or there aren’t any around you this year, you can start to see it as a ‘rub your nose in it’ scenario. Or you can reframe it. Not everyone’s circumstances can be the same. Remember those people in large families will have their fair share of arguments, troubles, hidden agendas and resentments. ‘Fakebook’, as I like to call it, needs to be seen for what it is – a fake representation of people’s lives. We get presented mainly with people’s best bits.
IT’S YOU, NOT THEM
When we resist reality – i.e., that which is actually true and occurring right now – then we feel distressed. That can come out in the form of ‘I hate Christmas’, ‘it’s over-hyped’, ‘it’s commercial and doesn’t mean anything now’, etc. Deep down, it consists of beliefs like: ‘I should be with someone’, ‘I must have a family’ and ‘life should be fairer to me’; ‘people mustn’t rub it in my face’, ‘I’m so unlovable’, ‘I’m so sad’, ‘I’m a loser’.
If you are spending Christmas with your parents and you’re single, you may be having similar thoughts. Maybe a relationship is in jeopardy or has recently ended. Or maybe you haven’t found the right person yet, or you don’t really want to be with anyone normally, except it would be nice at Christmas. Yep, it’s tough. I can remember Christmas 2004; I was 34, single and just wanted a Mr Right. I flew home from London to Newcastle to spend Christmas with Mum and Dad, see my grandparents and my younger sister and her family. New Year’s Eve consisted of watching TV and toasting the arrival of 2005 to Mum and Dad’s snoring, slumped forms on the sofa. I was pretty depressed. I was wasting my best boob years being celibate and single (they start drooping after 50 FYI, even if you don’t have kids).
My thinking was totally back to front. I was thinking that I was unlovable, unattractive and that my life was a bit of a disaster because I felt lonely, even though I had the most loving parents who I felt totally safe and comfortable with. Mum’s gone now and I’d give anything to have that New Year back. I did get despondent at other times, but Christmas appeared to act as a catalyst. In reality, I was no worse off. With my training and personal experience, I can say that we have to accept where we are when we are there. Comparison is the thief of joy! I was comparing my situation to that of people who are married with kids.
What you never know is what other people are dealing with. If you knew, you would rarely swap. No-one gets away with an idyllic life.
FOCUS ON THE LITTLE THINGS
Whatever your circumstances, counting your blessings, while not focusing on what you haven’t got, is a key tool to happiness. When you try and resist that which is happening now, or try to control things that are out of your control, you will feel distressed and disturbed. By jumping to conclusions that aren’t facts but rather biased assumptions – like, I’m not spending Christmas with family or a loved one so I am unlovable or unworthy – will cause unnecessary pain. People who feel lonely usually make these assumptions. When someone is alone for whatever reason and they are happy with that situation, they will rarely be telling themselves it’s because no one wants them. Same situation, different perspective.
Self-care is the answer after you have checked your thinking. Do things that you enjoy and that are good for you. Eating a family-sized bar of Cadburys or a lamb jalfrezi and chicken korma is not being good to yourself. Nor is buying £500 of unnecessary clothes. A few squares of chocolate and a healthy meal, a trip to the gym, a good book or movie, a meal out with friends, and buying a nice candle and body scrub will help. They are not the answer, but they will help.
LOOK TO THE FUTURE
Planning for the future and giving yourself goals and projects will also stimulate the release of your happy chemicals. Don’t isolate. Don’t churn unhappy thoughts and disturb yourself. Stay away from ‘worry thoughts’ that begin with ‘what if’. I call this ‘whatifery’ and it’s very destructive. Try meditation. There are many types and you won’t be any good at any of them at first. I’m still not after many years of practising, but I’m better than I was.
Finally remember, like everything that involves feelings, Christmas will pass. So will COVID. The wonderful thing about life is that nothing ever stays the same. Happiness is a state of mind and it doesn’t have to have much to do with your situation.
Sian is a cognitive behaviour therapist and also a clinical hypnotherapist, having trained at Goldsmiths College, University of London and the College of Clinical Hypnosis. Four years ago Sian relocated her Harley Street practice to her native North East after 26 years in central London. Sian now runs her private clinic in Gosforth and also owns a training academy to help organisations with stress reduction. Sian’s approach is to help people become their own therapists, whether they come to see her for panic attacks, depression or OCD (she covers a wide range of emotional and behavioural issues).