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Alone during the holidays? How to cope when you’re feeling lonely

TORONTO — While the holidays are often a difficult time for people experiencing loneliness, this year may be harder than most as pandemic-related restrictions keep loved ones apart.

This increased isolation has led some experts to worry that it will cause an uptick of loneliness, anxiety, and depression in the population, particularly during the holidays and the winter months.

“Many of us are feeling lonely during this time because of physical distancing, we miss our get-togethers, we miss hugs, we miss human touch,” Dr. David Dozois, a psychology professor at Western University who helped design a survey earlier in the pandemic about rising rates of anxiety and depression, said during an interview with CTVNews.ca in October.

“Humans are the most social animals in the world.”

Loneliness can also impact an individual’s physical health, according to a new study by Canadian researchers, which found the brains of lonely people have different characteristics than people who do not experience regular loneliness. They suggest these differences may be the result of lonely people using certain parts of the brain to adapt to their situation. 

For those who may be worried about their mental health during the holiday season, CTVNews.ca has rounded up some recommendations from experts on how to cope this year.

NORMALIZE FEELINGS

Dozois said one of the first things to remember is that it’s normal to experience loneliness right now and that Canadians can take comfort in the fact that they’re not alone in feeling this way.

“Many of us are experiencing loneliness during this time, and especially with COVID,” he said. “It’s OK to normalize that and recognize this is difficult.”

Jennifer Hollinshead, a clinical counsellor and founder of the Vancouver-based Peak Resilience, which hosts free online support groups for those struggling during the pandemic, said people should acknowledge how they’re feeling and take it one step further by going past what she calls “catastrophic” thinking.

“When you’re catastrophizing, when you’re thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to be so unhappy over the holidays,’ usually your brain stops there and you just panic,” she explained.

To move beyond this panic, Hollinshead said she encourages her clients to ask themselves “then what?” when they’re feeling this way.

“If you say something to yourself like, “OK, well then what? What am I going to do?’ It really takes you from that catastrophizing helpless perspective and it moves you through ‘Ok, worst-case scenario, you are on your own. Then what?’”

Hollinshead said this simple shift in mindset can restore an individual’s power over their lives in order to make future plans.

SEEK CONNECTIONS

The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly made it harder for Canadians to connect with each other, especially in person, which is why Hollinshead said it’s important for them to “squeeze” all of the connections they can out of every interaction.

That means intentionally seeking moments of connection with others whenever there is an opportunity.

“It’s your grocery trip of the week and it’s an exciting field trip… you can make more of an effort to actually connect with people at the grocery store. So saying to the cashier ‘How’s your day going? How busy is this?’” she suggested. “Even if it’s with a stranger, that lights up the same parts of the brain that we need to have lit up as humans.”

For some, their main source of human interaction may be their workday, so Hollinshead said they should try to take advantage of their time with colleagues. For example, she said starting a meeting over Zoom early to ask co-workers how they’re doing.

Even though the pandemic has made it more difficult to meet new friends, Dozois said there are still special-interest groups, such as hikers, still meeting outdoors.

“I do think it’s important to try to be deliberate about connecting socially with people,” he said.

And, of course, both Dozois and Hollinshead said those who are feeling lonely during the holidays should try to make an extra effort to regularly connect with friends and family, even if it’s through the use of technology.

Dozois said there are ways to connect virtually in an “active” way, such as over FaceTime or Zoom, instead of texting or messaging on Instagram.

Hollinshead said people can even get creative with their use of technology during the holidays when they may be physically apart from each other. For example, she said they could all order in food at the same time and eat the meals together.

“There are ways to create connection, even though it’s not the same, and it’s not as good, it’s just different,” she said.

FIND BALANCE

In addition to seeking out social connections, Dozois said those who are feeling lonely should try to find structure in their days, especially in the winter. He said it’s common for them to want to hibernate and stay at home during the colder months, but that’s when they should put extra effort into getting out of the house and doing things, even if that means just going for a walk outside.

“We know in depression, what happens is people can move into a downward spiral where they start to do less because of what they’re feeling, they don’t have much motivation,” he said. “The less you do, the less you feel like doing.”

Finding the pleasure in certain activities should also be balanced with doing tasks that provide a sense of accomplishment, Dozois said. He said individuals should try to pursue both “pleasure-oriented things” and “mastery-oriented things.”

Dozois said pleasure-oriented things can be as simple as having a bubble bath while listening to music, while mastery-oriented things can be as simple as cleaning up after making a meal for a sense of accomplishment.

PURSUE HEALTHY DISTRACTIONS

For those who may be dreading the holidays, Dozois suggests focusing on activities they enjoy to distract themselves. He stressed that this doesn’t mean they should avoid how they’re feeling in the long term, but the strategy can be helpful over a temporary period, such as during the holidays.

“Healthy distractions can be a good thing to just take the edge off and do something different or fun that day or during that season,” he explained.

Dozois compared it to when people do something enjoyable on the anniversary of the death of a loved one as a way to distract themselves temporarily from the pain of that memory.

Remembering that this period of isolation is temporary is also important, according to Dozois, who said people should cut themselves some slack for feeling the way they do during this period.

“COVID is not going to last forever and the loneliness I’m feeling right now doesn’t mean that that’s what I’m always going to feel at this time of the year, every year,” he said.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, here are some resources that are available.

Canada Suicide Prevention Helpline (1-833-456-4566)

Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (1 800 463-2338)

Crisis Services Canada (1-833-456-4566 or text 45645)

Kids Help Phone (1-800-668-6868)

If you need immediate assistance call 911 or go to the nearest hospital.

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