6 Habits to Help You Cope With Not Seeing Family This Thanksgiving, According to Experts

published Nov 18, 2020
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For many people, the holidays are synonymous with family time. Whether you travel across the country or load up the car for a weekend trip to grandma’s, you probably have memories of gathering with loved ones to celebrate. But things will undoubtedly be different this year, as many make an effort to keep themselves and loved ones safe and healthy this season.

There’s also the matter of official caution: The Center for Disease Control recently updated its guidelines to strongly recommend that people not travel during the holiday season. “Travel may increase your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19,” a dedicated page on the official CDC site reads. “Postponing travel and staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others this year.” The Center adds that “celebrating virtually or with the people you live with is the safest choice this Thanksgiving.”

As a result, many people will likely be celebrating the holidays with roommates or even solo. Psychotherapist Dr. Mike Dow notes that one survey found that as many as 23 million Americans may be spending the holidays by themselves—which is putting experts on alert for mental health issues.

“We know that 64 percent of people with mental illness say the holidays make their condition worse, which is troubling because significantly more Americans are already experiencing symptoms due to the pandemic,” Dr. Dow tells Apartment Therapy.

Whatever your reason for not going home, it’s important to remember that holidays spent on your own can be emotionally trying. “The holidays tend to emphasize family, community traditions, and togetherness, so spending them alone can bring up feelings of loneliness, sadness, longing, and anxiety,” Jaclyn Lopez Witmer, a licensed clinical psychologist at Therapy Group of NYC, explains to Apartment Therapy, adding that Thanksgiving and other holidays might be especially difficult for those who have experienced grief this year, whether due to COVID-19 or other reasons. “2020 has already been such an isolating year, so the holidays will be particularly hard on those who aren’t able to be with loved ones,” she added.

It’s understandable if you’re upset about spending them alone, but with a little effort, there are ways to still create cheer for yourself and your home. From mental exercises to festive activities, here are six habits psychologists say you can focus on to feel better about spending the holidays solo.

Acknowledge and express your feelings.

Being honest with yourself and others about the challenges of being alone during the holidays is key to overcoming your anxiety. “This has been an unprecedented year and it’s totally normal to feel overwhelmed,” Lopez Witmer says. “Validate this to yourself and talk openly with loved ones and others who are in a similar position, so you can normalize what you’re feeling.” 

If you don’t have friends or family members to discuss your concerns with, you can look into following or joining an online support group for people spending the holidays alone, to remind yourself that your feelings are normal. You can also call the National Helpline at 1-800-622-4357 if you’re in need.

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Reframe your thinking

When overwhelming feelings of loneliness arise throughout the holidays, Dr. Jolie Silva of New York Behavioral Health says you can ground yourself by shifting your perspective on the situation. “Remember there is a difference between being alone, which means there is no one around you physically, and being lonely, which is an emotion involving sadness and emptiness,” she explains. “Just because you are physically alone doesn’t mean you aren’t loved.” If you’re struggling to change your outlook on the situation, consider a Cognitive Behavioral Tool (CBT) exercise, such as writing out your fears in a journal and coming up with alternative thoughts, to help ease your anxieties in the moment.

Stay virtually connected with loved ones

Just because you can’t physically celebrate with loved ones during the holidays doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate with them in other ways. “Schedule lots of virtual calls and activities, so you can stay connected with others during the holidays,” advises clinical psychologist Dr. Jayme Albin. “Pick a new recipe that you and your friends can cook together while FaceTiming or set aside time to play an online game together over video chat.” If you’re feeling especially ambitious, Albin says you can also coordinate a virtual holiday dinner with friends and family members. “Have everyone order from their favorite delivery place and then enjoy it together over Zoom,” she suggests.

Engage in festive activities on your own

Since the holidays are all about traditions, Silva suggests enjoying some of them by yourself this year. “Identify the holiday-related activities that you enjoy and make the time to engage in them,” she says. “Bake cookies to send to relatives, mail handwritten greeting cards to all your friends, or decorate your home in string lights and tinsel. Try to embrace the holidays by utilizing any positive associations you already have.”

Credit: Mr. Kate

Get moving

Whether you plan an all-day holiday hike outdoors or simply do ten minutes of jumping jacks in your bedroom, Albin says that exercise is a failsafe way to instantly lift your spirits when you’re feeling down about being alone during the holidays. “Physical exercise has been proven to produce positive hormones (endorphins) that combat feelings of anxiety and depression,” she explains. “If you can’t go for a walk, run, or hike outside, find an indoor workout video on YouTube, or sign up for an online fitness class so you can feel more connected to others while you exercise.

Make an effort to set aside time for yourself

A little self-care can go a long way when you’re spending the holidays solo. “Make a list of practical things you can do that bring you joy and pleasure, and make a commitment to yourself to engage in at least one of these events a day during the holiday season,” Silva says. “These events can be as simple as lighting a candle in your living room, listening to your favorite podcast, or taking a bath, or as detailed as an all-day movie marathon or in-home spa day-inspired staycation.”

This story has been updated with new information from the Center for Disease Control.