The Holidays can be a time of hope, joy, and celebration that many people look forward to, but when you’re dealing with issues such as living away from family and friends, losing loved ones, physical or mental health issues, or conflicted relationships, the Holidays can become a reminder of things (or people) you’ve been longing for. If you are struggling with loneliness this Holiday season, keep reading as we explore what loneliness actually means, who is most at risk, why Holidays make people lonely, and the impact it has on our health.
What Is Loneliness?
In a nutshell, loneliness is feeling alone, and is unique to each person and experienced by individuals of all ages. It is intimately connected to your own perception and the dissatisfaction you feel when you believe that your needs for companionship aren’t being met or that your relationships aren’t meaningful. You can live with other people or talk to people often and still feel lonely. This can often be confused with social isolation, which refers to a lack of social connections. However, you can still be alone or lack social connections but not feel lonely. Some people are completely content spending significant time alone.
Who Is Most At Risk Of Feeling Lonely?
Although anyone can become lonely, those who have a limited social support system are often most at risk. For instance, seniors are typically at a higher risk of becoming lonely because they often lose a sense of belonging in society, their social circles become smaller, and many end up in retirement communities or assisted care facilities.
But older generations aren’t the only ones at risk for loneliness. Other individuals such as those who struggle with trauma, poverty, poor physical or mental health issues, financial issues, low self-esteem, limited community connections, living alone, newly arrived in a country or recently relocated, and those who simply feel misunderstood by society also have an increased risk of loneliness.
Why People Get Lonely During The Holidays
I’m sure most of us know what it’s like to feel lonely sometimes; but what makes the Holidays so much harder? There are a few reasons the Holiday season can increase feelings of loneliness.
Longing for missed connections is one of the most common reasons people feel lonely over the Holidays. Some people wish they could be with family; others may be mourning the loss of someone; some are yearning for relationships they wish they had or wishing for better ones (either friendship or romantically). If you’re missing meaningful relationships in your life, it can begin to feel like the whole world is spending time with those they love over the Holidays—except you.
During the Holiday season, we’re often surrounded by scenes of happy families and couples in commercials, movies, and on social media as everyone appears to be enjoying a picture perfect Holiday. It’s hard not to start comparing how we spend our Holidays to what others are doing—or what we assume they're doing (even if it’s not accurate).
On top of our own expectations, we often have to contend with expectations from family, friends, romantic partners, and our kids. We may start to feel the pressure, struggle to create that same 'perfect' Holiday experience as everyone else, and then beat ourselves up if it doesn’t happen. Unfortunately, these impossible expectations can lead to negative self-talk that makes us feel inadequate and frustrated. We may start to feel alone in our relationships if we think we aren't making others happy.
How Loneliness Can Impact Our Health
Unfortunately, loneliness doesn't stop at a feeling we may experience- chronic or prolonged feelings of loneliness can actually have some pretty significant mental, emotional, and even physical effects on us. Below are some ways that loneliness impacts our health.
Weakened Immune System
Loneliness has been shown to lower the effectiveness of your immune system, which can contribute to a number of issues including chronic inflammation. When loneliness weakens the immune system, it can also raise norepinephrine levels in your body, leaving you more susceptible to viruses and other illnesses. Studies have even shown that vaccinations are less effective on those who are sad or lonely. So if you feel like you’re getting sick more when you’re lonely, it might not be your imagination!
Have you ever felt so lonely it made you sick to your stomach? Loneliness often involves feelings of depression and stress, which can affect digestion and gut health. When you become particularly upset, the body may assume you’re in danger. This can trigger the fight or flight response, which can put digestion on hold and lead to cramping, feeling queasy, or other stomach issues. There is also a reciprocal relationship at play between your gut and feelings- when your gut isn’t healthy, you can be more easily affected by feelings of loneliness as well.
Do you often feel tired when you’re lonely? There may be a reason! Research shows that loneliness may be connected to poor sleep. If you’re depressed or stressed due to loneliness, it could make falling asleep harder. However, it may actually be a vicious cycle in which loneliness can cause poor sleep, but poor sleep can also increase perceptions of loneliness and make it harder to see the positives in your current relationships. Either way, it’s worth trying to get better sleep if possible!
Can Worsen Mental Health Issues
Coping with a mental health issue is never easy and can often leave you feeling drained, misunderstood, overwhelmed, or like you’re a burden on those around you. Research shows that for those already struggling with mental health disorders like anxiety, depression, or ADHD, loneliness can cause these issues to intensify. Loneliness can even make you more aware and resentful of your mental health struggles. This is especially true over the Holidays when there is more pressure to be happy, socialize, and do things ‘perfectly’.
Poor Critical Thinking and Decision Making
You may think that how you make decisions is separate from feelings like loneliness, but loneliness can actually influence your executive functioning and cause indecisiveness and lower your ability to think critically. In more severe or prolonged cases of loneliness, especially in older adults, these feelings can cause significant cognitive decline and even dementia later in life.
Stress and Depression
Does loneliness make you feel stressed out? This could be because loneliness can cause your body to produce more cortisol, which your body typically releases whenever there is a temporary threat. Unfortunately, when the body is exposed to cortisol for a long period of time, it can cause anxiety and even contribute to the development of depression. The longer your loneliness lasts, the worse your stress and anxiety can get. So prolonged loneliness is definitely not something to ignore!
These are only a few physical and mental/emotional issues that can stem from loneliness. It can also contribute to problems such as headaches, sore shoulders, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, alcoholism, hypertension, heart issues, and even premature death in serious cases.
The Bottom Line
Although many of us experience loneliness, the Holiday season can bring up a lot of complex feelings about what we’re missing or what we think the Holidays "should" be like (such as family/friend-filled activities). It can leave us feeling anything but joyful and can even have a significant impact on our physical and mental health if not addressed.
No matter why you’re feeling lonely this Holiday season, remember that your feelings are nothing to be ashamed of. Don’t be afraid to reach out to those you care about for support. Loneliness is a normal experience, but it doesn’t need to be permanent.
If you’re worried that your loneliness is becoming unhealthy and you want to talk to a therapist, please reach out to one of our Barrie therapists or online counsellors! We would be happy to schedule a free 15 minute consultation or to book a full session with you. Our Affordable Therapy Program is also available for those who qualify, so make sure to check it out!
Our team of online and Barrie therapists provides quality and effective counselling & psychotherapy services in Barrie and virtually across Ontario to individuals (6+), couples and families. We also offer an Affordable Therapy Program that provides counselling services in Barrie to individuals (12+) who are facing financial challenges that need mental health support.