The Holidays Could Feel Lonelier This Year Due to COVID-19, Here's How to Cope

holiday loneliness

Joshua Seong / Verywell

Key Takeaways

  • The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has presented new challenges for the holiday season.
  • Loneliness and seasonal affective disorder pose real threats to mental health, especially when people can't see their families.
  • Technology can bridge the gap for families who can’t connect with loved ones.

The holiday season can be a lonely time for many people. This year, however, there's an extra hurdle. With states debating shutting down, Americans are grappling with the challenge of creating memories and fostering togetherness without spreading COVID-19, which will prevent them from celebrating with their loved ones. Beyond that, over 240,000 people have died, with some losing multiple family members.

Lara Schuster Effland, LICSW, clinical director of Pathlight Mood and Anxiety Center, says that her clients are already feeling apprehensive. She explains, “This year especially, we’re really seeing how communication and connection is paramount.” The evidence is that rates of depression and anxiety have already tripled in the US since the start of the pandemic.

Older people are isolated, either in retirement communities or in their own homes, and college students and parents of young children may rethink traveling to see family. A study in the Journal of Pediatrics finds that children and young adults up to age 22 are often “silent spreaders” of COVID-19.

For the sake of controlling the pandemic, celebrations may be smaller than one may be accustomed to. Despite the fact that the holidays may look different, they can still be festive and inclusive. 

Keep Communication Going 

Cheri Slack of New Jersey typically hosts large functions for Thanksgiving and Christmas. This year, she’ll be adjusting to the absence of many in her family, including three out-of-state children and her daughter, who is deployed in the Navy.

“Instead of a table for 12 for Thanksgiving, it will be my husband and me. My children won’t be traveling home, and my father-in-law, who is on dialysis with ancillary breathing issues, is under strict doctor's orders to stay home,” Slack shares. She’ll deliver a light version of her traditional feast to several in her family instead.

“The saddest part for me is that last Christmas our entire family was here, and I was quarantined with 102.4 fever. A few months later, I found out that I have COVID antibodies.” Slack’s decision to separate herself from her family may have been lifesaving, if that fever had indeed been caused by COVID-19.

Take Advantage of Technology

For families like Slack’s who have out-of-state loved ones, technology will be crucial to helping keep family traditions alive. Many will be lighting the menorah together via Zoom and opening Christmas gifts on FaceTime with immunocompromised family members. Nursing homes and retirement communities have been accommodating families who wish to communicate with isolated loved ones. 

Lara Schuster Effland, LICSW

Taking a moment to really connect with someone, talking about shared interests or fond memories, even if it's online, can help remind us of good times and what makes us happy.

— Lara Schuster Effland, LICSW

Schuster Effland expresses that staying connected to loved ones will be important for times when you feel the sadness of quarantine. She says, “taking a moment to really connect with someone, talking about shared interests or fond memories, even if it's online, can help remind us of good times and what makes us happy.”

Practice Self Care 

Coping looks different for everyone, and needs vary depending on the state of one's emotional and physical health. For those who may not have major health concerns, Schuster Effland recommends, “spending time in nature can absolutely be helpful. Getting exercise, even a short head-clearing walk, can help you to reset. Being sure to drink enough water and doing your best to eat well-balanced foods can also help you manage stress.” 

Embrace Intuitive Eating

Jon Clinthorne, PhD, a nutritional scientist and the nutrition communications manager for Atkins, explains what that balance could look like, "While food alone can’t reduce your risk of depression, there are certain nutrients in foods that play a key role in boosting mood. One of the major vitamins is vitamin D and between thirty and forty percent of Americans have low levels of this crucial vitamin. Foods high in vitamin D include salmon, certain mushrooms, and eggs."

Clinthorne continues, "Another important nutrient for the brain is folate, a B vitamin that aids in neurotransmitter production. Foods rich in folate include spinach and asparagus. A low-carb lifestyle easily includes all of these foods.”

Pay Attention to Your Mood and Mindset

For those who suffer from seasonal affective disorder, self care may mean seeing a professional for symptom management. SAD is seasonal depression that creeps in when the days get dark earlier and the temperatures begin to drop.

For those battling seasonal blues, heading off symptoms could include prescription medication, cognitive behavioral therapy, or a vitamin D supplement, since a deficiency can be tied to depressive symptoms. Artificial light is a commonly prescribed treatment for SAD.

Amy Morin, LCSW

Keeping a positive attitude could make a big difference in how everyone feels. Send a message that says you're doing the best you can with the circumstances you have this year.

— Amy Morin, LCSW

Amy Morin, LCSW, a psychotherapist and Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind, emphasizes the importance of positive psychology during these times. "Keeping a positive attitude could make a big difference in how everyone feels. Send a message that says you're going to the best you can with the circumstances you have this year."

She also suggests establishing a course of action for yourself to help you stay grounded. "Develop a plan for how you'll spend the holidays ahead of time, even if it means staying home and watching movies by yourself. Knowing what you're going to do can remove some of the dread and ease your loneliness if you're going to be alone," says Morin.

Alleviate the Potential Effects of Touch Deprivation

Managing touch deprivation can also be important, since this could exacerbate loneliness. Research from the University of Miami shows that touch has physiological and biochemical effects. One study states, “The effects include decreased heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol, and increased oxytocin.” Without touch, like the hugs given out around the holidays, individuals could become depressed and suffer adverse health effects.

The study reveals that giving yourself a massage can be beneficial. Vibration could also potentially stave off the negative effects associated with being alone as well as touch deprivation. Early this year, the wearable Apollo Neuro was debuted, and it uses vibration for mood regulation and anxiety relief. It is currently being tested in research-backed clinical trials as a tool for alleviating the symptoms of treatment-resistant PTSD.

Touch deprivation can also be alleviated through a weighted blanket, which is often used to battle anxiety and depression. A weighted blanket may be a more affordable option, one that has been helpful for those with sensory processing disorders and autism.

Practice Gratitude 

Schuster Effland says that practicing daily gratitude can break you out of a rut. She explains, “focus on what you feel grateful for, moments you can savor and enjoy, and try something new. If we can embrace what we do have and also invite new things into our lives, regardless of what that may be, it can be enough to feel lighter and brighter. Think about, and even write down, the things that you do have and that you’re thankful for.” 

Practicing gratitude could also look like giving back, since volunteering is another meaningful way to put things in perspective. Many studies have been conducted that confirm that volunteering can improve overall health and wellbeing. “If there’s a way you can give back, whether it’s donating time or money, that can also make us feel more connected to the world and more positive.” 

Try New Activities and Get Creative

Gaby Sundra, a couples counselor and the co-founder of Relationship Fun & Games, emphasizes play as an essential tool to battle loneliness, whether you are single or in a relationship. She explains, “Quarantine can give you time for a much needed recess, and play—be it online or in person—has been shown to improve focus, sleep, and creativity."

Lack of play in relationships can cause loneliness, crankiness, interpersonal conflicts, and depression. Activities she recommends include joining an online community for individuals with shared interests, learning something new, and virtual game nights with friends or family.

Gaby Sundra, Relationship Coach

Quarantine can give you time for a much needed recess, and play—be it online or in person—has been shown to improve focus, sleep, and creativity.

— Gaby Sundra, Relationship Coach

Holiday activities, even if done in different homes, can still be inclusive of those who are isolated. Sundra recommends, “Tap into your creative side. Is there a poem or a painting inside you possibly? There's plenty of free classes online right now. Host a craft challenge virtual party. Send out a list of supplies and where to get them to your friends and family, schedule a time, get on a video conference and make them together.”

Many DIY workshops are now being conducted virtually, and some shops are selling kits that are sent by mail with instructions. Businesses like Painting with a Twist and AR Workshops, which have had to adjust their business models because of the pandemic, are offering kits for private parties or even Zoom parties. Creating ornaments or even cookie baking led by Grandma can be a fun, socially-distanced activity. 

Accept Reality and Find the Silver Lining

Cheri Lockett has tried to have a positive outlook on this year, despite her family possibly not being able to travel. Instead, this year's challenges may create a new, fun tradition.

She explains, "Our family is scattered across the country, but we can still enjoy some family fun. Our annual gingerbread house contest is now virtual, and each participate will have to get a pre-assembled gingerbread house from a store near them. Then we'll decorate them and share via Zoom on December 12th, and then we'll vote via social media the next week." Lockett's children are now adults, so she anticipates this new tradition sticking around as they leave the home.

This positive outlook is helping her to cope with potentially not visiting her 80-year-old father and stepmother.

What This Means for You

The holiday season can still be fulfilling despite social distancing requirements. This year just may take more planning and the use of technology in order for loved ones to feel connected and less lonely. As always, if you're struggling with your mental health, never hesitate to ask for help or reach out to a mental health professional.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Tonya Russell
Tonya Russell is a Philadelphia-based journalist with a passion for mental health, wellness, and culture. When she isn't writing, she's training for a marathon or riding horses.