The most wonderful time of the year
The loneliest time?
Holidays can trigger a variety of emotions, from contentment to stress. If already predisposed, the cycle of loneliness may feel even more isolating this time of year.
Robin Marantz Henig, in the Science of Loneliness from Psychology Today, defined loneliness as difficulty controlling emotions, making decisions and interacting with others. It is a discrepancy between one’s perceived social situation and the actual, commonly put as feeling alone in a crowded room. “The opposite of loneliness would be feeling connected to others,” Hannah McKinney, intern with Women in Action (WIA), suggested.
Humans have been surviving in the company of others since the beginning. In fact, organizing in a collective was a crucial component of survival. John Cacioppo, founder and director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, spoke to this point in a TedX talk in Des Moines, Iowa in 2013. He linked aversive signals, like hunger and thirst, to complementary actions, like eating or drinking.
Cacioppo described loneliness like either of these, but instead of reacting to a physical threat, the body is responding to a social one. The stigmatization of loneliness leads to people rejecting the feeling and ignoring the symptoms. Beginning here, a cycle of loneliness and negativity strengthens each element. A study done by Cacioppo showed people self-identified as lonely responded to negative images more quickly when shown a slideshow of pictures.
Negativity was strongly associated with both loneliness and neuroticism, in the 2017 study. Loneliness was also found to be modestly heritable, without a genome-wide connection and with a strong correlation to neuroticism and depression. Negativity manifests in the form of stress, triggering a fight-or-flight response alleviated by contact with others. Elevated stress levels result in aggravated sleeping patterns, to which Alzheimer’s has been linked.
Given how closely related stress, negativity and loneliness are, the holiday season exacerbates these symptoms. “Being anxious or overwhelmed are pretty common things that tend to arise this time of year,” Melissa Brummell, director of Madison County Public Health Department, explained. People are worried about buying extra food and presents, entertaining a full house and the pressure to be social. “It gets really dark outside and that can have physiological effects on us. For another (reason), you might be seeing family members or relatives you may not get along with, or haven’t seen in a long time,” McKinney said.
“I feel like one aspect of what makes holidays difficult is our expectations. For a lot of folks it’s sort of a fairytale you have in your head of what a family is supposed to look like at Christmas or Hanukkah,” Amanda Beedy Morrison, licensed LCPC, LAC and NCC counselor, described. A person suffering with loneliness may look around and think the people they see have that fairytale perfection, and do not understand why they are unable to attain the same thing.
Morrison takes November and early December to strategize with her clients. “If you can get yourself into a good place before going into the holidays, you can be more resilient,” Morrison said. Having a plan in place takes much of the stress and anxiety out of the holiday season. For example, “if our mother-in-law tends to pressure us at dinner about when we are having kids and we find this stressful, it helps to have some kind of game-plan for making a boundary, or having our partner run interference so it doesn’t ruin our dinner,” Morrison said. McKinney mentioned boundary setting as well, as a way to ensure you are listening to yourself and to your own needs.
Close-knit communities have many resources and options for people to use to connect. “Connection is sort of at the base of everything. I think we’re hardwired to want connection with others, and I think one of everyone’s core fears is that they’re alone. It sparks everything inside of people,” Morrison said, illustrating one of Cacioppo’s points.
Whether community to an individual means one person or one dozen, there are ways to get help and provide help. “I think a lot of times it is just being open and asking that person, ‘How are you doing? What can I do to help?’” Brummell said. The important distinction is in the latter question, asking specifically how to help, not leaving it as a yes or no question.
McKinney encourages people to ask, how do I feel loneliness and how do I feel connection? “There’s no solution for everyone. I think it’ll change for every person, depending on what loneliness means to them,” she explained. “Reach out to the people you know, your support group,” Brummell added. Cacioppo challenges us to listen to the signals of loneliness the next time they arise. Do not ignore the feeling, get connected.