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Winter Blues and Loneliness: Resilience During the Holidays

A Personal Perspective: Resilience means moving forward, despite setbacks.

Key points

  • Building resilience helps you navigate the challenges of loneliness and exclusion, especially around holidays.
  • Anniversaries of any kind can be tough for the recently separated or bereaved. Attitude adjustment is needed.
  • Nostalgia and heartache makes it hard for those navigating loneliness to engage in merriment around them.
  • Resilience is the mental capacity to withstand difficulties and recover from them quickly. It takes atttide
Unsplash/Monika Borys
Forced cheer can feel awful for some.
Source: Unsplash/Monika Borys

The days are getting shorter, which some people love. Others hate it because seasonal blues are starting to set in. The Holidays are upon us—Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year’s Eve—yet you find yourself alone amidst the celebrations. You can barely bring yourself to think ahead to Valentine’s Day.

The winter months are traditionally associated with warmth and togetherness, but they can take a poignant turn for those who find themselves navigating the labyrinth of loneliness. Festive lights may illuminate the streets and treacly music echoes in the air, yet you are grappling with a profound sense of isolation this time of year.

Perhaps you are single and no one has invited you to the holiday parties you know are happening through the grapevine. Or perhaps you are widowed and it is the first season managing it alone. Anniversaries of any kind, especially holiday ones, can be tough for the recently bereaved. For them, festivities are a painful reminder of an empty space at the table or the absence of a familiar voice or footfalls. A mixture of nostalgia and heartache makes it hard for grieving individuals to engage in the merriment around them.

It takes resilience to face numerous reminders that you now must confront the future alone without accustomed companionship or support. It is easy to feel left out and sorry for yourself. But take heart in knowing that many people feel let down and blue this time of year, too.

There is nothing wrong with being single or alone—it is merely a different state from being coupled. Why let your happiness be contingent on the absence or presence of someone else?

Cultural expectations want us to engage with company during the crush of winter holidays—if not with a romantic companion then at least with friends or family. Even the most optimistic and outgoing singleton can feel pressured by the force of tradition that insists everyone enjoy a cornucopia of communal cheer.

Resilience is the mental capacity to withstand difficulties and recover from them quickly. It is the opposite of brooding. Developing this spiritual toughness requires an adjustment of attitude. All emotion depends on comparison, and what people in a negative funk typically do is compare themselves upward to others who have something they do not, such as familiar companionship and the surety of being wanted in a larger group.

Building resilience helps you navigate the challenges of loneliness and exclusion. Instead of an upward comparison of what you aren’t getting, try comparing yourself downward with an attitude of, “This isn’t so bad. It could be worse.”

Thanksgiving is a potent perch from which to count your blessings, especially when comparing yourself to the conflict and misery that is happening in the world right now. Again, realistically: this isn’t so bad, it could be worse.

Instead of brooding, put yourself out there. Everybody has someplace to go, even if only with the crowd on the street. Don’t worry about not having anyone in tow, just enjoy yourself. There is nothing more attractive than the sight of someone enjoying themself.

The secret to regulating your mood is that by feigning cheer your mood will turn cheerful. A fundamental theory of emotion comes from the question to a songbird, “Do you sing because you are happy, or are you happy because you sing?”

The James–Lang theory of emotion promulgated a century ago says that the answer is the latter. It shows how little effort it takes to cheer yourself up. Step outside and say “Hi” to passersby. Do it with a smile, and you will find smiles returned to you, underscoring how we all belong to a deep web of humanity.

Walk in the evening and savor the smell of neighborhood fireplaces burning. Participate in life around you. Once you make this tiny step, try singing out loud to yourself. As silly as it might seem, you will be amazed at how it makes you feel because loneliness is conquered by the simplest acts of reaching out. Everywhere there is a look or a smile if only you are willing to see it. It is just as easy to put yourself in the frame as it is to stand outside it and feel sorry for yourself.

Complaints of having no place to go or nobody to talk to are often a delusion of people who refuse to see what their options really are. They turn down what company is offered because it doesn’t meet their ideals. Such a swatting away only guarantees you’ll end up alone. Accept what company others are willing to offer and make yourself pleasant to be with by being friendly or at least a good ear.

Instead of fighting circumstances, admit that the past isn’t going to change. Let things happen in their own time; worrying about the future only spoils what is happening right now.

More from Richard E. Cytowic M.D.
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