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Here's what's behind your holiday blues – and how to cope with loneliness this winter.

Dr. Linda Fried, dean of the Columbia School of Public Health, shares strategies to combat feelings of sadness and isolation, especially for women.
Portrait of a beautiful black woman drinking tea by window
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Ever feel lonely in a room full of people?

Feel disconnected at a long-awaited reunion?

Feel at a loss for meaningful connections?

Well, you’re not alone. And odds are, if you – or someone you care about – is experiencing that feeling, it could get worse during the holiday season, when what one needs may not be available and disappointment can be overwhelming.

Loneliness has become epidemic and the isolation we all endured during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated it, particularly for women.

Don’t ignore the warning signs of loneliness. We are wired to experience loneliness as a “signal” that one needs more meaningful connection to others, or to our community. It is healthy to recognize the feeling of loneliness and to seek to resolve it. While everyone feels lonely at times, chronic loneliness is more than just a bout of melancholy – it can have real consequences to your health. New research has demonstrated how loneliness can actually shorten your lifespan by over a year and a half. One startling analysis showed loneliness can have the same impact on your body as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It has also been linked to depression, dementia, high blood pressure and obesity.

Symptoms to watch for include:

  • Difficulty connecting with others, including on a more intimate level.
  • Feeling you have no close or best friends.
  • Feeling isolated or alienated regardless of where you are or who you are with.
  • Negative feelings of self-doubt or self-worth.
  • Feeling burned out when trying to engage with others.

There is ample evidence that Americans are getting lonelier: widespread loneliness has become a modern-day problem. We often associate loneliness with aging, but it can afflict people at all ages. While roughly half of all adults over the age of 80 experience loneliness, 71 percent of adolescents and young adults are also affected. In contrast with today’s estimates, in the 1970s, just 11 percent of people reported feeling lonely.

Public health experts, like myself, are developing new prevention strategies, including large-scale policy and program interventions, establishing ways to measure loneliness.

Until then, there are small but effective ways to address loneliness in ourselves and the people we care about:

Understand why you feel lonely

Feeling alone in a room full of people or while busily caring for your kids is just one kind of loneliness. The late, influential scientist Dr. John Cacioppo, Louise Hawkley and their teams identified three different categories:

  • Intimate loneliness, the lack of an intimate connection with another person.
  • Collective loneliness, the feeling of not having a place in the broader community.
  • Relational loneliness, the lack of quality friendships and family connections.

Determining the cause of your loneliness can help chart your course for guidance or help. Also, try and determine if you are lonely or suffering from isolation.

People who are lonely – described as an objective feeling of pain due to unmet needs for meaningful, satisfying connection to other people – report a distressing gap between their actual and desired relationships.

Social isolation is a quantifiable measure of social interactions and of being physically not in contact with other people. While they can be somewhat correlated, they do not always happen together, and the solutions may be different.

Make a resolution to volunteer in the coming year

Isolation and lack of fulfilling human contact can be gateways to loneliness. What better way to connect with others than through a shared goal or passion?

In a study of 10,000 volunteers in Britain, almost two-thirds agreed that volunteering helped them feel less isolated, particularly those ages 18 to 34. Volunteering can fill up your heart and your calendar, and make a meaningful bridge to others with shared interests. And the science backs this up: when you volunteer, your brain releases dopamine, the same feel-good chemical and sense you experience after a vigorous workout.

One example is the Experience Corps program, which I co-founded and co-designed, places teams of older volunteers in high-impact roles in public elementary schools to help improve children’s academic success. Eldera also brings generations together online, with older people befriending and mentoring children, with the permission of their parents.

Connect with others

There are endless ways to initiate connections with others to help alleviate loneliness (there’s nothing like a cup of coffee and a great conversation). Technology has made it possible to make this connection virtually anywhere in the world.

Alternatively, if you are feeling a yen for a traditional holiday experience, you may receive great pleasure writing a holiday card to a far-away friend or someone with whom you have lost touch. You can jump start the new year by enrolling in a new club, for example expanding your passions, your friends and acquaintances in a book club, a walking chorus or pickleball group. Find public spaces to read a book– you may still feel lonely, but you will feel less isolated.

Consider getting a pet

No doubt it is a big commitment, but there is evidence that pet owners were 36 percent less likely than non-pet owners to report feeling lonely. Spending time with a pet can release endorphins, which reduce levels of stress. Cats can be terrific companions in your home, and dogs can serve that purpose and get you outside where you could meet people.

Before you take the step, be honest with yourself about how much time and energy you have and the commitment you are prepared to make. Dog sitting or borrowing a pet for walks may be a more realistic – but also effective – option. Also, consider adopting an older pet – they usually require less rigorous training and are forever grateful.

Identify local support services

As public health experts are becoming more engaged in the epidemic of loneliness, many programs are being established in local communities. They can be very helpful to you or someone you care about. For instance, Montreal has a call center program with trained volunteers to listen to lonely people. Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers recently declared Nov. 13-19 as Social Isolation & Loneliness Awareness Week in the state to bring new initiatives.

Open your door to people who will be alone

Think Friendsgiving. Create a holiday with others who are likely to be alone or invite someone to participate in your family’s holiday traditions. They will enjoy the festivities and you will have given them a memorable holiday gift.

Be good to yourself

During the holiday season we often mourn both the people we have lost and the traditions that we celebrated with them. As hard as it might sound, try to create your own traditions. Christmas morning helping out at a food kitchen. A Thanksgiving eve massage. A favorite movie. A walk each day. Give someone or yourself the gift of a class to learn a new skill. It’s a great place to meet people and your new talent will give you the gift of satisfaction. Remember, be kind to yourself. Practice self-care. You deserve it.

Talk to a therapist

If you are anticipating a difficult holiday season, get ahead of it and try to see a therapist or physician in advance. If that’s not possible, confide in a friend or loved one. At best, you will get strategies to help yourself; at the least, by sharing your fears, you will surely feel less alone.

Go into the office

We have become accustomed to our remote and virtual lives. If you have an office to go to, get dressed and go in. You might be surprised by the office camaraderie that many of us took for granted and now miss. Remote work can be isolating, and being in the office means being around people.

Expand your friendships across generations

Mingling with new friends who are older or younger than you can add more richness and diversity to your relationships. Also, consider innovative co-housing opportunities, such as renting a spare room to a college student. Generations United has created such programs.

Remember, if you are experiencing loneliness, you’re not alone. There are resources and experts who can help.