Most of us have experienced loneliness around the festive and holiday season at some point in our lives, whether we were really alone during the festival or surrounded by family. And this year is likely to be no different, if not worse.
The Covid-19 pandemic, which turned our lives upside down, has affected our mental health in different ways. It will also impact the way we celebrate the upcoming festivals through the rest of the year. Durga Puja and Navratri are around the corner, followed by Diwali and Bhai Doojh. And then it will be the end of the year and time for Christmas and New Year.
While some of us are away from family and friends and unable to travel, others may be longing for a break from their families and the same four walls. Some are stuck in abusive homes, with little autonomy over their lives and decisions. Others may have experienced mental health concerns and feel worse during the noise and bustle of festivals. It’s tempting to disappear into our social media timelines, but the glossy photos and ad campaigns, interspersed with distressing snatches of news, may only provide temporary comfort.
“Mental health in general has been globally affected due to Covid. For those who cannot spend the holidays as they usually do with loved ones, or those of us who have experienced a Covid-related loss, things could feel more raw around this time,” said psychotherapist Arpita Bohra.
While the festive season leading to the end of the year is generally a busy time for mental health professionals, this year has been more packed than usual. Our collective mental health has been so affected this year, with people out of jobs, businesses shutting down and the slew of bad news, that many mental health professionals are unable to take on more new clients.
Psychologist Tanya Vasunia said she definitely thinks people are already experiencing loneliness, “Currently, we are roughly a month away from Diwali, and the majority of my colleagues are no longer taking clients. In the recent weeks there has been a marked increase in the number of individuals reaching out for mental health support. Many of whom are overseas or in other states in India and cannot get back home or are afraid to travel or infect loved ones with Covid.”
Vasunia also said that a number of clients reach out to her towards the end of the year as the holiday season begins.
“While a majority of them reach out because they notice a dip in mood and energy levels (both of which can be consequences of loneliness) some do come in with the awareness that they are lonely and feeling low because of it,” she added.
“Instagram and Facebook are filled with stories and pictures of people playing cards, dressing up. For a young adult or an elderly citizen who don’t have family in the same city or who have no family, period, these ideas heighten their sense of loneliness.””
Why do we feel lonely during the holiday season?
The experts told HuffPost India that popular culture and accepted social norms—that festivals will be a time of perfect happiness and merry-making, with new clothes and shiny gifts—raise our expectations and anxieties.
“The holiday season often comes with a set of popularly agreed upon manners in which one engages with their surroundings and spends time with close ones. Often, it can also be a not-so-subtle reminder for people of what is missing from their lives in terms of partners, friends, families and communities at large. Our mind tends to evaluate how closely our circumstances resemble the popular expectations of what celebrating festivals looks like and when we find there to be a mismatch, it increases our sense of loneliness,” said clinical psychologist Ila Kulsreshtha.
Holiday season is also a time that we spend in spaces that may not be emotionally safe for us. Often, our families, relationships or marriages don’t allow for us to express ourselves and our vulnerabilities. The focus is just on having fun and keeping things pleasant.
“It’s also unlikely that during this festive time, we can actually sit down and have conversations about how we are actually experiencing the holidays because often the focus is on having a good time to the exclusion of any other counter-narratives. It’s very common for people to wish they were somewhere else, with someone else, or that their family members were behaving differently. Statistics show that crisis helplines abroad actually experience an increase in volume of calls during the Christmas/ New Year season,” said Bohra.
For those of us living alone, getting bombarded with visuals of happy people through television ads and social media can leave us feeling like we are missing out on a special day.
Vasunia said that with Diwali around the corner, “Confectionary companies will release advertisements showing families enjoying chocolates and sweets together; clothing companies talk about buying new clothes to celebrate with friends and families, Instagram and Facebook are filled with stories and pictures of people playing cards, dressing up. For a young adult or an elderly citizen who don’t have family in the same city or who have no family, period, these ideas heighten their sense of loneliness.”
How do we make ourselves feel better?
While it’s best to seek professional help if the feelings of loneliness are affecting daily lives and activities, the experts suggested the following tips to help cope with this season.
Be aware of your feelings
If you know you’re prone to feeling lonely around this time of the year, it would probably help to have more awareness about how you feel. Bohra quotes author Genene Roth, who has written extensively on eating disorders, to illustrate this point—‘Awareness is learning to keep yourself company.’ Take a few moments to really sense where your loneliness is coming from and what kind of care and connection you are wishing for underneath the loneliness. See how you can support meeting that need.
Acknowledge the feelings
Our first reaction towards feelings perceived as negative is to suppress them. Kulsreshtha suggested that we instead acknowledge them, and manage our expectations. She said, “Moving away from how we are “supposed to” feel to accepting how we really feel can take some of the pressure off and make us feel lighter. Reducing the pressure to resemble the “ideal” holiday can sometimes also allow space for new standards to develop! Stay away from social media content that brings you down.”
““Doing acts of kindness not only boosts our mood and motivation but also makes us feel more connected.””
Have a routine
Sometimes our coping mechanisms can take the form of sleeping too much, or drowning ourselves in work. Vasunia suggested that sticking to a routine because it affects our mindset. “Ensure along with work you make time for exercise and doing something other than cleaning and cooking! A balanced lifestyle helps keep your mood positive,” she said.
Be kind to yourself
Bohra said we need to show ourselves kindness and compassion by figuring out how we can be good company to ourselves. “This could mean that you do small things differently. Like closing the conversation with a certain relative before it gets heated, even when they provoke you, setting better boundaries around time, or ensuring you get support for your stressful moments,” she said.
Be kind to others as well
Kulsreshtha suggested helping people by delivering groceries or sweets, writing letters to people telling them you’re thinking about them and so on. She said, “Doing acts of kindness not only boosts our mood and motivation but also makes us feel more connected.”
While such acts of kindness can be personal, you can also volunteer at a charitable organisation to lift your spirits. Vasunia said, “Volunteer your time to help those who are struggling. It is almost a guaranteed way to feel better. Even taking time out and going downstairs and feeding the strays animals will be helpful.”
If you’ve been avoiding Zoom parties, this may be the time to schedule one with people you love and feel comfortable with. Kulsreshta said, “While the pandemic requires us to maintain physical distance from each other, we do not have to let it translate into social and emotional distance.”
Organising such a call and getting the people you love to come together may also help.
“Perhaps you could organise a Zoom call antakshari/ movie night or a family history quiz. It could be ensuring you take the holidays to actually catch up with your family/ loved ones and truly hear how everyone is doing,” said Bohra.
Meet your neighbours
Some people prefer not to meet their neighbours due to lack of time or fear of discomfort. Vasunia suggested this may be a good time to finally make some connections in the neighbourhood.
“It might be awkward but it is helpful. Since Covid restricts movement, many people cannot leave their apartments to a large extent. You are stuck with the people in your building so might as well make the most of it. Swap recipes, discuss hygiene tips, anything that makes you feel comfortable, the face-to-face interaction will help with feeling less isolated and lonely.”