From volunteering to virtual social events where you can meet new people, here’s what can help

To say that the last 18 months have taken a toll on our mental health would be an understatement. After lockdowns, social distancing and limits on travel and gatherings, it comes as no surprise that people have felt especially isolated, particularly in areas with a higher concentration of younger people and higher rates of unemployment (according to this ONS study). 

This sense of loneliness still lingers on for many – it’s going to take a while for our minds to catch up with new freedoms – and it can be intensified by the time of year. Anxiety and depression can worsen at Christmas, as well as other major holidays (also known as the ‘holiday blues’ or ‘holiday loneliness’), making it hard to manage your mental health amidst the pressure to ‘be merry.’ 

What can help? We spoke to mental health experts about how to spend Christmas alone, finding ways to celebrate it on your own terms and how to seek out connection within your local community and beyond.

Is Christmas depression the same as seasonal depression?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that comes and goes in seasonal patterns, whereas Christmas depression comes about during the festive period. There can be an overlap between them though if you experience SAD during November and December. 

What can cause Christmas depression? 

The reasons can be extremely wide-ranging and of course, personal. 

“Such episodes are often connected to the trigger of Christmas being a family time,” award-winning psychologist Natasha Tiwari tells us. “For the lucky ones, family time is wonderful; but for those less fortunate, family time, and memories of Christmas family time, can be fraught with anxiety, drama and upset.” 

“Christmas can be an intensely lonely time. For those who are already suffering loneliness throughout the year, the inescapable emphasis on everyone’s togetherness can make the isolation sting even further.”

How to cope with loneliness at Christmas 

1. Map it out 

For many, loneliness at Christmas isn’t just limited to the day itself. With bank holidays and long weekends, it can come as a shock for many when they realise that they may be alone for a longer stretch of time than originally thought. With that in mind, Dr Mani Krishnan, chair of the Faculty of Old Age at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, recommends mapping it out in the weeks beforehand so that it doesn’t take you by surprise. It can also be helpful for seeing where you might like to put plans in place for essentials such as grocery deliveries. 

“Awareness of how long you’re going to be alone is really important,” he says. When it’s all set out in front of you, this could give you a greater sense of control, helping change the narrative so that the power is more in your hands. “Building awareness that this may be a tricky time and acknowledging that emotion is a healthy thing,” says Dr Krishnan. 

2. Reach out

COVID-19 has meant that the space between us, physically and metaphorically, feels like it's never been greater. Don’t let that be a barrier to getting in touch with friends and family. “It’s okay to reach out,” says Dr Krishnan. “Some people may have assumptions about contacting someone if they haven’t spoken in 18 months, wondering if they’d want to take their call or talk to them. It can be helpful to bear in mind that whoever is on the other end of the line may be in the same situation as you and having similar feelings of loneliness as well.”

Be open and honest. “No one really asks if others are going to be okay during Christmas, and so sometimes you just need to call a spade a spade and say that you’re going to be spending it alone,” says Dr Krishnan. “If you tell someone that, there’s more of a chance that they’ll reach back out to you.” 

3. Volunteer

Wondering what to do if you’re alone on Christmas Day? You might enjoy donating some of your time to a worthy cause. 

“Beyond those already in your life, you may also wish to find a way to volunteer with others who are in need; both a rewarding way to spend time, but also to bring some connection into your life,” suggests Natasha Tiwari. Acts of giving and kindness can also create positive feelings and a sense of reward, feeling of purpose and self-worth to improve your mental wellbeing.

Whether it’s volunteering at a soup kitchen, food bank, collecting money for charity or carol singing in your local care home, there are lots of activities to get involved with during the festive period, which provides a great way to connect with your local community and help others.

What’s more, there’s a certain level of camaraderie that comes with spending time with other volunteers who share a joint sense of purpose. You may find people who are also spending parts of the Christmas period alone. “At one community centre I went to, I saw some of the volunteers who came alone got together for a meal afterwards,” recalls Dr Krishnan. “Suggest reuniting over dinner perhaps and bring your skills to the table, so to speak. For instance, if a member of your party can’t drive, cook something instead (or vice-versa).” Not only will that increase your own sense of community, but it’s also a great way to share your talents or resources with others. 

If you’re looking for somewhere to volunteer this Christmas, try:

• The Trussell Trust – whether volunteering at a local food bank or collecting donations, there are a range of ways that you can help.

• Re-engage – volunteer your time to become a ‘call companion’ to help the lonely elderly at Christmas and speak to and wish someone a happy Christmas.

NHS Check In and Chat – provide simple yet vital phone support to people at a heightened risk of loneliness.

One Another – a free platform that helps you to do small acts of kindness within your community. – recommended by the charity Mind for finding volunteering opportunities in the UK.

National Council for Voluntary Organisations – provides information about volunteering opportunities including details of local centres.

4. Socialise virtually

Making new online connections can be a helpful way to add more social contact in your life. Here are two great options to try:

Citysocializer – a virtual events platform that has a handy Friend Match feature to help you connect, chat online with others and get to know new people through shared social experiences. 

#JoinIn – Comedian Sarah Millican brings a dose of much-needed joy to social media with her annual Twitter campaign that acts as the perfect ice-breaker for bringing people who are alone on Christmas Day, together. 

5. Maintain healthy habits

When you’re feeling low, it can be extremely difficult to do things. If you know that can sometimes happen, getting into a good routine in the lead up to the festive period may help – and keep it simple. “Eat healthily, sleep adequately and get regular movement,” says Dr Krishnan. “Sometimes during stressful times, we hit pause on the things that feed the cycle.” If you’re having trouble sleeping, you may find our guides to the best sleep aids and how to find motivation to workout helpful.

Getting outdoors is also a key recommendation of Dr Krishnan’s for helping clear your mind. “Sometimes taking a time out helps,” he says. “If you’re always in the house, every room might feel Christmassy. Shops may also be full of decorations, so being out in the open air gives you a change of scenery to focus on.”

6. Do things on your terms & celebrate your resilience

Looking back on moments where you've got through hard times can be a helpful way of moving forward. “If you find that you’re going to be alone this Christmas, remind yourself that you’ve seen lots of Christmasses in your life and, while this one may seem different, you have a repertoire of tools and plans in place to help you overcome the difficulties of the day,” says Dr Krishnan. This can help reduce some of the stress and create motivation to make plans that you’ll actually enjoy. “Enjoy the day on your terms,” says Dr Krishnan. 

7. Be compassionate

Not just to others, but to yourself. “If you’re alone and feeling a bit rubbish, that’s okay!” says Dr Krishnan. “There’s no point being so kind to others and so cruel to ourselves.” Take each day slowly and don’t put too much pressure on yourself to have a good time.

8. Speak to someone

“Most importantly, if the pain of loneliness and isolation is overwhelming you, speak to someone you trust and/or your GP about your feelings. You don’t need to suffer alone,” advises Natasha Tiwari. Talking therapies may help if you’re struggling. A GP can refer you, or you can refer yourself directly to an NHS psychological therapies service (IAPT) without a referral too. 

Another useful resource is Side by Side, Mind’s online community that provides a safe place to listen, share and be heard for an extra helping hand should you need it and is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also visit the NHS’s Every Mind Matters website which also has a range of advice and practical tips to help you find what works best for you.