However for some people, Christmas can feel like one of those expectations versus reality memes we see on Pinterest. But instead of a shoddily constructed Gingerbread house, it’s the comparative lack of loved ones that can be most crushing.
“For a person who doesn’t have family close by or you don’t have strong social networks then all of the reminders really magnify to you that you are somehow different to everybody else, that you are missing out or something,” Rachel Bowes, Lifeline’s Head of Crisis Support, told Women’s Health.
Loneliness has been labelled an epidemic so pervasive it could be our next public health crisis with one in four Australians report feeling lonely at least one day a week. Feeling isolated has far reaching consequences for our physical and mental health, with research finding it can increase your risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline and even early death.
Given the added expectations of the festive season, mental health is particularly top of mind around Christmas time.
“Loneliness plays a massive and often adverse role in mental health,” Lysn psychologist Noosha Anzab told Women’s Health. “It can cause us to feel isolated and overwhelmed, often leading to increased distress due to negative thoughts and feelings. Loneliness risks distress in the forms of anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation and poor health behaviour like overeating, substance use, and poor sleep quality.”
Bowes describes it as a chicken or the egg situation.
“Sometimes [people] can be lonely because they have existing mental health problems that lead them to isolate themselves and pull away from their friends and family, so they already have some difficulties that mean they withdraw from people,” she explains. “But conversely, it can mean that people who are naturally quite socially isolated who get into a pattern of not really having contact with other people, they can gradually become quite depressed and quite withdrawn because of that social isolation and loneliness. It kind of works both ways, sometimes the mental health can create the loneliness and sometimes the loneliness can create the mental health problem.”
And while the heartbreaking scene of a solo octogenarian on Christmas morning might be what you’d imagine when you think of a lonely person, it’s not a wholly accurate reflection of the issue. In fact, 30 per cent of millennials say they always or often feel lonely, compared with 20 per cent of Gen X and 15 per cent of baby boomers, according to intel from data analytics firm YouGov. Meanwhile, nearly a quarter of millennials say they have no friends and Relationships Australia reveals that the highest rates of female social isolation are in the 25 to 29-year-old age bracket.
This comes as no surprise to experts like Bowes.
“We particularly live in a time when connection through social media is more prevalent than ever and there’s an assumption that means people have greater social connection and it’s actually quite often the opposite is true,” she says. “People can be connected to all kinds of people on social media but what they lack is a real sense of having a close and supportive group of people who you have a meaningful connection with.”
If this resonates with you, there are things you can do to cope with loneliness over Christmas.
1. Get planning
“Starting by increasing our social interactions on our own terms is a wonderful space to begin,” Anzab says. “Taking up social opportunities because you want to, and enjoy doing so (rather than unwillingly being dragged) is a great way to initiative.”
Bowes says recognising your situation and scheduling activities can help.
“Plan some outings to the museum or the cinema, or if you do have any close friends or one or two close contacts make some plans to meet them so you know you’ve got things in your calendar that you can look forward to, you’re not just waiting for difficult times to come up on you.”
2. Help others
“If you know you’re going to be on your own on Christmas day, Boxing day, New Year’s eve, there are things that you can do to engage yourself with other people,” Bowes says. “A lot of people choose to go and volunteer for a charity or to walk the dogs at the RSPCA so they feel like they’re proactively doing something to make someone else feel better or they’re contributing in some way. Those kinds of activities can be important.”
3. Manage your mindset
"Another really important point is to let down your boundaries in your thought processes - considering more optimistic scenarios versus worst case scenarios, or simply thanking your mind for thinking negatively in an attempt to gently banish the negative thoughts, can allow experiences such as Christmas to be welcomed with a more positive outlook rather than not," Anzab says.
4. Remember your support network
Even if it feels like you have no one in your life to listen, there are always options.
“It might be a number like Lifeline, it might be one or two people, it might be the use of online chat forums, people get their support in different ways so make a bit of a list of the different places you can go for support and make sure that you use them,” Bowes says.
On the flip side, there are many things you can do if you know someone who might be feeling lonely around this time of year.
"Absolutely reach out to them," Bowes says. "Most people know someone in their circle who have perhaps have family who live far away. Think about how you can connect with them, you might not need to invite them for Christmas lunch but can you arrange to catch up with them for dinner on Christmas eve or some other time over that period so they have a special occasion over Christmas to look forward to."
"It can make the difference between someone feeling like they’ve got no one and feeling like they've actually got someone who cares about them, are interested in them, and that’s really powerful."
If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health, see a medical professional and reach out to a support hotline:
Lifeline on 13 11 14
SANE on 1800 187 263
Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636