I am someone who’s family, because of Covid-19, won’t all be together this Christmas. I haven’t seen some of my friends who live off island for a long time. Many of you will be in the same boat. If you’d have told me this back in March, I’d have laughed – I sort of thought it would all be over by June. June rolled around and I thought that by September surely things will be different. September came, and went. I’m still (naively) holding onto the hope that things might have improved by Christmas, but with every passing day that looks like a slimmer possibility. Whilst I’m still incredibly lucky that I have a lot of my family and friends at home for Christmas, things won’t be the same. My sister is my best friend, and it’ll be the first Christmas we’ve spent apart – I still don’t know when I’ll be seeing her again.
Many of us will have heard about the effect being lonely has on our mental health. Humans are inherently social creatures and reduced social interactions can lead to symptoms of anxiety, depression and reduced cognitive functioning. Perhaps the most interesting thing about how loneliness relates to mental health is that it’s not just social isolation – it’s whether we perceive ourselves as being lonely. Just because we’re in a room with people, it doesn’t mean we feel connected to them. If we think we’re lonely, these effects on our mental health are just as pronounced as someone who is experiencing social isolation.
It’s also not just our mental health, it’s our physical health – perceived loneliness can cause heart troubles and a weakened immune system. Research suggests the reason loneliness has such an impact is because without social interaction, we experience higher levels of stress, poorer sleep and engage in more unhealthy lifestyle choices, each of which impacts our mental and physical wellbeing. The longer we experience all this for, the worse it is. All of this paints a bleak picture when we think of this in terms of a global pandemic where the main strategies to manage outbreaks are social distancing, lockdowns and border closures.
Loneliness is the highest it’s been since the start of the pandemic in the UK, and young people are the most affected. So, how do we tackle feeling lonely during a time that is often know as being a holiday spent with loved ones? I read a suggestion that people alone for Christmas should try doing a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle – from someone who’s family did this over lockdown, the reality is it will take you many more hours than one day and cause you immense amounts of frustration, which is perhaps not an ideal way to spend a holiday.
Feeling lonely is tricky but it can be tackled by communication – research has shown it doesn’t actually make a lot of difference how we do it, whether that’s face-to-face, video or phone calls, or just a quick text; the benefits are the same. If you’re separated from family or friends this Christmas, try and make actual plans – a virtual Christmas quiz, cooking together over video calls, watching the same movie, even opening presents while on the phone – and stick to them. You could take a card, or something baked to your neighbours who you know might be lonely this year. Don’t be afraid to say yes if someone invites you to spend time with them. Talk about how you’re actually feeling and invite others to share too. The benefit of things like this is not only are you helping yourself, but you’re also helping others too which has been shown to improve our mental health.
The other things we can do to tackle feeling lonely are great tips for taking care of our mental health the rest of the time too. Focusing on finding joy in our everyday lives, whether that be writing down everything that’s made you happy that day or trying something new, looking at all the decorations or letting yourself have a duvet day. Exercise (especially outdoors) can really help – that doesn’t mean running a marathon, even just a quick walk. It can be difficult in winter because most of the time it’s dark, cold and wet, so try to get out in the daylight hours at least a few times a week. Most importantly, it’s taking care of yourself. Make time in your day to eat and drink properly, try to get enough sleep and take a bath or shower.
The end of 2020 is probably going to feel a bit different than any other year. It might present more of a mixed bag of feelings than usual. When I was thinking about how to end this article, the only thing I could think of is a bit cliché and cheesy – but as we all know, if there’s any time for a bit of cheese it’s Christmas. We’ve all experienced what can only be described as a whirlwind of a year; but we’ve done so together. We took every day as it came, and we managed – regardless of what the world threw at us. While we know that the end of 2020 won’t bring an end to some of the world’s current events, we’ve come through it once and we can do so again. We’ve all learnt so much, from how to adapt to a changing situation, how important communication is, how to look after our mental health, to how to make a great banana bread. Look out for each other and don’t be afraid to reach out if you are feeling a bit under the weather. However you spend Christmas this year, be proud and celebrate what you’ve come through.