Spending Christmas Alone? Here's How to Get Through It

Three clinical psychologists weigh in on how to deal with the strange end to an even weirder year.

Sad caucasian blonde woman with santa hat on head drinking wine alone and looking trough window. In foreground is christmas tree.
Photo: Adobe Stock

The idea that "Nobody ought to be alone on Christmas" feels a bit like a slap in the face this year — especially since it's going to be an even more prevalent phenomenon in light of the pandemic. Those who live alone and rely on visits with friends and family for IRL human connection have been going largely without any for most of 2020, and, now with another huge uptick in COVID-19 cases many people are opting to spend Christmas alone for the sake of everyone's safety. Needless to say, these same people will face further loneliness and isolation during a season that's supposed to bring joy, hope, and warmth. Add fewer daylight hours and seasonal affective disorder as icing on the cake and you've got a recipe for some holiday humbug.

In all seriousness, isolation is a serious danger to mental health for everyone, and you want to prioritize your emotional and psychological wellbeing as much as possible in the coming weeks. Whether you're far from friends, estranged from family, living alone, recently separated or divorced, or have lost a loved one in the past year, know that it's ok to feel icky about this holiday season, but there is help.

Here, three mental health experts share some advice on how to channel more of that yuletide joy (even if you're not super psyched about it right now).

How to Face Christmas Alone

For starters, please know that it's not just you. "While the holidays don't necessarily exacerbate mental health conditions specifically, they do have the tendency to create more stress," says Michael G. Wetter, Psy.D, F.A.P.A., a director of psychology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at University of California, Los Angeles. "This year will, without doubt, be even more challenging and stressful as a result of the COVID pandemic, economic challenges, political divides, and family separation." Chances are you've dealt with (at least) one of these situations yourself.

"You may have to work harder this year to be in charge of your psychological health," says clinical psychologist Kevin Gilliland, Psy.D., director of Innovation360 in Dallas, TX. Luckily, the same basic principles of good mental health hygiene still apply (and work) in today's trying times.

Prioritize Yourself and Your Wellness

This bears repeating because you probably know this advice to be true, but fail to follow it: Make yourself your number one priority.

Sometimes this comes down to the basics — adequate sleep, nourishment, tech boundaries, etc. "One of the best things people can do to help alleviate some of this stress is to make sure they engage in appropriate and effective self-care, such as getting enough sleep, eating balanced meals, and having sufficient downtime," says Wetter. (

Create Your Own Celebration

Think of it as "designing joy," says "The Divorce Doctor" Elizabeth Cohen, Ph.D., a New York City-based clinical psychologist. Instead of purely "preventing distress," and pain, you deliberately create a joyful celebration for yourself, so you're proactive instead of reactive.

"Being alone is really f**king hard," says Cohen. (Amen.) "So celebrate yourself, be your own cheerleader, and remind yourself that whatever you're doing right now is great. Be totally positive with yourself." She advises thinking about what you love to do during the holidays, or what you loved to do as a child, and picking out themes to design an at-home celebration for one. (

"Let's say you actually really want to go to Paris, but you can't — order in [or make] some French food, listen to French music, and watch French movies," she suggests. "Maybe you love festive drinks, so you learn how to make a fun holiday cocktail. Maybe you love to dance, so you create a great playlist and have a dance party. Maybe you get dressed up just for the fun of it."

Cohen also does this mental exercise with her patients who are recently divorced, particularly those who won't have their children with them during the holidays for the first time. "Who can you connect with? Can you do three Zoom happy hours with friends from high school or college? Figure out what is important to you, and be creative on how to make that happen."

Use Tech to Your Advantage

While technology is not without its when it comes to fostering meaningful interpersonal-relationships, you can take advantage of its connection capabilities. Try to — as best you can — use technology to fill in gaps that the pandemic and other factors have created this year. Allow it to bring you 'closer' to your loved ones. "Feelings of isolation and loneliness also tend to be heightened during the holidays, especially for those who have recently lost a loved one, for those who don't have a strong network of friends and family, or those who are unable to see extended family due to health concerns," says Wetter. "Certainly take advantage of technology to communicate via video so that you can reach out, in some way, to those you miss." (

"It's a realistic goal for this holiday season," says Gilliland. "Zoom is better than a phone call, a phone call is better than text, a text is better than email."

If connecting online with family isn't an option for you, "explore various social interest clubs that are online that offer opportunities to connect with others," advises Wetter. Think: a virtual book club. "While it may not be face to face at the moment, knowing that you have a common interest with others that can be shared is a wonderful way of forming new connections and not feeling so cut off."

But Have Boundaries

Getting stuck on your phone (particularly ingesting news and social media) can have adverse effects on your mental wellbeing. When you're not Zooming or FaceTiming with your pals, "I also encourage people to step away from the 24-hour news cycle, and put down their cell," says Wetter. (

You want to avoid comparing your holiday season to others', which is never a good idea.

Get Lost In Fun, Engaging Activities

Unplug and find a new (or old) hobby that takes up your attention, focus, and creativity. "Finding something in your home environment that you can get lost in — whether it be movies, puzzles, Legos, games, reading, painting, drawing, sewing, music (anything that taps into your inner creativity and imagination) — can help you find some inner joy," says Wetter. (

It's those 'where did the time go' activities that will take your mind off of the world around you, at least for a little while. And no, this isn't a form of deflection (as long as you come back to reality after your third puzzle), it's just finding a different outlet that brings you joy.

Stay Present

"Absolutely, positively stop thinking past today," advises Gilliland. "Don't long for what was last year, and don't trip into next week. Make today the best possible day you can. Keep it that basic and you might just be surprised at how much you find little pieces of happiness in your day." (

Cohen echoes this sentiment, saying "this is a sucky year — and hopefully next year we'll be with others — but it's not the reality right now."

And remember that this isn't permanent. "Your kids [or your family or friends] will be back, COVID will be over [eventually]," she says. It's maladaptive to just walk around thinking 'this will all pass,' and then not wear a mask or take proper precautions, but you want to "find the balance between hypervigilance and apathy," she adds.

Find Balance Between Pain and Comfort

The skills you're building during this incredibly emotionally challenging time will be useful for the rest of your life, says Cohen.

You want to find a happy medium between toxic positivity (ignoring all your problems and pretending everything is sunshine and rainbows) and toxic negativity (dwelling, only looking at what you don't have, lacking any gratitude). Balancing pain and comfort "is a really important skill in life that will take you well beyond the holidays," says Cohen.

"If you can do this, you can do anything," she says. "It's a super uncomfortable feeling this time of year, but you're building a crazy resilience muscle. If you lose a parent, lose a job … you'll be able to better tolerate pain and still be present in your current life."

Volunteer

Whether virtually or in person, volunteering can have a massively uplifting effect for you and those you're helping. "The idea of contributing to others who are in need can help brighten your mood," says Wetter. "Participating in charitable acts really helps you feel more connected to the world. You spend so much energy on trying to help make your own life brighter; it takes surprisingly less energy to do something for someone else, and the emotional payoff is better!" (

Look outside your own circumstances when considering how and where to volunteer. "Help others who are less fortunate (financially, relationally, psychologically, or physically)," says Gilliland. "Perspective is a brutal but effective counselor. And knowing you've made someone's journey a little better — even if it's for a day or a moment — that's a blessing that can get you past today."

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