We are told it is the most wonderful time of the year, but for many people the festive season serves to heighten their feelings of loneliness.
The traditional Christmas images of family and friends; of caring and sharing; of eating, drinking and being merry are at odds with the actual experiences of thousands of people across the country.
For some, the reality of life – bereavement, the breakdown of relationships or health concerns – can amplify feelings of isolation at this time of year.
“It can be very special time,” says BACP-accredited psychotherapist Madeleine Bocker. “But for people who are not part of that, it can be very painful.
“In the first instance, people will not want to be asked to go out and to start making contact as they are most likely ashamed of being lonely. It can be very hard.”
Indeed, the holiday season can exacerbate feelings of loneliness for many people, says BACP member Danuta Lipinska.
“The commercialism and materialism around the holidays has helped to these feelings of loneliness and isolation for people,” she said. “It’s become an issue around 21st Century living.
“For example, parents have encouraged their children to move hundreds of miles away to get an education or to get a job to better themselves. That’s what parents want, for their children to do better than them.
“But a consequence of that is that there might be older people or grandparents who are sitting alone because their family is hundreds of miles away at the other end of the country with their own work/life pressures.”
A report by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) earlier this year found that five per cent of adults in England reported feeling lonely “often” or “always”.
It found that people who were single or widowed, and people who felt they belong less strongly to their neighbourhoods, reported feeling lonely more often.
“I think in the past, people were more involved in their community, their neighbourhood or their street,” said Danuta, who specialises in ageing and dementia care. “People popped in next door to see their neighbours, they involved them in their celebrations or took a plate round to the people in their street.”
Another ONS report earlier this year, this time on loneliness in young people, found 11.3 per cent of children aged between 10 and 15 said they were “often lonely”.
And Madeleine said Christmas can be a difficult time for young people.
“There isn’t really a lot to do,” said Madeleine, who has a psychotherapy practice in West London. “It’s quiet, places are closed, and teenagers can feel quite isolated, not understood, and then, compared to the images of Christmas they are seeing on social media, not good enough.”
How to help
So how can we help people to not feel isolated this Christmas?
Danuta added: “It’s a difficult one – you can’t assume that if people are by themselves they want someone to pop round. Where some people might want company, there are people who don’t want it.
“Be aware of who your neighbours are and if they are on their own. Have a meaningful conversation. Ask them how they spent their holidays in the past.
“There are community organisations that do try to reach out to those who are lonely. In the UK there is a real desire for charities, groups and churches to reach out to those who are alone at.”
Madeleine echoed Danuta’s suggestion to make contact with neighbours. And she said that physical touch can help ease feelings of loneliness.
She explained: “Physical touch can be very good. Things like applying moisturiser, brushing your hair or massaging your feet. Why not book a massage, or a head massage to go with your haircut?”
Among those with a desire to reach out is the comedian Sarah Millican, who has established a Twitter movement to bring people together at Christmas under the hashtag #joinin.
“This is for those who don’t chose to be alone, but who are, for some reason, on their tod/bob/lonesome,” Sarah said. “Be it because they have no family, are estranged from their family, it’s not their turn to have the kids, even just that their partner is at work, whatever. Alone and would rather not be. This is who #joinin is for.”
To speak to a BACP counsellor or psychotherapist about loneliness this Christmas, visit our Therapist directory.
Madeleine Bocker gives her tips to end loneliness
- Have compassion with yourself. We know people don’t always want to be asked to go out and to make contact. Don’t judge yourself. Everyone feels lonely sometimes, but it doesn’t mean you are not a really loveable person.
- Pets are loving to their owners and can improve mental well-being. Having a dog, for example, takes you out of the house for walks and the benefits of fresh air, meeting people and getting exercise.
- Pleasant event scheduling. At the start of the week plan out your highlights in your diary to look forward to. Maybe going to the cinema, your favourite TV programme, a visit from or to a friend.
- If you think you haven’t got someone, the world is full of people who think they haven’t got anyone either. Try to be pro-active and invite people to visit or make contact with neighbours.
- Soothing or self-soothing. Physical touch can be very good. Things like applying moisturiser, brushing your hair or massaging your feet. Book a massage or a head massage with your hair cut.
- Think how you can add value and meaning to your daily life. Think about what you like to do or how you could use your time. What about volunteering for a charity, starting a business or taking up a hobby?
- If your family has moved away or you can’t be with them, keep in touch with them via Skype, FaceTime or similar apps.
- If you are feeling really low, talk to your GP and find a good therapist.