The loneliness epidemic in the United States is real. A Cigna study of 20,000 Americans from across the country sounded the alarm in a big way earlier this year: Nearly half of the participants reported sometimes or always feeling alone or left out, and members of Generation Z — young adults between the ages of 18 and 22 — are the loneliest among us.

Loneliness has negative implications for our health, as studies have shown, and research suggests the holidays make it worse. “For people who feel lonely already, the holidays can be especially stressful because they’re seeing people connect and sharing time with their loved ones, which makes their own experience of isolation even more pronounced and excruciating,” says Kory Floyd, Ph.D., a professor in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arizona and author of The Loneliness Cure: Six Strategies for Finding Real Connections in Your Life.

Being single during the holidays can magnify feelings of loneliness, adds Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., a leading scholar of singlism (the social stigmatization of people who are single) at the University of California, Santa Barbara and author of Alone. “Singles are plagued by the nagging sense that they are not supposed to be alone for the holidays.”

Thrive Global sat down with Floyd and DePaulo, as well as Doug Nemecek, M.D., the Senior Medical Director at Cigna who was closely involved with the company’s research on loneliness, to help us understand the emotion’s origins and how to healthily manage it.  

First, the experts agree that we need to understand that being alone is not the same as being lonely. Cultural assumptions conflate the two: “Many people savor the time they have to themselves. Others feel lonely even when they are with their spouse or with a whole group of people,” DePaulo says. That’s a crucial point to understand about chronic loneliness because pressuring sufferers to socialize won’t necessarily help. Floyd notes that it may seem counterintuitive, but “part of self-care for lonely people is to take time for themselves and withdraw a little bit.”

Socialize in moderation

On that note, don’t force yourself to participate in every shindig. “One of the things that makes the holidays so difficult for lonely people is that they feel so much pressure to engage in every event,” Floyd says. It’s OK to skip a party or a family tradition you dread, or a get-together with people who will just make you feel worse. “Regulate the amount of time and exposure that you have in those situations,” he stresses. Dr. Nemecek agrees, noting that we need to figure out for ourselves — and it’s different for everyone — “the right amount to spend socializing.” That said, he cautions that “it’s important not to isolate and avoid all holiday activities.”

Use, but don’t abuse technology

Floyd is of two minds about digital sociality, calling it a “dual-edged sword.” On the one hand, he thinks it can fuel loneliness: “On social media, we seem to find that almost everyone is having a more meaningful holiday than we are, which is just a perception and likely untrue, but it feels that way.” Scaling back on scrolling through your friends’ posts and pics during the holidays can help ease FOMO.

A new study in the Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology, in fact, demonstrates that limiting social media use can decrease feelings of loneliness and depression. Floyd also encourages us to stay cognizant of how we are using it: “If the lure of social media and technology is to fill a void that’s more effectively filled by actual human interaction,” put it aside and reach out to a friend. On the other hand, for lonely people who aren’t physically close to their loved ones, “social media can be a lifeline,” he says, especially if they live in remote areas, far away from family and friends, where there are few social opportunities. “Connecting via social media — FaceTime, Skype, Snapchat, Instagram — can be one of the things that keeps their loneliness in check.”

Foster friendships with colleagues

Dr. Nemecek says the results of his Cigna research indicate that gainful employment helps squelch loneliness, as does cultivating significant relationships with colleagues, since we spend most of our days with them: “The study shows that it’s important to develop relationships with our co-workers. Making meaningful, face-to-face connections and developing friendships at work does help us feel less lonely.” To that end, he suggests you invite a colleague for a coffee break and lunch. “Don’t sit in your office by yourself with your computer focused on work all day,” he says.

Volunteer at a local charity, hospital, or shelter

Floyd points out that loneliness makes us hyper self-focused, which can lead us down a dark path where our self-worth comes into question. “One of the things that’s true about loneliness is that it springs from the perception that we’re not valuable to other people, that people don’t care for or value us,” he says. One way to wrestle down that faulty belief is to make yourself useful to someone in need. Volunteer at a soup kitchen, a homeless shelter, or a children’s hospital. Find a cause you can rally behind over the holidays. Science proves it could help ease your feelings of loneliness: Earlier this year, a study published in The Journals of Gerontology found that volunteering for two hours a week or more subdued the intensity of loneliness for the newly widowed. Research spearheaded by Myriam Mongrain, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Psychology at York University, indicates that showing compassion toward others increases happiness and self-esteem.

Plan an all-absorbing activity that will distract you from your loneliness

If you haven’t been invited to a holiday dinner and are feeling bad about it, make your own — invite a neighbor or a friend you know is also alone, or even embrace your solitude. If you opt for the latter, spend the day doing something that fires up your imagination (try your hand at coloring or journaling), excites your intellect (read a new book), challenges your physical strength (lift some weights — it reduces your risk of stroke and heart attack by 40 to 70 percent), or encourages your athleticism (swing by a local ice rink): “Do something you find so engaging and interesting [and fun] you don’t even think about things like loneliness because you are feeling something positive instead,” DePaulo says. Reading, in particular, can help loosen loneliness’s hold on you, a U.K. report found earlier this year. “We read to know we’re not alone,” is one of the great lines from the 1993 drama Shadowlands about the life of novelist-theologian C.S. Lewis. Movies — a friend calls it “movie therapy” — can serve a similar purpose. So don’t feel guilty about enjoying a holiday Netflix binge.

Find your equilibrium

Dr. Nemecek says the Cigna study found that “having balance in one’s life seems to correlate with less feelings of loneliness.” That means getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, and “spending the right amount of time with family and friends.” Studies do show that physical activity can reduce loneliness, and sleep deprivation can trigger it, so check in with yourself about how your habits might be missing the mark.

See a therapist or try group therapy

If you feel you can’t manage your emotions on your own, Dr. Nemecek recommends that you consider seeing a therapist, even if it’s just to get yourself over the holiday hump.

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