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Navigating Loneliness and Isolation on Thanksgiving

Navigating Loneliness and Isolation on Thanksgiving

In this image we see a woman standing on the pier at the beach. She is wearing sunglasses and a coat. The sky is shining above her.

Thanksgiving is known as the holiday of togetherness, a time when families and friends gather to share gratitude and celebrate their bonds. However, for many individuals, Thanksgiving can be a stark reminder of loneliness and isolation. This sense of solitude during a time when the world seems to emphasize togetherness can weigh heavily on the heart and mind. It can feel unfair to experience this contrast, and you may find yourself wishing for years gone by, or for a future time when you don’t feel this way anymore.

Do you struggle with “Thanksgiving Loneliness”?

Thanksgiving loneliness can take on various forms. It might be the ache of missing loved ones who can’t be with you. It might be the feeling of not having a traditional family gathering. Or, it might be even the challenge of being surrounded by people but still feeling profoundly alone. Loneliness on Thanksgiving can be especially potent because it juxtaposes the societal emphasis on togetherness with personal feelings of isolation.

5 Ways to Overcome Loneliness and Isolation on Thanksgiving

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1) Make time for what makes you happy:

If you don’t have plans with anyone, your first task is to rebrand the holiday from a gathering to a span of bonus time. So many of us spend our lives racing from one thing to another. We can often become spread thin between work, care for our families, errands, and chores. You might feel like you need a bonus day to catch up on things and then another just to rest and invest in your own happiness. If you get a long weekend, think of it as a time for you to have uninterrupted space for your hobbies and interests. Are there any movies you want to catch up on or places you want to visit? Is there something you enjoy doing, such as creating art or playing a sport, that you might be able to take time for?

If you are planning to spend the day with loved ones, but still feeling an impending sense of loneliness, consider why that might be. If you have signed up for a day of events and activities that do not make you happy, that could be a contributing factor. Yes, in life there is always compromise. If you determine for yourself that this is an important holiday to make concessions about, that is your choice. However, with that in mind, how will you set yourself up to experience some joy of your own? And if you realize that Thanksgiving has become all about everyone else’s needs and you’re not okay with that, it might be time to sit down and think about if/how you can adjust your plans.

You might be someone whose regular routine helps you to feel focused and comfortable; do as much of that as you are able to on and around Thanksgiving. Sometimes, we feel lonely because we feel misunderstood, even if we are surrounded by people. If you feel as though you have to set aside your wants and needs in order to make the day work, you may experience resentment at being overlooked. It can be devastatingly lonely to be overlooked, to have your needs unheard or forgotten. Your regular routine is a great way for you to remind yourself that the care you take for your own best health and happiness is non-negotiable.

You might discover that you feel it would be impossible to go along with a certain plan and be happy. You might also discover that you are unwilling to participate in something that isn’t going to work for you. This might be the first year you make this decision. Understand that you are allowed to have your reasons for why you said “yes” or “no” to certain things.

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2) Engage in Self-Care:

When was the last time you engaged in some relaxation and rest? It is important to try to maintain a regular sleep schedule, but once in a while, it’s nice to not set an alarm or to set one, but take time waking up and getting out of bed in the morning. Not having anywhere to be can feel incredibly liberating. You might stay in your pajamas all morning, drink your coffee slowly, or take an extra long bath while listening to your favorite podcast.

Other self-care ideas we love and can’t stop talking about in therapy are journaling, meditation, and reading self-help books. They are a key component of our anxiety treatment in Woodland Hills. Not only is there useful information that can be gathered through these processes, but there is empowerment in participating in self-supportive behaviors. Taking action is a great way to keep yourself from feeling as if you are a victim of circumstance, waiting to see which way the wind will blow you.

No self-care routine is complete without boundaries. You may have to set limits for yourself when it comes to being on social media; scrolling through everyone’s posts may make you feel extra isolated. If you are apart from loved ones because of toxic dynamics, a holiday like this might cause you to feel tempted to reach out. Recognize where that impulse comes from and be kind but firm with yourself about why you aren’t in contact, how you came to that conclusion, and the positives you experience as a result. Holidays have a tendency to weaken our resolve, but your boundaries are in place for a reason and should stay that way regardless of the season.

If you are spending time with family who do not understand you, who do not support the life you lead, or who cause you to feel “othered” in some way, having boundaries about what you will tolerate also goes a long way. You have the right to walk away from negative conversations, even if you are excusing yourself to use the bathroom. 

Taking care of yourself means listening to your mind and body and meeting those needs. Even folks who don’t mean any harm can do harm; you have the right to reject invasive and/or dismissive commentary. You might decide to confront the situation gently and redirect someone who is causing you discomfort. You might opt to exit. However you choose to respond is up to you.

In this image we see the LACMA lights in Los Angeles at nighttime.

3) Create New Traditions:

Embrace the chance to establish new traditions that resonate with your values and interests. Building new traditions can help shift the focus away from loneliness and toward self-fulfillment.
Depending on what form your Thanksgiving Loneliness takes, you may find that you are missing your family but still have access to your friends. Or you might be away from your loved ones; perhaps you’ve just moved to a new city for work or to attend school.

 If you are spending Thanksgiving away from your parents and/or siblings, etc., but have a solid friend group in the same boat, establishing a Friendsgiving can go a long way toward softening your homesickness.

If you find yourself completely on your own, you may yearn for a traditional dinner of turkey and all the fixings, but recognize that making that for yourself isn’t going to work out. Is there a restaurant nearby that is serving turkey dinner? Or do you want to order a different takeaway entirely and treat yourself to another meal you love? Sometimes, it’s as easy as that when it comes to creating new traditions.
If you get a long weekend, can you use that to your advantage? This might look like going somewhere a little farther away than a day trip, or it might look like spending an entire day doing something local (like a theme park, art gallery, day at the beach, tour, or something else) because you’ll still have a day afterward to decompress, get ready for next week, catch up on things, or whatever else you typically do with one of your days off.

We talk a lot about forging new paths and the benefits of living intentionally at our practice, where we offer anxiety therapy in Woodland Hills. Taking accountability for your actions and making it your own responsibility to come up with plans and follow through on them can empower you. Often, we can get caught up in whichever way the tide seems to be going; sometimes, we feel too overwhelmed to plant our feet. While “going with the flow” can make us feel as though we are letting go of stress in our lives, it can actually cause anxiety to build up as we lose touch with our autonomy. Making strong and positive choices as to how to spend our time and make the most of it is empowering.

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4) Utilize Online Communities:

Join online communities or forums related to your interests or experiences. Sharing your thoughts and emotions with like-minded individuals who understand what you’re going through can provide a sense of connection. They can also help to occupy your mind with positive thoughts, ideas, and plans. This tactic isn’t about repressing your emotions or pretending you don’t feel certain ways about certain things. The intention is to balance some of the distress you are experiencing with some happiness.

Are there groups that plan meet-ups (whether online or in-person)? Can you get on a video call and share your art, take a yoga class remotely, or screen share and watch your favorite television series? Can you plan travels, either at home or abroad, or a fun activity in your local area? On actual Thanksgiving Day, can you all get together in a chat and spend some time being there for one another?

You might also utilize online communities for support with some of your pain and/or anxiety. Depending on the reason for your loneliness, there is likely a space for you online. Grief and loss can be difficult to navigate at any time, especially around holidays that were traditionally family events. A group of people who have that shared experience may help you feel understood and seen in a way that others aren’t able to provide for you.

If you aren’t going through a loss or grief process in some way (being apart from family, the death of a loved one, etc.) but are still facing a Thanksgiving holiday separate from your past traditions or usual friend group, an online community related to a hobby or passion can give you something positive to focus on in the face of your new Thanksgiving format, even if you can’t connect on the actual day. Maybe you’ll connect at the end of the weekend and see if anyone found anything special on Black Friday, played tourist in their hometown, or participated in something new and exciting.

A young African American woman is sitting on a skating ramp. She is wearing rollerblades and is taking a selfie with her phone.

5) Practice Gratitude:

Although it may seem counterintuitive, practicing gratitude can be a powerful tool for overcoming loneliness. It can feel almost impossible to think of what you’re grateful for when you are missing loved ones or nostalgic traditions. However, focusing on the positive aspects of your life can help shift your perspective and enhance your emotional well-being.
Often, we become mired in our fears or our anxiety. If we are having a tough time, we begin to think about what it will be like if it never gets better.

“What if every Thanksgiving is lonely for me?” Worrying about the future and/or ruminating about past pain are natural responses when we are having a tough time, but they are not helpful. Focusing on gratitude helps to keep us grounded in the present, as we are paying attention to our surroundings for things to make note of. This helps to prevent fear from hijacking your joy.

Having a gratitude practice is a tool often used in anxiety therapy. However, you want to make note of your gratitude, which is fine, so long as it works for you. Some people like to keep a journal in which they write a certain number of entries per day. Others like to keep a note on their phones, an online journal, or use specific apps.

No matter how well you prepare, how well-intended you are, or how much support you have around you if you are having a hard time this Thanksgiving, you might have to accept some level of discomfort, pain, resentment, anger, grief, or loneliness. Unfortunately, there are times when you feel alone in your mental health struggle that coincide with holidays and events built around togetherness, and that makes it so much harder. The invisible struggle that you are going through, the pain no one else is seeing, can feel unnecessarily burdensome in those cases. Accepting your turmoil is actually helpful to a certain point. Not because you are giving up but because you are giving yourself permission to be unhappy. You are giving yourself a place to start when you take steps toward feeling better, working through your pain, and moving forward. Be gentle with yourself and in your acceptance so that you can take actions (even small ones) to feel better. Make sure you are at least meeting your basic needs, and listen to your body if it needs rest or movement. From there, you can take on anything!

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