A 5-step prescription to combat loneliness during the holidays

Dr. Trisha Pasricha. PHOTO: health.harvard.edu

Q: I always feel lonely over the holidays, even if I see my family. What could I do to feel less isolated?

A: The holidays are not always the most wonderful time of the year. For many people, they can be an especially lonely time.

Inspired by the U.S. Surgeon General’s 5-for-5 connection challenge, my prescription is to do one daily action to connect with someone over the next five days. These interventions are backed by science – engaging in gratitude, service, and mindfulness that allows us to disconnect from technology can all help with loneliness and may open doors to new connections.

Even if you don’t feel lonely, try this challenge. You may be surprised by how much closer to others these small acts bring you over the next five days.

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Day 1: Reach out to a former mentor and thank them

I was recently at a wedding reflecting with others about all the teachers, friends and colleagues who have no idea how much they meant to us. Would they find it strange that we messaged them simply to express gratitude?

So I called my high school French teacher. She was as delighted as she was delightful. I found out she had retired but still loved to volunteer at my old school. She couldn’t believe I was a physician. Today, thank someone – an old friend whose coffee cake recipe is still your favorite, or a former boss who took a chance on you – and tell them how they influenced your life for the better.

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Day 2: Join a group activity

Whether you go into it with a friend or alone, sign up for a group activity to do for a few weeks. Get a ClassPass for aqua aerobics, join a Mahjongg club, plan a month of yoga in the park, or find a neighborhood book club. Choose something that gets you outside the house for part of your day. And if you’re debating what to give someone this holiday, consider gifting an activity you’ll do with them. It opens the door to a new community and is more valuable than any pair of cozy socks.

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Day 3: Call a relative or friend you haven’t spoken to in a while

On my last birthday, a widowed uncle I’ve honestly never had much contact with called out of the blue to wish me happy birthday. It became one of the loveliest conversations I had that day as he asked all about my kids, and I learned he had an adorable new dog. Now he and I text every month. Today, think about someone you’ve drifted away from and wish them a happy holiday season.

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Day 4: Ask for help

Reflect on some of the areas in your life where you could use more support. Ask your grandmother to walk you through your favorite recipe and teach you tricks in the kitchen one-on-one. Or ask the neighbor’s kids to help you walk or play with your dog. You get bonus points if you make a bridge with someone from another generation. There have been many studies on intergenerational contact to improve loneliness. For children, such opportunities lead to higher self-esteem, better academic performance and improved social skills. For adults, they reaffirm value and lead to greater life satisfaction in addition to other mental health benefits.

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Day 5: Tackle screen time

It’s hard to give up screens entirely. But at your next meal, try this compromise. Put all the phones in a basket on the table, and schedule a 30-second phone check for later in the meal. The rest of the time, engage with each other. Using your phone during a face-to-face gathering not only reduces conversation quality but lowers your own enjoyment of time spent together.

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What I want my patients to know

The public health costs of loneliness are clear. In one meta-analysis, loneliness increased the odds of early mortality by 26 percent. Depression as a consequence of loneliness is linked to heart failure and even getting a cold. Loneliness modulates stress hormones, contributing to low level inflammation and gene expression.

But scientists believe that greater social integration helps build our immunity and buffer stressors.

Loneliness can drive what and how we eat, sleep, exercise, and whether we smoke or take our medication as directed. People are more likely to be physically active if they’re surrounded by people who exercise and to stop smoking if they’re connected to others who quit too.

The people at greatest risk of loneliness are adolescents and the elderly, those with poor physical or mental health, people living alone and single parents. Seek help if you are struggling during the holiday season and talk to a trusted friend, family member or physician, or call the 988 crisis line, which provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress.



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