Even without the restrictions imposed because of the coronavirus, Christmas can be a difficult time for many people. Maybe it reminds you of loved ones lost, or perhaps you find the pressure of everything overwhelming. Or possibly, Christmas is just a lonely time. If so, you’re not alone in feeling that way.

With growing concerns around the ‘silent epidemic of loneliness’, new research has shown the number of people expecting to spend this Christmas alone as a result of the pandemic has doubled this year.

Recent polls show this is particularly pertinent among the over 64s, with 1.4 million people expecting to be alone over the festive period. But it is not something exclusive to older people, and this year especially is one where many of us will be spending the holidays differently to how we would usually, leading to some of us feeling lonely.

While loneliness is an emotion many of us experience at different points in our lives, there are significant physical health implications we should all be aware of.

“Loneliness is as harmful to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” says Nursing Services Lead Kath Savage. “It has been linked to early deaths and an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, depression, cognitive decline and poor sleep. Plus people who feel lonely are more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s (and other forms of dementia) than those who do not feel lonely.”

Why is this the case? Why does positive social interaction have such a profound effect on us? Well, we have to look to our ancestors for the answer. Humans are social creatures; we evolved living in small groups, reliant on each other’s skills and cooperation for our survival. In short, we are hardwired to seek social connections.

So what can you do if you do feel lonely this Christmas? Whether you’ve chosen to spend it alone in order to minimise the risk of transmission, you are unable to meet safely, or you don’t have anyone you can see during the festive season, there are steps you can take to try and enjoy the day.

Stay connected

If you can’t spend the day together, why not set up a laptop or tablet at your table so you can virtually sit down together. If you don’t already have one, create a family or social WhatsApp group to share photos, videos and anecdotes through the day, and maybe plan to do things at the same time, like watch the Queen’s Speech. Set up a camera so you can watch each other open your presents. Bupa has produced some brilliant advice for staying connected with friends and family during Covid-19.

Create an alternative bubble

If you can’t be with your family on the day, explore whether or not you could create an alternative bubble with two other households who may also be spending it alone. The Government has said that up to three households can exclusively form a bubble from 23 to 27 December, so reach out to people you think might also be feeling lonely and see if they’d like to do something.

Pick up the phone

Here at The Fire Fighters Charity, we’ve always thought checking in with people over the phone is important, but especially so for Christmas 2020 Staying social connected – however you choose to do it – has a proven positive effect on our health and wellbeing. Studies show that having good social networks and a sense of belonging can be as effective as being physically active. Yes, you read that right, giving someone a ring on the phone can have the same positive feelings as going for a run or a session in the gym. So reach out to someone you’ve not spoken to in a while just for a chat.

Donate your time

Can you volunteer your time with a local organisation? As movement restrictions increase, there are many people in our communities for whom volunteer-led local support is a desperately-needed lifeline. And many of them are desperate for extra support during the festive season. Could you help sort donations at a local food bank, or pick up prescriptions for an elderly charity? Or maybe you could volunteer your time as a telephone befriender for lonely people. Not only will it help you to feel more socially connected, but you’ll be helping someone else to feel so as well.

Plan your day around your favourite things

When you feel lonely, one of the worst things can be to just see days as great expanses of time to fill. So if you’re really not going to be able to connect with anyone around Christmas, try to bring some structure to your day. Peruse what will be appearing on TV that you might like to watch, treat yourself to something delicious for lunch, or do something really indulgent as a gift to yourself, like taking a long bath to start the day. Being kind to yourself is not a concept that comes naturally to many of us, but taking a bit of time out of each day for some self care might just be the best thing you could do for your own wellbeing.

Take time to get outdoors

There are so many physical health benefits to getting out and getting active, but physical activity can also significantly improve your mood as well. The days may be shorter and the temperatures are plummeting, but that doesn’t stop the fact that fresh air and spending time outdoors is one of the best things you can do to improve your overall wellbeing. Walking is so good for you, mentally and physically, so plan time for a good brisk walk each day to blow the cobwebs off. And if you feel up to it, greet the people you see while you’re out and about, helping you to feel that sense of social connectedness.

Look after yourself.

It’s so important to stay warm and well during the winter. If something is affecting your everyday wellbeing, whether that’s a physical condition or something that needs doing around your home, don’t neglect it. Our Welfare Caseworkers are available for support throughout December, so if you need to have a chat with them about ways they could support you, get in touch with us. 

The NHS also has some advice for coping with loneliness and MIND has some great advice for looking after your mental health during the holidays. And don’t forget, we’re here to support you as well, so give us a ring on 0800 389 8820 or make an enquiry online.