The key to preventing chronic loneliness during the holidays


If you’re looking for a wonderful gift for someone special…look in the mirror. It’s your own good self.

Especially if that someone special is 65 and older, and living alone, as do around one-third of adults that age—and more than half of those 85 and older.

Holidays can be a challenging time for those living alone. Especially while most of the world sings about sharing, family, and friends—bells jingling all the way.

It’s no wonder that a search for “holiday depression” brings up a long list of sad stories and shocking statistics.

Aren’t the “holiday blues” pretty common?

Sure, we all feel a little lonely sometimes, and not just on holidays. But for me, it usually passes.

It doesn’t pass for 40-45 percent of adults who self-reported chronic loneliness in a recent study. This and other sad statistics gave the medical community a belated wake-up call.

We now call chronic loneliness an “epidemic” and a “global public health problem.

And here’s the shocker: chronic loneliness is more likely to cause early death than diabetes.

How can loneliness threaten our health?

Just as you can starve from lack of food, you can starve from lack of human contact, especially direct touch, like hugs. Think of contact as a vital nutrient, just like food.

We’re social creatures. Can you think of a single animal that spends its life alone?

Here’s what happens when we’re starved for contact.

  • Increased vascular resistance, which can lead to high blood pressure
  • Increased production of cortisol, the ”stress hormone,” linked to a weakened immune system and uncontrolled blood sugar
  • Increased alertness—OK in our hunter-gatherer days, when a lone human was easy prey. Today, it’s empty, sleepless nights
  • Increased likelihood of stress, anxiety, and depression
  • Increased likelihood of functional and cognitive decline
  • Reduced production of oxytocin, known as the “cuddle hormone,” that’s associated with pleasurable social bonding

In short, like depression, which we once considered a sad psychological condition, loneliness is now on the list of worst medical outcomes.

How can I help those I care about?

I just mentioned oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone.” Here’s more on why it’s an anti-loneliness superstar.

Oxytocin’s main job in life is to reward us with pleasurable feelings when we have social interactions. And the premier social interaction here is touch.

It’s as clear as can be. A good dose of oxytocin helps a new mother bond with her baby, relaxes vascular resistance, helps calm blood pressure and inflammation, and more.

So, hugs and cuddles?  An arm around a shoulder, a pat on the back?  Hand-holding?  They all simultaneously boost production of oxytocin and reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol in our systems.

They can’t be beat—the more the better, and you can’t overdose.

So just showing up and hugging someone helps?

Yes. It’s the gift that never stops giving. And if you want to enlarge that gift, bring more people. And get your huggable special someone out into the hallelujah, jingle bells world. Watch how his or her face lights up in delight as the holiday colors and sounds fill the air.

There is no better medicine than hugs and social interaction—especially during challenging times.

It’s easy to find a place where other lonely people gather—places of worship, community organizations, condo clubs, apartment building open houses, where music, festive good cheer, and caring people will open their doors—and their arms—to you and your special someone. Take advantage!

What if I’m the lonely one?

If you’re likely to feel the holiday blues, there’s a lot you can do to turn those blues into seasonal cheer.

It’s all in your mindset—the deeply seated way you feel about your life and your world. If your experiences tell you the world is full of bad breaks or dangers, what’s your natural response?

It’s to stay out of that world—social isolation and chronic loneliness follow.

But what if you’re older, and you’ve lost friends and family…or they’re far away, or unable to travel?

Finding holiday cheer, and joining into the spirit of the season, can all seem too difficult, even impossible.

So, what can you do?

How metacognition can prevent loneliness

We have an extraordinary ability called metacognition, which lets us think about what we’re thinking.  And importantly, to deliberately change those thoughts when they interfere with our well-being.

If you find yourself thinking negative thoughts, you can tell yourself to stop thinking those thoughts and replace them with positive ones.

When you replace old, negative thoughts with new, positive ones, your feelings will follow.

What’s amazing is that we can actually observe this process working in the brain.

Every thought “resides” in an observable neural pathway in the brain. The more often the thought occurs, the stronger the pathway, and vice versa.

Brain scans confirm that repeating a new thought over time can make it your default emotional go-to, leaving the old thought to languish and disappear.

Wouldn’t that be a wonderful gift for the season, and for life?

Here’s a way to help you create those new thoughts.

Count your blessings, one by one.

I know how challenging ageing can be.  But think about this—if you’ve made it this far, you’ve had help every step of the way. And thinking back on all of the people who have provided that help can be tremendously gratifying.

Many people have found that a “gratitude journal” is a great help. It’s as simple as just writing down every person’s name, and the help they gave you.

Or simply write down three things, every day before bed (or upon waking up) that you’re thankful for in general.

You’ll soon see that you have much to be grateful for.

And guess what else?

How to be your own “hormone therapist”

Those good thoughts and memories can kick off production of our favorite happy hormone, oxytocin. So you can create your own “hormone therapy.”

Consider this remarkable neurological wonder—a smile releases oxytocin—even when it’s not a real smile.

Yes, your brain treats a forced smile as if it were real.

Try it now. Force your face into its biggest smile, the kind that makes you squint, and I’ll bet a genuine smile will follow.

That’s good medicine. Make it a habit.

But remember that the best medicine is social contact, including physical touch, so please seek it out. And if you’re hesitant or reluctant to take action, give yourself a push. Social contact will be the best gift you can give yourself, or give others, during the season of giving.

Happy holidays!



Last Updated: December 17, 2019
Originally Published: December 8, 2018