(CNN) — Editor’s note: Dr. Neha Chaudhary is a child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and chief medical officer at Modern Health.
As the holiday season approaches, many conjure up images of the perfect gathering: comforting aromas of home-cooked feasts, harmonious laughter between friends and family, and thoughts of gratitude that easily roll off the tongue.
But for some people, this time of year feels like the exact opposite. It’s a time of stress, emotional turmoil or intense loneliness that looks nothing like the traditional celebration of togetherness.
Sixty-six percent of people report feeling lonely at the holidays, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, while 64% of people with mental illness say that the holidays make their condition worse. And as a child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist, I see these issues firsthand all too often.
Why are loneliness and emotional distress so common this time of year? Some people may be living far from family or may not be able to afford to travel to see them. Others may be grieving the loss of loved ones or navigating strained relationships — and the holidays can serve as a rude reminder of those losses. And for some, the holiday season brings families together who would rather be apart. Whatever the cause, the impact of the holidays on our mental health can be profound.
If this sounds like you, you’re clearly not alone. And if your experience at this time of year is the exact opposite, remember that your friends, colleagues or strangers may be having a hard time at the holidays.
Understanding and navigating loneliness
While the holiday season is portrayed as a time for family and social gatherings, that expectation can inadvertently amplify feelings of isolation. That’s true not only for those who find themselves alone, but also for those who are surrounded by loved ones.
The problem is loneliness is killing us — literally. According to the US surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, loneliness is as bad for your health as is smoking every day. It can increase your risk of mental health conditions, stroke, heart disease and even premature death.
Fortunately, there are ways to tackle the feeling. If you’ve been feeling lonely this holiday season, the first thing you can do is recognize and name it. Let the feeling roll in as if it’s a fleeting moment that will pass. If you try to resist a feeling, usually it will push back, staying longer than its welcome. If you allow the feeling to float on through you, it can float away just as easily as it came.
Next, see if you can pinpoint the source of the feeling. Do the holidays remind you of the loss of a loved one, or are they connected to a negative experience from your childhood? Or is it that you find yourself comparing yourself with others, only to feel like you aren’t measuring up to your own expectations, set by social comparison?
Once you identify the trigger for the emotion, you can try to talk to yourself about it with compassion as if you would talk to a friend. Remind yourself that it’s OK to grieve. Tell yourself that comparison is a distraction and put aside your social media. Or remind yourself that you can make investments in relationships if you really want to — you do have some control.
Lastly, find ways for connection with others in the moment. Is there a friend you haven’t texted in a while? A group activity you could join that leaves you with a sense of community? If you don’t have existing connections to turn to, having a brief interaction with a stranger can work as well. Chat with someone outside of your home or better yet offer to help or give something to a stranger. The sense of connection it can foster may surprise you. And it’s good for your health.
Gratitude, reflection and … anger?
While the focus of this time of year tends to be around reflection and gratitude, for some people it brings on a completely different feeling: anger. Anger toward family members who, when brought together, bring unresolved tensions up to the surface as a group. Anger toward loved ones who bailed on them many years ago. Or anger about life not going according to plan.
Sound like you? If so, put aside your self-judgment and let yourself feel. And then do something about it. What are ways you can share your anger that are respectful and constructive? Is there a conversation you can have with a loved one to work through hurt feelings from the past? If that doesn’t feel doable, consider writing your feelings down in a letter that you may never give the other person. Sometimes the act of getting it out of your brain and down on paper can feel like a welcome release. You can tear up the letter and throw it in the trash or flush it down the toilet, picturing the anger leaving you as you destroy the letter itself.
Handling the stress and pressure
Navigating the expectations and pressures set by society (and yourself) around the holidays can be similar to walking a tightrope. Whether it’s the expertly roasted turkey or picture-perfect family gatherings, idealized holiday movie and social media images can create a sense of pressure that might overshadow the essence of gratitude and togetherness. Ultimately, these unrealistic standards often lead to unnecessary stress and a sense of inadequacy for many people.
To break yourself out of the trap of comparison and never-ending expectations, start by acknowledging that perfection is an elusive goal and not the point of the holidays. Embrace imperfections. Try out new rituals and routines that are relaxed, goofy and inconsistent year to year, just for the sake of having fun.
Set boundaries with family and friends who have high expectations of you, whether it’s your aunt’s commentary on what you should wear to dinner, your mother’s criticism of your cooking, or your father-in-law’s comments about how you should be spending more time with that side of the family than you are. Practice in advance what you’re going to say to people when they push your boundaries.
The holiday blues
This holiday season is going to be hard for a lot of people, for a lot of different reasons. If uncomfortable feelings arise for you this holiday, I encourage you to hold space for them.
If you’re feeling low, give yourself a pass and turn your focus to ways you can take care of yourself and your mental health, whether it’s curling up under a blanket and binge-watching movies, writing in a journal, listening to music, expressing yourself through art or calling an old friend. Recognize what you need to survive this moment. And if nothing else is working, turn to a professional for help.
For many people, it will be the most wonderful time of the year. For others, it won’t. The more we encourage a culture of empathy and understanding around all the emotions that come with the holidays, the more we can strengthen our communities and lift each other up when it matters. And this might be one of the times of year that it matters most.
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