Overcome Holiday Loneliness with Nourishing Friendships

Overcome Holiday Loneliness with Nourishing Friendships

By: Dr. W. Scott West, Chief Medical Officer, Nashville Neurocare Therapy

The holidays are a peak time for loneliness. “64% of people with mental illness report holidays make their conditions worse,” pressure to be joyful, stressful social situations, and unrealistic expectations for the season can exacerbate feelings of sadness and dissatisfaction (NAMI). Combine these pressures with less sunshine and frigid temperatures, and it’s no wonder the holiday season can aggravate depression for many people.

Human connection is an important component of our overall health and happiness. It’s a powerful tool to help combat feelings of loneliness, especially around this time of year. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, says that “being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need — crucial to both well-being and survival.” Loneliness has been a growing social epidemic over the past decade, and reported levels of loneliness have spiked considerably with the increased social isolation induced by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Julian Lagoy, M.D., “About 36% of Americans reported feeling “serious loneliness” in the wake of the pandemic,” with “43% report[ing] increases in loneliness since the pandemic began.” These numbers show us that we are not alone in our loneliness.

Making friends takes real effort.

While it’s easy to understand why human connection is essential, making those connections doesn’t always come as easily as we think it should. And nope, you’re not imagining it: it really is harder to make friends as an adult. As stated by psychologist Marisa Franco from the University of Maryland, “The ingredients that need to be in place for us to make friends organically . . . are continuous unplanned interaction and shared vulnerability.” As adults, we don’t find ourselves in these sorts of consistent, spontaneous environments nearly as often as when we were children.

Without the help of recess and play dates, building deep relationships as grown-ups takes time and effort. One study tells us that “casual friendships emerge around 30 hours, followed by friendships around 50 hours. Good friendships begin to emerge after 140 hours. Best friendships do not emerge until after 300 hours of time spent.” Those hours add up quickly when spending time in classrooms, sports teams, clubs, and college dorms, but when we’re adults. With 40-hour workweeks, families, and other time-consuming responsibilities, carving out the time to invest in friendships becomes much more difficult.

How our mindset might be impacting our ability to make friends.

If you’re trying to make friends as an adult, a smart first step is to take inventory of beliefs about what it’s like to make friends. Many of us remember how natural it was to make connections as kids and teenagers. We might believe that making friends should always be that simple and organic. Because these deep connections seem more elusive, we think we are doing something wrong. These beliefs are actually impacting our ability to make friends in the now.

Our casual beliefs about friendship influence the degree to which we invest in our relationships which, in turn, impacts our loneliness levels. One study reveals that the belief that building friendships depends on effort is “related to greater social participation” and that, in turn, “greater social participation [is] related to less loneliness.” Equally, the opposite belief that friendship is “uncontrollable” or outside of our realm of effort “predicted greater loneliness.” While it might seem deceptively simple, those who don’t expect making friends to be an easy and quick process are more willing to put in the work and actually build the connections they desire.

Our beliefs and perceptions also play a role in how connected we feel when we are in the midst of a social situation. Psychology Today says that “people’s perception of the social environment depend[s] on their behaviors within it. Those who engaged with others regarded it as friendly, whereas those who kept to themselves saw it as unwelcoming.” Again, it might seem too simple to be true, but the research tells us the more you give to your environment, the more your environment will give back to you.

This sounds like a lot of work, but it’s worth it for your mental and physical well-being.

Strategies for finding friends and strengthening friendships.

Building friendships might be difficult, but it’s not because you’re doing anything wrong. In fact, the fact you’re experiencing difficulty indicates that you’re in the midst of doing what you need to do to form the connections you crave.

To help get you started, here are some actionable ideas for meeting people and building relationships:

Join a club.

Are you a runner? A gardener? A writer? Join a local group that revolves around a hobby that’s already an important part of your life. Group activities give you the opportunity to meet a variety of like-minded people in a casual environment. It can be less intimidating than a one-on-one encounter, and if one week you don’t quite vibe with the people you meet, the next week you can talk to someone new. Plus, a recurring schedule helps you put in the time and consistency necessary to build lasting connections.

Volunteer.

Did you know that volunteering has been shown to help dramatically with loneliness? A study on the correlation between volunteering and loneliness deduced that “starting to volunteer 2+ hours per week is related to attenuated loneliness.” Not only is volunteering a way to meet new people, but it helps us embody a purpose and earn the satisfaction that comes with helping others. When we give to our communities, we begin to feel connected to our communities rather than isolated.

Text roulette.

Reaching out to someone you don’t know well to hang out with can feel very vulnerable. What if they don’t text you back, or you can’t find a time to meet? Soften the stakes by texting more than one person at a time. If you send out eight texts, getting four replies in response doesn’t feel like such a failure. Choose one day of the week to send out your net of texts and invest in the people that make themselves available to you.

Call a different old friend every weekend.

Proximity is super important for our relationship satisfaction. In Gestalt Psychology, the proximity principle suggests “that people closer together in a physical environment are more likely to form a relationship than those farther away.” However, if you’ve recently moved or live in a different city than your closest friends, it doesn’t mean those old connections stop mattering. While phone calls and Facetime aren’t the same as an afternoon out on the town, they still boost morale and remind us that we aren’t as lonely as we might think. Challenge yourself to call a good friend every weekend and maintain your existing network of friendships no matter how far-spread they may be.

Get friendly with classmates and colleagues.

Friendships can come from the unlikeliest of places. Classmates, colleagues, and recurring strangers can turn from acquaintances to real friends. Challenge yourself every day to make at least one impromptu connection. Chat an extra moment or two with your barista or compliment a stranger. Maybe these interactions won’t yield anything more, but at the very least, they’ll help you practice being open to the people around you. Besides, one study shows that mere exposure— just showing your face again and again— makes us more likable to the people around us.

Say “Yes.”

When someone does reach out, say yes. Even if you’re not sure, if you’re intimidated, or might feel a little overwhelmed in other areas of your life, give it a shot. If friendship is a priority to you, challenge yourself to really prioritize it.

Overcoming social fatigue.

For many of us, our social stamina has taken a hit in the past two years. As restrictions lift, we are collectively finding ourselves relearning how to connect with new people and reconnect with old friends. While we might crave friendships and know we need them, integrating meaningful interactions into our lives can feel overwhelming on an energetic level.

Social exhaustion is something that people who identify as introverts are most likely familiar with. Introverts, while they might be social and friendly, and confident as extroverts, recharge their energy with time alone. Being around people, even people they love, tends to drain their energy. This kind of burnout can feel like hitting a wall in a social situation. When easing back into more regular and more intense social interactions, even those more extroverted can also experience this kind of exhaustion.

Just like building muscle or stamina in an exercise context, you can prepare yourself to succeed in social situations with consistent practice.

Prep your nervous system.

When you know you’re about to go into a demanding social situation, it can help to prepare your nervous system for the energy shift. Practice calming belly breaths. Mindfulness exercises help activate your sympathetic nervous system, making you feel safe, calm, and more in tune with your environment. This is a great way to enter a social situation and a smart tool you can use whenever you feel overwhelmed while socializing.

Recognize your triggers.

Do you know you get overwhelmed in group settings or extra anxious when talking one-on-one with someone you don’t know well? Or you may dread socializing at work or feeling obligated to stay at family events for a certain amount of time. When you know which situations are the most challenging for you, you can better prepare yourself for them and give yourself an out when you need it.

Ease into it.

You don’t have to say yes to everything all at once. You don’t have to stay until the party ends. You don’t have to spend an evening with a bunch of people you don’t know that well. Be patient with yourself and realize that you might have a little less social steam in the tank than normal. Set yourself up for success by giving yourself an excuse to depart when you feel your energy waning. You’ll build up more social tolerance the more you do it, but you don’t need to burn out right away.

Know how you like to recharge.

Brainstorm a list of the ways that help you recharge. Maybe it’s going on a walk, reading a book, playing with a pet, watching your favorite show, meditating, music, cooking, taking a warm bath . . . it could be anything that helps regulate your nervous system and helps you feel safe, secure, and energetic again. Having a list of your go-to methods on hand can help you make a decision without further overwhelm.

Feeling stuck? Ask for help.

Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, putting in the work to build and maintain our close relationships can feel like too much. Avolition, a common symptom of mood disorders including depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar, is defined as a lack of motivation. This is more than just dragging your feet for chores— avolition makes it feel nearly impossible to “start or finish even simple, everyday tasks. Getting off the couch to wash the dishes or drive to the supermarket can feel like climbing Mount Everest.” Avolition can have an impact on our relationships, too. Even though we understand the importance of relationships and might want to see the people we love, when experiencing avolition, making and following through on plans can feel impossible.

If you realize that your inability to show up to social situations goes beyond mere social fatigue or intimidation, it might be time to ask for help.

At Nashville Neurocare Therapy, we specialize in treating depression with TMS Therapy. TMS Therapy, short for Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, is an innovative therapy that treats depression by using magnetic-pulse technology to stimulate areas of the brain that have low metabolic activity, or, in other words, aren’t working to their full potential.

The brains of people with depression and the brains of people without depression look and function differently. Most notably, centers that regulate mood aren’t as active in a depressed brain. TMS Therapy helps encourage your brain to heal itself by building and strengthening the neural networks that help control your mood and behavior. This offers real, lasting relief from depression.

While “stimulating the brain with magnets” might sound a little intimidating, TMS Therapy is completely comfortable, safe, perfectly natural, and offers no adverse side effects. Though it’s a lesser-known therapy, most private and public health insurances cover TMS Therapy, and the American Psychiatric Association lists TMS Therapy as an alternative to antidepressants if your medications aren’t working for you. If you aren’t finding relief from your depression through talk therapy or medication alone, talk to your doctor about TMS Therapy. Treatment for depression is not one size fits all, and there is hope for you. If you’d like to learn more about TMS Therapy and how it could help you or somebody you love, feel free to request a consultation with our office. We’d love to see if TMS Therapy is a good fit for your path to healing.

About the Author: Dr. W. Scott West


Nationally recognized, board-certified psychiatrist, Dr. W. Scott West, blazed the trail for TMS therapy in Tennessee as the first physician to offer this advanced technology in 2010. With 30+ years experience in clinical depression, Dr. West leads the Nashville Neurocare team.

  • Board Certified Psychiatrist
  • Specialty: Certified TMS Psychiatrist since 2010
  • Diplomate: The American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology
  • Distinguished Life Fellow: American Psychiatric Association
  • Residency: Vanderbilt University, Hospital Department of Psychiatry
  • Medical School: University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Center for the Health Sciences
  • Hospital Affiliations: St. Thomas Hospital
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