We’ve all experienced loneliness to some degree. It may have been when we started a different school or went to work in a new city thousands of kilometres from home, where we didn’t know anyone and no one knew us. Those who are housebound or ill go for days, sometimes months, without seeing another person, with just their television, radio or computer for company. Loneliness can also be random. We may be in the middle of a huge get-together with our family when we feel a stab of loneliness. It’s a feeling we often dread and avoid – because it seems we’re completely on our own and no one cares about us or understands us.
Experts say that while there are certain situations that bring about loneliness, like the death of a loved one, or our children going off to university, there is also cyclical loneliness, which is triggered by a key event, such as birthdays, anniversaries and holidays. The festive season is the biggest of them all, because traditionally we spend this time of year with those we love.
For those with happy families they get to spend time with, it’s often the highlight of the year and they feel connected, loved and relaxed. But for those working away from home, people in dysfunctional families, shy men and women, or the bereaved, the whole celebration exposes our loneliness and reminds us of what we don’t have.
“This time of year is known to be family time,” says clinical psychologist Dr Raymond Hamden of the Human Relations Institute and Clinics in Dubai. “It’s a time of year when people get together with family and friends, and eat traditional meals, play games and watch television.
“When you know that’s what other people are doing, and you’re living thousands of kilometres away from them, or you have no one to share the festive time with, you get a sense of the distance between you and you feel isolated. With your sense of connection gone, you experience real loneliness.
“There will be thousands of people in the UAE who are lonely this festive season. Many will be unable to go home to see their loved ones. Some won’t even be able to telephone their families abroad.”
But what is loneliness? Is it something we should take seriously, as we would an illness, or is it just a way of feeling sorry for ourselves and something we can snap out of? It’s often cited as the number one challenge for expats. Men and women alike suffer from it, and it affects all ages.
“Lonely people may feel hopeless and helpless,” adds Dr Hamden. “They may have trouble sleeping properly, find it difficult to concentrate or have memory lapses. They often suffer from fatigue and cry easily. Symptoms are similar to those of depression, which is a sense of loss. Loneliness is a type of temporary loss.”
Researchers have found that loneliness can also lead to more serious health problems, such as higher blood pressure, and those with fewer or no close relationships are likely to die earlier than people who have close friends and family.
An international study, which was led by American psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad, found that involuntary loneliness carries a higher mortality risk than obesity or air pollution.
There is also interesting research about the loneliness chain, which implies it’s more of a social disease than an individual affliction. According to neuroscientist John Cacioppo, who studied almost 5,000 residents of Massachusetts in the US over 10 years, loneliness is contagious – a friend of someone who would describe themselves as lonely was 52 per cent more likely to develop feelings of social rejection, and in turn one of their friends was 25 per cent more likely to feel lonely. Hypnotherapist Benjamin Bonetti, author of How to Change Your Life, describes loneliness as a state of social isolation, which can be recognised by trigger phrases such as “I’m feeling out of touch” or “No one cares about me”.
He stresses the difference between loneliness and solitude – solitude is usually a state we choose for ourselves, whereas we normally feel loneliness is beyond our control. But does it have to get the better of us at this time of year?
“Your attitude to the festive period is key,” he explains. “For some people it’s the highlight of the year. They love giving and getting gifts and eating huge meals and relaxing. If you feel that way, and you’re working in Dubai, while your family is back in your home country, you probably will feel isolated. You’ve had the huge build-up to the festivities. The malls have had trees up for weeks and restaurants have been advertising their festive meals.
“You’ll have a picture in your mind of what they’re doing back home and what you’re missing out on and you can experience a vast spectrum of emotions, from jealousy and hatred because your family are enjoying themselves without you, to happiness and joy that your children and wife are getting the gifts they wanted. You may feel guilty that you’re working a normal day while they’re together or that you didn’t organise to fly home.”
While distance is an obvious cause of loneliness, we can also strangely feel lonely when we’re with our families and friends, especially if festive arguments break out after we’ve all been cooped up together for too long. Dr Hamden says rows usually happen because we feel able to express ourselves within the safety of being among our families.
“Many people work in industries where they’re not able to express themselves because they fear losing their jobs, but within a family there is unconditional love,” he explains.
“We can say and do things within a family because we know that these people aren’t going to turn against us. Having said that, we should never take our family’s unconditional love for granted.”
So is there a way to survive the festivities without falling victim to loneliness? Is there anything we can do to avoid it, and in fact should we avoid it? Is loneliness one of those emotions that will make us wiser for having experienced it?
“I would never recommend anyone forces themselves to feel lonely,” says Dr Hamden. “It’s not healthy to use it as an experiment to make yourself feel stronger.
“The secret is to find something to do that will make you feel connected to other people. If you’re missing your family abroad, make sure you arrange to chat with them over the festive period.
“You can even have your meals with each other via online video calls. A late lunch in the UK for example could be the evening meal in the UAE.
“If you know someone who’s lonely, and you know they can’t afford to go home or phone home, lend them your phone or laptop for 20 minutes. Also, check out what your house of worship has planned and join in. Most nationalities have a business council that organises celebrations for people who are alone and want company.”
But if going off to a celebration with people we don’t know would emphasise our loneliness. Benjamin Bonetti, who also works as a life coach in the UK and US, suggests using the festive period to our advantage. He recommends we start by behaving all year as if it’s the festive period.
“If you give gifts and are nice to people one day a year, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment,” says Benjamin.
“Don’t wait for a special occasion to speak to your family. Call them whenever you can so you’ll feel less isolated and more connected to their lives. If you’re at home alone over the festive period, don’t see it as a bore – see it as a fantastic time to realign your body and mind. Don’t wait for New Year! Make the time special by creating an action plan and draw up a blueprint for a brighter, more fulfilled future.
“Sit quietly and think about how you would like to spend the next festive season. Visualise where you will be and what you will be doing and wearing. Who will you be with? Which country will you be in? Will you be with family or friends? Just doing this will change your neurology and put you into a more positive frame of mind.”
For those who experience a negative voice within their heads, Benjamin suggests the pattern-interrupt technique. “As soon as you think something negative, like “I have no friends” or “No one is missing me”, do something different and random, like go and get a spoon from the kitchen or run around the block. This will break the thought pattern and it will take conscious effort for you to go back to it.”
He also suggests we view December 25 or January 1 as just regular days, and treat them like any other.
“Go to the gym and work out,” he says. “The exercise will cause a release of endorphins and make you feel brilliant, or do something completely out of character like going to a Zumba class, or start learning to play the guitar. Connect with people via social media.
“If you work, ask a colleague if he or she fancies eating with you, or go out to a restaurant. You don’t have to wallow in your apartment.
“Once you’re in a joyful state, you’ll attract others who are also positive and upbeat and the festive season will turn into a happier experience than you expected.”