Isolating Yourself Can Make the Holiday Blues Worse—Here’s Why

Tempted to hide away during the holidays? Don’t.

During the holidays, a combination of unrealistic expectations, financial stress, family drama, or grieving a recently passed loved one can make depression and anxiety spike. One survey found that 64 percent of Americans experience some extent of the “holiday blues,” according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Whatever the reason—or reasons—one common temptation among people struggling with their mental health is to withdraw completely from holiday events. “As humans, we are really good at protecting ourselves when our pain gets really big,” says Jennine Estes, MFT, therapist at Estes Therapy in San Diego, CA. “Sometimes, isolation can serve us like building a wall around ourselves. It’s a protective barrier.”

The problem with hibernation is that it can perpetuate the feeling of loneliness. It can feel cozy and protective at first, but cutting yourself off from others becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. “We know that it’s healthy and natural for humans to want some time alone,” says Estes, “but we also know that we are social creatures—and too much time alone is actually very damaging to our mental health.”

"Alone Time" vs. Isolation: Finding the Balance

Avoiding isolation may feel like it goes against common advice to allow yourself some alone time to rest and recharge, but it doesn’t. Alone time and isolation may end up looking the same—curled up at home with a book or watching Netflix—but the intentions behind them make a big difference in how you view yourself and your worth.

Isolation comes from a place of feeling like you’re not deserving or important enough, according to Estes; it feels more like punishment than self-love. On the other hand, giving yourself some alone time “comes from the part of ourselves that tells us we deserve to take care of ourselves,” says Estes.

Avoiding hibernation doesn’t mean forcing yourself to be around people 24/7 or to attend each event you’re invited to. Estes suggests checking your intentions: “Do you want ‘me time’ because it will help you show up more fully in your life?” If yes, then allow yourself time to do some relaxation techniques before hitting up the next holiday event.

Surround Yourself with Positive People

Not every family is as functional and cheerful as the ones shown in Campbell’s soup commercials. Avoiding hibernation doesn’t mean you have to force yourself to attend the annual shouting match at Uncle Dave’s house. “A big form of self-care is cutting toxic people out of our lives,” says Estes. “If spending time with problematic family members does more harm to your well-being than good, don’t ever feel bad for making healthy decisions for yourself.”

If you cannot be around your family during the holidays, or live far away from them, there are other ways to avoid isolation:

  • “Adopt” another family.
    Spending the holiday with your best friend’s family, your in-laws, or with a circle of close friends, can be a breath of fresh pine air if your own family comes with drama.

  • Volunteer.
    Many organizations offer special events for people in need on holidays. You can help prepare a Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless, serve holiday meals at senior centers, or deliver presents for families who can’t afford them. “Not only will you be helping yourself feel better, you will also be helping others,” says Estes. “It is a win-win.” Bonus: volunteering is an excellent way to meet like-minded people.

  • Find community events.
    You can opt out of the traditional “dinner at grandma’s house” and still find ways to enjoy the holidays with others. Attend a performance of The Nutcracker with a friend or coworker, find a community potluck, sing in a caroling group, host a Christmas cookie swap, or go to a holiday parade. If religion is part of your life, churches host many events that are often open to the public during the holidays.
  • Call someone. Even when you’re physically alone, you can still socialize. Take a break from texting and actually dial up a loved one’s number. “If you are filled with anxiety or deep sadness, call a friend immediately,” recommends Estes. “It is better to have someone on the other side of the phone rather than being alone.”

And of course, if your feelings are severe or you’re having suicidal thoughts, don’t hesitate to call 911 or the suicide prevention hotline: 1-800-273-8255. It is available 24/7, even (and especially) on holidays.