Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 12 December 2019

It doesn't need to be lonely this Christmas

Even those spending the festive holiday with friends or family can buckle under the pressure of heightened expectations

Christmas can be a lonely time of year. Getty
Christmas can be a lonely time of year. Getty

This time of year comes with mixed blessings. The feelgood sentiment of “peace on earth and goodwill to all mankind” is a noble one but for some people living in the UAE, Christmas can be a real struggle.

Unfortunately, the reality of this winter holiday can sometimes fail to live up to expectations of peace and joy for all. For some, it can be a particularly lonely time while even those surrounded by family and friends occasionally find emotions coming to a head.

For those who are spending the festive season in isolation, separated from their loved ones, Christmas is often a particularly painful time. Feeling lonely is bad enough but feeling lonely when we imagine everyone else is experiencing enriching family gatherings hurts even more. We might have been feeling lonely all year – but the arrival of Christmas shines a light that makes those feelings even more painfully obvious.

Psychologists have come up with the theory of cognitive discrepancy, in which we experience loneliness when we perceive a gap between our desired and actual levels of social interaction. The larger the gap between expectation and reality, the more isolated we feel.

For many of us, the habit of being surrounded by other people at Christmas is ingrained from childhood. Finding ourselves alone with no one to even pull a cracker with is a stark reminder of just how isolated we are.

Some UAE residents from overseas might be fortunate enough to have family and friends in the country or are returning to their home country for the holiday period. However, even if we are fortunate enough to reconnect with loved ones, that can come with its own issues at this time.

Large extended family gatherings, gift shopping and party planning can all take a considerable toll on our stress levels. These prolonged get-togethers can give rise to unmet expectations, perceived slights and the reignition of unresolved personal disputes. Put those people in a confined space for a prolonged period of time and that can create a highly volatile situation.

In a survey of 786 adults, published by the American Psychological Association, 44 per cent of women and 31 per cent of men reported that their stress levels increased during the holiday season. The higher number of stressed women was explained by them shouldering more responsibility for planning and preparation for Christmas and trying to ensure everyone was happy.

The survey also reported that one of the most significant sources of stress over the holiday period related to finances. Many of us face an advertising onslaught claiming happiness and joy can be bought expensively gift-wrapped at Christmas.

The commercialisation of the holiday has reached record levels. This year, spending on advertising over the holiday period is forecast to hit £6.4 billion (Dh29.69bn) in the UK, according to the Advertising Association. The hype surrounding the festive break promotes an angst-fuelled consumer excess that is powerful enough to drive some into debt.

As a consequence of Christmas excess, a number of countries record a considerable spike in consumer-related debt in January. Debt is a major contributor to stress and unhappiness. A study of 7,451 British adults, published in Psychological Medicine in 2011, found that personal debt was a significant risk factor in those contemplating suicide. However, according to Psychology Today, the highest suicide rate is during spring, not winter, with the holiday season acting as a buffer for those struggling with suicidal thoughts, who were at least protected by the proximity of relatives and the notion that their situation might improve. Spring, by contrast, roused feelings of hopelessness in those already suffering.

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With all the potential for stress, tense family exchanges and heightened emotions, it is unsurprising that January 8 is called “divorce day” because of the high number of couples seeking to split after an extended period of time together. The UK-based relationship counselling service Relate says there is enormous pressure and expectation of having a good time over Christmas. The desire for the whole family to get along with each other for tension-free fun and for problems to magically disappear adds another layer of stress to the equation, which can test relationships to their limit. According to a poll of 2,000 married people by UK legal firm Irwin Mitchell, one in five couples considered separating after spending the festive season together.

Fortunately, there are a number of effective ways to manage stress and loneliness. My own way of coping with such feelings is mindfulness-based stress reduction, which involves cultivating a more accepting and flexible approach to undesirable experiences, including loneliness. If you find yourself alone or lonely, that is one (free) gift to yourself that could get you out of a rut.

Dr Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University

Updated: December 24, 2018 01:41 PM

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