Alone but not lonely: How to support yourself and others this Christmas

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“Loneliness rightly receives attention in the media around Christmas time, but for some it can be a chronic issue all year round, which is particularly concerning given the associated negative health outcomes.”

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Although for a lot of us Christmas is a time to spend with family or friends, this time of year can be particularly difficult for those who spend Christmas alone. Loneliness doesn’t discriminate and can be experienced by all ages. In fact, the 2018 BBC Loneliness Experiment revealed that 16-24 year olds were the loneliest out of the 55,000 people surveyed.

Loneliness rightly receives attention in the media around Christmas time, but for some it can be a chronic issue all year round, which is particularly concerning given the associated negative health outcomes. Research has shown loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and is associated with an increased risk of developing dementia and depression.

It is important to recognise these negative consequences of loneliness, but coming from a sport-psychology background, our research team also like to take a strengths-based perspective and highlight the positive side of the story and in this case, the power of social support.

Social support can be a protective factor for resilience and positive mental health and has been associated with lower psychological distress and lower risk of depressive symptoms. One way we can all promote social support is to identify and reflect on our own support networks. We encourage this with the young people we work with in our research with St Basils youth homeless charity.

Previously, we have delivered mental skills training programmes with athletes to help them to identify and develop their most meaningful mental skills to aid their well-being and performance. Over the past 6 years, our research team in the School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences have been working collaboratively with St Basils to deliver My Strengths Training for Life (MST4Life™), a programme that improves young people’s awareness of their existing strengths, enhances well-being, and facilitates engagement with education, employment, or training.

One focus in MST4Life™ is promoting social health and well-being, which is partly done through the “Dream Team” activity. Despite their high resilience levels, young people who have experienced homelessness are often extremely lonely. Using the analogy of a sporting team, the Dream Team activity aims to develop the mental skill of support seeking to help these young people identify who they have around them, what role they play, and what support they provide in light of potential challenges they might face. When reflecting on this activity, one young person said:

“It’s really helped me because with my mental health, I fail to speak out when I’m feeling low and the other day, I had a bit of a rough patch and I knew who to call, because it was, ‘ah I’ve done this, I know who I need when I’m in a crisis, so why am I not doing it?’ And it inspired me to just make that call and it saved a meltdown.”

Try to think about who would be in your own dream team and who you can connect with over the festive period. If this is quite easy for you, think about what support you can give to others. If this is quite difficult for you, how can you let someone know you might need some support?

Christmas may not be the healthiest time of year in terms of our eating habits, but let’s try to be aware of how we can be more socially healthy over the holidays. What’s one step you could take towards achieve this goal?

For more information about MST4Life™ please visit our website.

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