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Spending Thanksgiving alone this year? Here are five tips to combat loneliness

bhofack2/iStockBy KATIE KINDELAN, ABC News

(NEW YORK) — As Americans are urged to stay home and celebrate Thanksgiving either alone or only with people in their household to help stop the spread of COVID-19, it’s clear the holiday, normally a time of gathering, is going to look a lot different this year.

On Pinterest, searches for “Thanksgiving for one” are up nearly 70% this year, according to the social sharing site. Zoom, a video communications company, announced it will waive its 40-minute time limit on free accounts on Thanksgiving Day to help families stay in touch.

While some people may be home alone on Thanksgiving by choice, following safety guidelines, other families will be missing loved ones at the Thanksgiving table who are hospitalized with COVID-19 or who have passed away from the virus over the past nine months.

Still others may be coping with a deployment or a divorce, separation or estrangement that unfolded during the pandemic.

“What many people are going to experience this year, for a variety of reasons, is that their holiday table is not going to be as full as it normally is,” said Kory Floyd, Ph.D., an author and professor of interpersonal communication at the University of Arizona. “Many American households are going to experience a sense of deprivation this year.”

“Especially on a holiday, when it’s a time to celebrate and be around loved ones, that accentuates a sense of loneliness,” he said.

Since we already know Thanksgiving will be different this year, there are things people can start to plan now to make the day less lonely, experts say.

Here are five tips to make Thanksgiving a joy-filled day regardless of who you are, or are not, spending it with:

1. Make a plan

Planning ahead the fun things you’ll do on Thanksgiving, or the new traditions you’ll start, can both help ease the stress and uncertainty of the day and help you from obsessing over what could have been, according to Floyd.

“Think now of things you’ll plan for that day that will be positive distractions,” he said. “The benefit of [planning ahead] is we’re ready and we’re prepared, and we’re prepared to enjoy and find meaning and find joyfulness in whatever we do with that time.”

Planning ahead can be as detailed as what time you’ll eat meals and do activities to a more general list of the movies you want to watch or the activities you can do outside in fresh air, experts say.

Floyd recommends planning something that feels indulgent on what is still a special day of the year.

“What feels indulgent to people will vary from person to person,” he said, giving examples of a bubble bath or a decadent dessert. “But make it something that goes beyond the ordinary and feels really special and allow yourself the freedom to enjoy it, to lean into it.”

2. Find ways to help other people

Doing something good for someone else can take the focus off yourself and help ease feelings of loneliness or discontent, according to Nicole Beurkens, Ph.D., a holistic child psychologist and the founder and director of Horizons Developmental Resource Center in Caledonia, Michigan.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, that could mean dropping items off at a nursing home, preparing boxed meals for neighbors or delivering books and needed items to women’s and children’s centers, recommends Beurkens.

“Sometimes the best way to soothe ourselves is to do something outside of ourselves,” she said.

3. Phone a friend or loved one

Even if you can’t physically be with your loved ones on Thanksgiving, it’s important to find ways to stay in touch with people, recommend both Floyd and Beurkens.

“Over the course of the pandemic, we haven’t nationally seen an increase in average levels of loneliness, and in fact they’ve been trending slightly in the opposite direction,” said Floyd. “One of the explanations for that is we have so adapted to all of the communication modalities that we have available to us. We have so many ways to connect now.”

Plan ahead to make sure you can call, Skype or Zoom with friends and relatives on Thanksgiving, whether it’s just talking to catch up or taking part in holiday traditions together via technology. If the technology is too much, spend the down time you may have that day writing letters to family and friends or simply thinking about who in your life you’re grateful for.

4. Think ahead to next year

While it’s normally important to stay in the moment and not look ahead or behind, experts say this year it is fine, and even healthier, to already look ahead to Thanksgiving 2021.

“It gives a sense of forward-looking motion that helps people not feel as heavy a sense of what is going on now,” said Floyd. “It reminds people that this is temporary and things will get better.”

Floyd said he is reminding his patients that no matter how bad this year feels, it is temporary, and it is okay to start thinking ahead to things like travel and gathering again in-person with family and friends.

His advice is to be specific when thinking about the future, picturing things like exactly where you want to travel to, who you will spend Thanksgiving with next year and what new traditions you may want to start.

5. Be okay with shedding some tears

The advice from experts like Floyd and Beurkens is not meant to make people feel like they should not feel sad or lonely, they say, but to help them see and get to what’s next.

“It’s not getting over the emotions, but getting through them,” said Floyd. “The last thing people should do is be ashamed of those emotions.”

Both experts say it’s okay and perfectly normal to spend a few moments on Thanksgiving shedding tears or sitting for a bit with grief over what a strange holiday, and year, this has been.

“The strategies I’m talking about here are what to do next so that emotion doesn’t become the focus of the day,” said Floyd. “We can still generate joy even though there’s a sense of sadness or a sense of loss.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. You can reach Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 (U.S.) or 877-330-6366 (Canada) and The Trevor Project at 866-488-7386.

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