The holiday season can trigger depression and feelings of mourning, loss or loneliness among veterans. The concept of loneliness does not necessarily imply that a person is actually alone, but it is rather a subjective feeling or perception of being alone, isolated or disconnected from others. Newly returning veterans may have difficulty re-establishing their social relationships, which can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness.
Veterans may also feel nervous or on edge when in large groups of people due to symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Especially during the holidays, veterans may be more likely to isolate themselves from others to avoid talking about their past traumatic and stressful experiences and triggering intense emotions. For veterans, difficulty readjusting to civilian life and issues related to loneliness may become more apparent during the holidays.
Prevalence and causes of loneliness
Although few studies examine the prevalence of loneliness in veterans, one study found that 44 percent of veterans over the age of 60 reported feeling lonely at least some of the time, while 10.4 percent reported often feeling lonely. In addition, veteran loneliness was influenced by greater disability in daily living activities, lifetime traumas, perceived stress, and current depressive and PTSD symptoms.
Feelings of disconnection to and separation from others contribute to veterans’ loneliness. Jacob Y. Stein, from Tel Aviv University, and Rivka Tuval-Mashiach, Ph.D., from the Department of Psychology at Bar-Ilan University, found four recurring themes that contributed to veterans’ isolation from the general population and feelings of loneliness:
Veterans described living in “a different world” that contributed to their lack of fulfillment of their need for mutuality due to the sensation that the world has been divided into two experiential realms (i.e., that of normalcy and that of war).
A sense of two populations — those unfortunate enough to have been exposed to the trauma of their world and those who have not; only one type of person would understand what they are experiencing and what they have been through, and that person would be someone unfortunate enough to have gone through the same experiences they have.
Veterans often feel that “no one can understand.” This sense of failed relatedness is driven by the need to feel understood, but veterans are unsure of how to share their experience with others who might not understand. They also worry about the emotional consequences of sharing their experiences with others who may not have empathy toward them.
Lastly, veterans may feel a sense of being unable to explain their experiences, or that “there are no words,” to explain what they have been through when they do disclose their experiences.
How to combat loneliness
Loneliness can be detrimental to physical and mental health and well-being. To combat social isolation, veterans can do many things. Spending time with family and close friends can have positive health effects and make veterans feel more connected with others.
The following suggestions and tools can help veterans cope with isolation, stress, anxiety and depression that can be triggered during the holiday season:
2.Pace yourself and plan ahead to avoid surprises: The holidays can be a chaotic and stressful time. Prioritize and schedule your time by writing things down.
3.Take care of yourself: Stay active, exercise, get adequate sleep, eat a healthy diet, and limit or avoid alcohol. Also try to avoid certain situations that will lead to distress.
4.Volunteer: Instead of buying something, be of service to others by volunteering or providing another service for someone. Focusing on others and doing something good for someone who needs help can fight off loneliness and depression during the holiday season.
5.Talk to your social support network: Talking to someone trustworthy — like a close friend, family member, spouse, colleague or fellow veteran — can be helpful for relieving feelings of loneliness. One can also make plans to spend time with friends and family in places where they feel comfortable. Additional support can be found in one’s religious community.
6.Identify and manage stress: The holidays can be overwhelming. Recognize when you are feeling stressed and use tools such as mindfulness meditation, breathing exercises, keeping a journal, exercising or practicing relaxation techniques to keep stress and anxiety to a manageable level.
7.Reach out for help: Don’t be afraid to ask for professional help if symptoms are severe or are interfering with functioning in daily life. A mental health professional can help one deal with feelings of loneliness and other mental health issues. If you are feeling suicidal, you can call or visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273- 8255 and press 1 for the Veterans Crisis Line.
Following these suggestions can help veterans greatly through the holidays, which can be a stressful time for everyone. Veterans having difficulty coping with loneliness or intense emotional reactions in response to their experiences may benefit from seeking professional help to get them through the season. The Sovereign Health Group provides individualized, evidence-based treatments for substance abuse, mental health and co-occurring disorders, including PTSD. For more information on the Sovereign Health Group’s treatment programs, please contact our 24/7 helpline.
Written by Amanda Habermann, M.S. clinical psychology, Sovereign Health Group writer