Christmas can be connected with family togetherness, over-indulgence and gift-giving. But for many it's a time of anxiety and loneliness. What can we do to improve this?

A few weeks ago, my doctor asked me how I was feeling about Christmas. My daughters are not with me this year, but I am lucky enough to be surrounded by lots of family, and I know my girls are also having a lovely time. She went on to say that for many of her patients, the idea of Christmas fills them with dread: isolation and inadequacy, exacerbated by the lack of light and SAD (seasonal affective disorder).

Reasons for loneliness

Frequent reasons for feeling lonely include the loss of loved ones, social events (too many, or even the opposite - feeling excluded), being overwhelmed with things to do, general end of year fatigue, and comparing yourself to marketed perfection.

Rachel Boyd, from the mental health charity Mind, said,

"Loneliness isn’t the same as being alone. Some people choose to be alone and live happily without a lot of contact. Other people might have lots of social contact, be in a relationship or part of a family, and still feel lonely."

Loneliness, age and health

If we are lucky enough to have a long life, we will see friends and family die. That means we have to work even harder to retain good relationships with family vertically, and continue to make new friends.

Most of my neighbours are elderly. The lady opposite is 94, lives in the beautiful big farm-house she was born in, and lives a mostly solitary life. She is lucky. Her son visits every day. But still, she aches for some companionship and conversation. When I talk to her in my fragile French, when my daughters wave to her and chat with her for a few minutes, her face lights up. She always tells me that she lives in that big house all alone. She feels old and scared often. Scared to walk down her steps, for fear of slipping.

Alongside Brexit, Prime Minister Theresa May is taking loneliness seriously, calling it "one of the greatest public health challenges of our time”.

And it is a health challenge.

According to Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chairman of the Royal College of GPs in the UK, lonely people are about 40% more likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke over the Christmas period.

Steve Cole, professor of medicine and psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and director of the UCLA Social Genomics Core Laboratory has found that loneliness affects us on a molecular level, altering genes connected to inflammation, which leads to numerous diseases.

So what can we do about it?  

Well, let’s start with the basics. Take care of your general health: what you eat and how you exercise, even in winter.

Try to carve out some space each day just for you, whether that means a bath or reading… whatever is ‘you’ time. If you can’t make ‘you’ time, then you’re probably doing too much, some of which is possibly not entirely ’necessary’. Just drop a couple of perfection levels and prioritise what’s crucial.

If the opposite is true and you have too much time to fill, reach out to old friends, write letters (a beautiful, slightly lost art), volunteer with a charity or animal shelter, knock on your neighbour's door and chat. Offer to help them with something - there are always jobs to be done.

For those of us who move country a bit, we know that we rely on ‘new’ friends to help us. We don’t have family nearby.  In all the places I have lived I have only found support when I have asked for it; often even before I asked it was offered. People love to help.

This is perhaps the greatest gift we can receive - the feeling we get when we help another. Our wellbeing is increased three-fold: we feel-good for doing good, we are less lonely, and our actual health is improved.

Lisa Burke, RTL Today creator and presenter