Battling the Blues

Feeling sad during the holidays is common. An expert on loneliness reveals how to handle it.

byKate Hynson


November 26, 2019 .7 min read

With the holidays in full swing, you might find yourself feeling down or out of it. If so, you’re not alone. Gloom is an irony of the season. Experts tell us that bouts of despair spike this time of year, though many of us are surrounded by friends and family and joyful celebrations.

Why is that? And what can you do to avoid the blues? 

To learn more, we sought out Reina Zelonky, a Manhattan marriage and family therapist who specializes in loneliness. In fact, she’s built her practice around that very issue -- getting to the root causes of isolation, whether from romantic troubles, family trauma, financial stress or other influences.  

“As humans, our struggles are cyclical,” she told myWorth reporter Kate Hynson during a conversation in her Upper East Side office, where the 30-something Zelonky sees clients. Her work at the addiction center Hazelden Betty Ford, with veterans at a VA hospital in L.A. and with children with learning disabilities at New York University informs her approach to combating the reasons for feeling all alone.

“We might be drinking or spending or not getting along with our partner but our problems, at their core, are simple and repetitive.”

As Zelonky expanded on that concept, we were fascinated by what she had to say. 

myWorth: Why do so many people become lonely? 

Reina Zelonky:  Loneliness comes from not being your authentic self. It doesn’t always mean that you don’t have friends or you don’t have family, but in order to feel connected to people you have to be vulnerable. You have to be honest.

mW: Aren’t relationships the answer?

RZ:  People can be in marriages or friendships but they’re kind of like roommates and nothing real is talked about. That can lead to loneliness because those aren’t deep relationships; they’re functional elements of your life. A lot of times when people are lonely, they are not connecting in a meaningful way and they might not know how to do that because maybe they grew up in a family where their parents never did, or they never learned that skill. 

mW: So it goes back to early childhood? 

RZ: Yes. Maybe being alone is comfortable, maybe it’s familiar. Perhaps when a person was  little they would have problems and would isolate themselves and that was their way of protecting themselves, and they thought retreating was helpful. But maybe it wasn’t. We have to look at what they are doing to make themselves feel better when they’re feeling sad. Is that approach working?

mW: So it’s a matter of breaking old habits? 

RZ: It’s also a cultural thing. In our country, there is such a push toward being on your own. Many people in their twenties live alone. For young parents, it’s hard to share what they’re going through, to let others know they’re struggling and need help. But in other cultures they’re much more communal. If you have a kid, you have grandparents and aunts and uncles and everyone lives around you. Or if you’re a young adult, you might still live with your parents.

mW: Why is feeling despondent acute this time of year?

RZ: The holidays are unbelievably hard for people. The amount of distress and pain my clients are experiencing, it's shocking. The season highlights what they don't have, instead of what they have. People are mindful if they're single, if they feel like they should be in a relationship. For parents who don't have kids or are struggling with getting pregnant, they can feel very alone.  

mW: Holiday parties can be fun...or agonizing.

RZ: Everyone says, “How are you doing? What are you up to?” Those questions can feel like an evaluation of self. And many families connect over alcohol, so that’s particularly hard for people trying to get sober and also isolating because who wants to hang out with someone who’s not going to drink with them? 

mW: We can’t imagine that Black Friday splurging or running up credit card bills does much for one’s peace of mind. 

RZ:  People are going on fancy trips, they're buying nice clothes, and they are putting it on their social media. The reality is that people who have beautifully curated social media accounts are often not so happy.

mW: Trying to show you have more than your neighbor is a very New York thing. 

RZ:  I mean, it's New York, It's competitive. And money is symbolic of a lot -- of success, of comfort, of safety. People feel like they don't have enough and everyone has more than them. Not to be gendered, but I think that for men a lot of times their self-worth is based on that.  And for women, there’s a desire to look good and feel good. 

mW: Shopping as therapy?

RZ: What I noticed, which is really quite sad, is that so many people spend more than what they have. They sit in a lot of debt, which to me has to do with what I was telling you before about being authentic. People want to pretend that they have more money than they have to keep up, which leads to this spiral of shame and lies and loneliness. They don't know how to say, “I can't afford that trip” or “I can't afford going to dinner” or “I can't buy these presents.” 

mW: As a therapist, how do you help them work through that? 

RZ: I try to understand what the self-esteem piece is rooted in, why it's hard for them to feel good about themselves. We work on qualities they like about themselves, what their friends and family love about them. Then we work on impulse control - finding other mechanisms to comfort themselves when they want to spend and trying to practice how you say no.

mW: Love thyself?

RZ: There's so much self loathing. When you hate yourself,  you use these mechanisms to avoid yourself, like spending and drinking and eating in excess. It's also really hard to connect with people. 

mW: Does confidence -- or a lack of confidence -- contribute to loneliness?

RZ: Yes. You have to find a way to break that negative pattern in your head and say positive things and nurture yourself because at the end of the day, we spend the most time with ourselves and in our own head. But we have the capacity to change our inner dialogue.

mW: Is dealing with loneliness more difficult for those who live alone as opposed to married couples or people in a relationship?

RZ: I think so. It’s probably harder if you really don’t have relationships in your life. Then we might start by talking about how to build relationships, how to connect to groups or classes. Most people have people in their life, right? They have friends, they have a job where they see people. They have families. But they’re not being open with those people so they’re feeling alone. When they’re having a down moment, they’re not talking about it. They’re hiding it and pretending everything is fine, which makes the situation worse. 

mW: How do you get people to feel more comfortable with being vulnerable?

RZ:  I’ll bring in Mom, Dad or a family member, sometimes a friend, and have them practice having really deep conversations to show them that it’s not that scary. It feels good. Some people think that therapy is talking about ideas. I think change happens in the experience. It  happens through feeling differently in the session. And doing that encourages you to do it again. 

mW: Do you get pushback from clients who don’t want to bring in a family member?

RZ: Yes. If they don’t want to bring someone in, their experience with me is an experience of itself, too. So the relationship is between me and them. Learning how to be vulnerable in a session with me can feel not scary but safe and nurturing.  

mW: Do you find that loneliness is circumstantial? 

RZ: Definitely. Life transitions can bring out and bring up anxiety and depression. Young adulthood is very challenging, for example. Being in your twenties, post-college, can be hard to navigate. There’s a lot of uncertainty. How is their life going to turn out? How are they going to make money? How are they going to find a partner? Even people with others around them do not always share what they’re going through.  

mW: Marriage also can be quite stressful. 

RZ: A lot of young couples starting out don’t have resources. For someone who becomes a new mom, there aren’t many avenues for talking about how challenging that is. Everyone is kind of on an island. With couples, money is a big stressor, especially in Manhattan. If they’re living beyond their means, that can feel like treading water all the time. Sometimes it’s one partner talking to the other. “You're not making enough. We can't go on vacations. We can’t send our kids to all the programs.” And the other partner is like, “You don't value me. You don't notice that I'm working as hard as I can.” 

mW: How do you encourage your clients to open up about their financial problems? 

RZ: I say, “Hey, everything's fair game in here. This is a safe space.” But there is a lot of shame around, certainly for clients who are really overspending or are in relationships they’re hiding from their partner. One client’s credit card kept getting denied for sessions - that’s a talking point within itself. 

mW: Do you ever see spouses separately? 

RZ: One woman I work with, she and her husband struggle in certain ways, so he comes in around every six weeks. He has his own therapist too, but his seeing me is a way for us to bring up stuff his wife might need help with. It's also helpful for me to get information about her in that relationship.

mW: Some therapists see the work they do as similar to a physician who sets a broken bone or removes a tumor. Is that your view? 

RZ: Yes. Our struggles are medical, even though they’re described as emotional. It's like in order to not get a cold again, you take vitamin C and get good sleep and drink lots of tea. Our emotional needs are very similar to our physical ones. There has to be maintenance. That’s where self-care comes in. 

mW: What advice would you give to someone dealing with loneliness or anxiety? 

RZ: I would say you're not alone. Talk about it. Find an avenue -  a therapist, a friend, or the person you think is your problem, right? Even if it’s uncomfortable. All it takes is one person opening the door for the other person to enter. And beyond anything else, try to nurture yourself. Tell yourself you’re doing a good job.