The Christmas music playing in the stores made me cringe. The retail advertisements and the holiday movies were painful. And the constant chatter about holiday festivities wore me out.

It was the first holiday season since my husband had passed away and it was far from feeling like the most wonderful time of the year. My grief made it feel like the saddest, loneliest time on earth.

As a psychotherapist, however, I knew I wasn't alone in feeling lonely (as strange as that may sound). Requests for therapy always skyrocketed during the holiday season.

A recent survey from AARP confirmed that people feel lonely this time of year. In a survey of more than 1,000 people, 31 percent said they had felt lonely during the holiday season sometime during the past five years. Forty-one percent also said they've worried about a family member or friend feeling lonely during the holidays.

Loneliness can feel never ending and overwhelming. Planning ahead can help you feel a little better. Establish a plan for how you'll spend the holidays--even if it's alone.

There are three distinct types of loneliness people seem to battle during the holidays. Here are the best strategies for coping with each type.

Emotionally Disconnected Loneliness

Emotional disconnection is when you have people around yet you feel misunderstood, unengaged, or unseen. Maybe you're married but feel very distant from your spouse. Or perhaps you just don't feel like you fit in at holiday gatherings with friends and family. You might feel lonely even when you're surrounded by people.

  1. Choose one person to engage with. Identify at least one person you want to connect with. Strike up a conversation with a relative you don't see often, introduce yourself to someone new, or ask an old friend some questions to catch up.
  2. Act more social than you feel. When you're with people--and they don't feel like your people--it can be tempting to sit in the corner. But it's important to send a message that you want to engage. Behaving in a friendly manner could be the key to forming deeper connections that ease your loneliness. Make eye contact, smile, ask thought-provoking questions, and stay engaged.
  3. Reframe your negative thoughts. Thinking things like "No one understands me" intensify loneliness. If you catch yourself thinking negative thoughts about yourself, other people, or your ability to connect, respond with more realistic statements. Repeat something to yourself such as, "We are just getting to know each other. It's OK if this person doesn't understand me yet."

Chronic Loneliness

If you feel fairly isolated and lonely throughout the year, the holidays can magnify your feelings. It's important to reach out and make connections with people.

Making a social move can feel too risky. There's no guarantee you won't be rejected. But studies show lonely people overestimate the likelihood that others don't want to connect with them. So keep in mind that your lonely feelings can impair your social judgment.

Here are some strategies that can work during the holiday season when you're feeling lonely much of the time:

  1. Invite someone to join you for an activity. You may find other people are happy to get together with you if you make the first move. Host a dinner party during the holiday season or invite someone for coffee. Encourage anyone attending to bring friends, too, so you can meet more people.
  2. Reach out to an old friend. It's normal to lose touch with friends over time. But sometimes it's easier to rekindle an old friendship than it is to start a new one. Use social media to connect, but make sure to set up face-to-face meetings to reduce your loneliness.
  3. Get involved in a community event. If you don't have anyone to spend a holiday with, attend a community event. A faith-based service or community dinner might be tough to attend when you don't know anyone, but there's a good chance you'll meet people and it might brighten your day.

Holiday-Onset Loneliness

Whether your kids are with the other parent this year on the holidays or this is the first year none of your adult children are spending the holidays with you, being alone during such a special time can feel gut-wrenching.

If you're going to be alone this year, a little planning ahead can help you make the most of the holidays. Here are some strategies that can work when you're feeling a void:

  1. Start a new tradition for yourself. Cooking a special meal for yourself, knitting yourself a new pair of socks, or leaving a surprise gift on a neighbor's doorstep are just a few traditions you might decide to start.
  2. Ask friends and family what they're doing for the holidays. Don't be shy about asking people what they're doing for the holidays. They are likely to ask you back. When they do, say you don't have plans. That can open the door to an invitation. Even if you only spend a couple of hours with someone you don't know that well, getting out of the house and being around people can make the day much more pleasant.
  3. Give to others. You might feel better when you're actively giving to others. Volunteer at a shelter, soup kitchen, or nursing home. Whether you serve food or sing Christmas carols, volunteering can help you feel better while also having a positive impact on those you're serving.

Reach for Healthy Coping Skills

The pain of loneliness can lead to unhealthy coping skills if you're not careful. Overeating, abusing alcohol, spending too much money, or calling an ex who isn't good for you might give you some temporary relief. But in the long run, you'll create new problems that worsen loneliness.

Identify healthy ways to cope with your feelings. Go for a walk, engage in a hobby, or do something kind for yourself. Limit your time on social media during the holidays if seeing photos of others enjoying the holidays deepens your sadness.

If you're feeling overwhelmed by your emotions, seek professional help. Loneliness can be a serious threat to your physical and emotional health. Don't be afraid to talk to a therapist.

Finally, remember to try and be inclusive of other people. As a community, there are many things we can do to help people feel less lonely around the holidays.