This weekend, pink hearts and sappy romantic slogans will blanket Sacramento. Sales of greeting cards and chocolate will soar.
But for people spending Valentine’s Day alone, the air of romance can be a little overwhelming. Every couple walking by hand-in-hand and each floral bouquet delivered to co-workers can trigger feelings of grief, self-loathing and failure for those who are feeling lonely, whether they have lost a loved one, recently experienced a breakup or are simply single and looking for a match.
“Valentine’s Day is so shamelessly promoting this idea of passion and romance and the perfect relationship, and that’s difficult when people look at their own lives and wonder, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ ” said Emiliana Simon-Thomas, a neuroscientist with UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, which researches the science of well-being.
The problem has become worse in the age of social media, where people cut and paste only their best moments for the whole world to see, she said.
“We’re constantly seeing or hearing about other people who seem happy all the time, especially when we’re looking at our Facebook news feed. ... Social comparison is really a beast on Valentine’s Day.”
That line of thinking can be particularly dangerous for people with pre-existing mental health problems, said Danielle Grossman, a Truckee-based marriage and family specialist who specializes in relationships. Romantic trouble is the primary cause for suicide-related calls, which spike around Valentine’s Day, according to the Suicide Prevention Service of the Central Coast.
“If someone feels this is how it’s always going to be, that’s a real kicker,” she said. “That can lead to depression. That’s where we want to come in and see the bigger picture. ... It’s a combination of honoring the loneliness without judgment, and finding some ways to reach out.”
Fortunately, there are lots of ways to avoid slipping into a funk during the lovey-dovey weekend, whether it means getting out of town, doing something extra special with a friend or taking some time for yourself.
Here are a few tips for making the most of Valentine’s Day regardless of relationship status:
A key component of Valentine’s Day sadness is a sense of grieving – be it for someone you’ve recently broken up with or someone who has passed, Grossman said. In either case, there’s a need to process what you’ve lost and what you still have.
“What’s actually been lost is you’re no longer with that person,” she said. “But over time, we start to put those pieces of ourselves back together, and we realize, ‘I am still here.’ ”
The trick is putting life in perspective, said Tonya Elliott-Walker, a marriage and family therapist who serves as clinical director for the University of Phoenix Sacramento Valley Campus Counseling Skills Center.
“People can be stimulated by social media and commercials and things that would remind them of Valentine’s Day in a way that reminds them of loss, or they can choose to remember happy times,” she said. “If it’s triggering, focus your mind and attention on the things that are going well, the things that do make you happy.”
Every Valentine’s Day, Barbara Stewart, a 75-year-old Sacramento widow, thinks about the heartfelt cards she used to get from her husband, Mark, who died of a heart attack 15 years ago. She keeps them in a special box to help her remember their decades together.
“I could still sit down and cry a lot of tears,” she said. “I had someone that left a big hole in my heart, and who I’m missing every day. So every day there’s going to be something – something you will look at or see, or something that you’ve done that makes you remember that it was an amazing time.”
Get out and do
One of the best ways to boost self confidence after a loss is to get out and do something you enjoy, experts said, even if it’s something you’ve never done before. That could mean cooking a nice meal, going on a hike or taking a class.
“When the ground beneath your feet is unstable, it’s a very ripe time to try new things,” Grossman said. “Anything that sounds interesting – if you can get out, get out and do it.”
If feelings of loneliness have you down, it’s important to spend time with family friends and fill the need for human connection, said Elliott-Walker.
Stewart will spend Valentine’s weekend, like she does most weekends, with the Widowed Persons Association of California’s Sacramento chapter. The group organizes dancing, bowling and more for people who have lost a spouse. They also hold grief recovery workshops and group support sessions on Sundays.
“You have to reach out,” she said. “If it’s all about you, you’re never going to be happy. But as soon as you find somebody else, that changes everything. They can encompass you and put their arms around you and tell you that they know. ... There is a tomorrow, and that’s the beauty of life. But you need someone to come alongside you and walk you through.”
Jennifer Elena, who runs a Sacramento Meetup group for single people under 50 of all sexual orientations, made a point of scheduling three events for the upcoming weekend – one casual dinner and two board game nights. She said she fends off Valentine’s sadness by spending time with people and eating lots of chocolate.
“I hate the idea of someone alone on that day if they don’t want to be,” she said in a Meetup message. “My group is not a pickup-type group. ... If a love connection happens, that’s OK. But the focus of the group is making new friends.”
No plans on Valentine’s Day? Write a gratitude letter, said Simon-Thomas, of the Berkeley center.
Acknowledging the people in life who have been there for you can help to dull the pain of someone who’s not, she said.
“Perhaps instead of sitting around and feeling insufficient in your own life, you could be proactive and write three gratitude letters and call three people up,” she said. “It’s a way to focus on what’s there – what they do have, rather than what they used to have or what they don’t have in that present moment.”
Whether the letters leave your home or not, they are a useful way to conjure feelings of love and affection. Research has shown that gratitude reduces the output of stress hormones, including cortisol, a hormone associated with depression, during challenges and crises. It also has been linked to the release of positive hormones, such as oxytocin from the pituitary gland, which helps strengthen social bonds.
“There’s a barrier to doing anything if you’re feeling a little down in the dumps,” Simon-Thomas said. “But maintaining the perspective that this isn’t just something for someone else but a treat for yourself too could provide a pick-me-up.”
Resources for coping with loneliness:
▪ WellSpace Health 24-hour Suicide Prevention Hotline, 916-368-3111
▪ University of Phoenix Sacramento Valley Campus Counseling Skills Center, 916-830-3812
▪ Widowed Persons Association of California, Sunday Support, Sunday from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., 2628 El Camino Ave, Suite D-18, Sacramento 916-972-9722
▪ Single in Sac (20s, 30s, 40s) straight & LGBTQIA, Valentine’s events at various locations, More information at http://www.meetup.com/SINGLESinSACRAMENTO/