Words by ITV News Digital Content Producer Talia Shadwell
People across the UK are being forced to spend another Christmas Day alone, with soaring cases of the Omicron Covid variant sending thousands into self-isolation.
England is currently under 'Plan B' measures, which means wearing masks in most indoor locations, working from home where possible and showing Covid passes at large events.
Plus, anyone who catches the virus must isolate for seven days.
Some scientists are urging Boris Johnson's government to step up restrictions, as the NHS strains under pressure despite the ramped-up nationwide booster drive.
And the hospitality sector is pleading for support, as people abandon pub and restaurant bookings as the latest Covid wave forces hundreds of thousands into isolation once again.
ITV News spoke to experts about how to cope if you're facing a lonely Christmas.
How to cope if Covid has cancelled your Christmas twice
For many up and down the country, the deepening winter crisis feels like a bad case of de ja vu.
As Brits prepare to dust off the webcams, download Zoom, and brush up on virtual pub quiz knowledge once again, psychotherapist Noel McDermott assures there is a bright side.
For many of us, this is not our first rodeo - and he encourages people fearing another period of loneliness to draw upon the coping tools learned in the past two years.
"It's not anything new anymore - it's not like we need to reinvent the wheel. The wheels have come off again - but you have a spare wheel."
'This year is different'
Last Christmas, the UK faced down the winter without vaccines.
This year, the majority of the eligible population is protected by at least two doses, and increasingly by boosters.
Mr McDermott advises: "One of the things I say to people is that 'you can see a difference between this year and last year."
"What's happening this time around is we are just putting off (Christmas) for a short while."
The psychotherapist, who is a mental health, addiction and trauma expert, described people's ability to endure the past year's challenges as "remarkable".
He encourages those feeling down about Christmas plans being ruined to dwell on the "altruism" they have been demonstrating by protecting others they don't even know.
He adds: "Try to reframe the experience to do the things you do enjoy, and what you do have is a great toolbox of strategies already."
'Make plans for Christmas 2.0'
Mr McDermott encourages people to try to resist the urge to dwell on missing out on December 25, and instead start planning for a time when they can have a reunion gathering with loved ones.
"Embrace the reality instead of pining for what you wanted your day to be, and you will get through the uncertainty."
What if I have no coping strategies left?
For people spending Christmas alone while suffering with serious mental health issues, addiction, or bereavement, Mr McDermott recommends revisiting and activating 'crisis' plans offered by mental health professionals.
Letting trusted friends and family know you may need extra support, looking for helplines, and initiating contact with your established support groups - like a GP, counsellor, Alcoholics Anonymous, or an eating disorder charity, for example - are good places to start.
He also encourages people to "relax" and avoid engaging in behaviour that could spiral during times of emotional pressure, like extreme dieting.
"Just give yourself a break."
People who rely on medication for mental health issues should also make sure they have access to the correct supply while isolating, he says.
Mr McDermott says last year's lockdown highlighted the power of neighbours, local volunteers, and faith groups in helping get essential supplies to vulnerable people.
He suggests tapping into those groups again ahead of Christmas, to ensure you have everything you need to get through a tough period.
So, time for another Zoom Christmas then?
Many of us may be feeling screen fatigue after the pandemic's repeated lockdowns.
But video calls and phone chats can help take the edge off a lonely Christmas, Mr McDermott says.
That also applies to people who are not spending Christmas alone - but may find themselves lonely anyway, as they isolate in a living situation like a flat-share, instead of spending the day with family.
In any case, reaching out to others virtually can help you cope, he says.
"When you socialise on the phone or Zoom and connect to someone who is important to you, hormones are released that make you feel good - the 'love' hormones that are released whenever we speak to someone we care about."
Christmas can already be a stressful time
While it can be tempting to over-indulge at Christmas, Mr McDermott warns that turning to drink or drugs in a time of emotional vulnerability can be dangerous - especially if there's no one around to keep an eye on you.
People prone to substance abuse or living with ongoing addiction issues should prepare established coping strategies and crisis plans to ward off a relapse, he advises.
He also encourages family members and partners for whom the Christmas period often brought stress around a loved one's addiction issues to reach out to family support services.
I'm not isolating - but everyone else I know is
Mr McDermott recommends heading outdoors if your circumstances leave you cut out of gatherings this Christmas.
"Take a walk. We are social animals, but humans can also reduce stress just by being around nature.
"That doesn't have to be climbing Mt Everest - go for a park walk."
Should I reach out to someone who seems lonely?
Most of the time, the answer is a clear 'yes,' says Mr McDermott.
But some people prefer their own company or limit who they speak to about their mental health - so explicitly offering support is not always the best thing to do, he warns.
Find another unrelated reason to initiate friendly contact, or research what you you're going to do to help if you think you may be the one to get a crisis call, he recommends.
Stephen Buckley, from the mental health charity Mind, adds that Christmas can be "overwhelming" for many people.
"It's a time of year that often puts extra pressure on us, emotionally, socially, and practically.
"However, there could also be other reasons why it might be more difficult. For example, if you are experiencing mental health problems, isolating, or don’t feel able to spend time with the people you want to be with this Christmas, while others are enjoying being reunited."
Mind's suggestions for helping friends and family suffering with poor mental health alone, are:
Reach out. "You might not be able to see them in person – but even a call, email or text can be a big help. You could ask them how regularly they’d like to hear from you and when is the best time of the day or night to contact them."
Don't be afraid to ask how they are. "Let them know you understand Christmas can be difficult, especially this year, and you're there for them. They might want to talk about it, or they might not. But just letting them know they don't have to avoid the issue with you is important. If they do open up, listen to what they say, and accept their feelings."
Don't try to cheer them up. "Whatever your intentions, these aren't usually helpful things to hear. For example, try to avoid saying things like 'but Christmas is supposed to be a happy time' or 'you could enjoy yourself if you tried.'"It may also help to avoid saying things like 'there are people who have it worse'."
Remember, don't take it personally if they choose not to join in. "It may feel disappointing, but it doesn't mean they don't care about you. There is no ‘normal’ response to this pandemic, they may be feeling anxious or stressed about socialising at the moment. They aren't trying to spoil Christmas. No one chooses to find things hard."
Do you need help?
Contact Mind at the charity's infoline on 0300 123 3393 or email email@example.com.
Family and friends affected by a loved one's addiction can reach out to DrugFAM for support, seven days a week. Phone 0300 888 3853 from 9am-9pm 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
Contact the Samaritans by calling 116 123 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.