Coping with the Holiday Blues

Published December 14, 2012, Pawtucket Times

Chestnuts roasting in your fireplace, green wreaths with red ribbons and brightly colored lights on decorated evergreen trees may elicit pleasant thoughts about the upcoming holidays; however, these thoughts might just tear open old wounds and bring to the surface bad memories, triggering stress, tension and even depression.

Not every family gathering with your parents, siblings, children, or grandchildren will be as serene as a Norman Rockwell painting. Of course, everyone has heard horror stories involving holiday family gatherings.

Surviving the Stress of Family Visits

Allison Bernier, LICSW, Associate Director of Wellness Employment and Network Services, at the Providence Center, notes that while the holiday season can be a time of family celebration, joy, and companionship for many people, it can also be a very stressful time. “High expectations, disrupted routines, dealing with loss or separation from loved ones, financial strain, and time constraints can all exacerbate anxiety and depression,” she says.

Bernier, who has 15 years under her belt employed as a Social Worker, who now provides one-to-one counseling to clients for the past six years, provides common sense tips as to how to survive stress that can be ignited by holiday family gathering.

Fighting holiday blues can be as simple as being prepared for family conflicts and having a specific plan to handle the uncomfortable emotions that may arise, notes Bernier. Creating a list of “potential issues” and “role playing how you will react with people you trust” can be effective ways to survive difficulties that might occur, she says.

“It is okay to know that you don’t have to be happy during the holidays,” states Bernier, stressing “just accept your feelings and the place where you are at.” If needed, just reach out to your network of family or friends or contact a professional, she recommends.

According to Bernier, when expectations are unrealistic, we almost always will fail to meet them. Scale back on your plans, or ask for help Just keep your expectations low and when you visit family or friends, just go and enjoy the social interactions, she says.

If seeing family causes you great amounts of stress each year, it is alright to say no sometimes and celebrate with friends, Bernier recommends. If you don’t want to withdraw from your family gathering because of tension, you don’t have to, she says. “Just keep your visit time-limited,” she recommends, only going for an hour or two rather than spending all day at the event.

The holidays can easily become a source of stress, especially when you’re standing in long lines at the local mall waiting to buy the last available iPad while trying to remember how much money you have left to use on your credit cards. Writing out a gift list along with creating a budget for holiday spending can help decrease anxiety, too, Bernier notes. By setting spending limits you will also reduce the anxiety that comes with reviewing your post-holiday credit card bills.

Maintaining healthy habits can also take the blues out of your holiday, predicts Bernier. Enjoy some eggnog, cheese cake or pastries at a holiday party, but keep the balance by eating healthy foods (smaller portions), drinking alcohol in moderation, continuing to exercise and getting enough rest.

Coping with Holiday Depression

Besides family stress, other factors may well play into bringing on the holiday blues.

During this time of the year, some Rhode Islanders may even feel a little depressed or have suicidal thoughts with the approaching upcoming festive holidays, especially if they have lost a spouse and friends, are unemployed, experiencing painful chronic illnesses, or just feel isolated from others.

If this happens, “feeling low with nowhere to turn” as noted singer songwriter Bill Withers says is a public service announcement, there is a place to call – The Samaritans of Rhode Island – where trained volunteers “are there to listen.” Incorporated in 1977, the Pawtucket-based nonprofit program is dedicated to reducing the occurrence of suicide by befriending the despairing and lonely throughout the state’s 39 cities and towns.

Since the inception, The Samaritans has received more than 500,000 calls and trained more 1,380 volunteers to answer its confidential and anonymous Hotline/Listening Lines.

With the first Samaritan branch started in England in 1953, chapters can now be found in more than 40 countries of the world. “Samaritans, can I help you?” is quietly spoken into the phone across the world in a multilingual chorus of voices,” notes its web site.

Executive Director, Denise Panichas, of the Rhode Island branch, notes that the communication-based program teaches volunteers to effectively listen to people who are in crisis. Conversations are free, confidential and, most importantly, anonymous.

A rigorous 21-hour training program teaches volunteers to listen to callers without expressing personal judgments or opinions. Panichas said that the listening techniques called “befriending,” calls for 90 percent listening and 10 percent talking.

Panichas noted The Samaritans of Rhode Island Listening Line is also a much needed resources for caregivers and older Rhode Islanders.

Other services include a peer-to-peer grief Safe Place Support Group for those left behind by suicide as well as community education programs.

In 2011, The Samaritans of Rhode Island received more than 7,000 calls and hosted more than 50,000 visitors to its website.

The Samaritans of Rhode Island can be the gateway to care or a “compassionate nonjudgmental voice on the other end of the line,” Panichas notes. “It doesn’t matter what your problem is, be it depression, suicidal thoughts, seeking resources for mental health services in the community or being lonely or just needing to talk, our volunteers are there to listen.”

For persons interested in more information about suicide emergencies, The Samaritans website,, has an emergency checklist as well as information by city and town including Blackstone Valley communities from Pawtucket to Woonsocket.

Professional Galley and Gift Shop Supports Program and Services

In December 2011, The Samaritans began a social venture, by relocating to the City of Pawtucket’s Arts & Entertainment District, and opening the Forget-Me-Not Gallery and Community Education Center. Through partnerships with Rhode Island’s fine arts and crafts community, “we hope to foster hope, inspiration and commemoration of the lives of our loved ones who have fallen victim to suicide,” stated Panichas.

At the Forget-Me-Not Gallery, no sales taxes are charged on one-of-a-kind pieces of art work. The gallery also is a retail site for Rhode Island-based Alex and Ani jewelry and other giftware.

For those seeking to financially support the programs of The Samaritans of Rhode Island, its Gallery and Education Center is available to rent for special events, meetings and other types of occasions. For information on gallery rental, call the Samaritans business line at 401-721-5220; or go to

Need to Talk? Call a volunteer at The Samaritans. Call 401.272.4044 or toll free in RI (1-800) 365-4044.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers health care, aging, and medical issues. He can be contacted at


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