Beating the Holiday Blues
Centre County is full of resources for those facing a lonely season.
December 01, 2023
By Teresa Mull | Photos By Georgianna Sutherland
The holidays are said to be “the most wonderful time of the year.” Yet for many people separated from friends, family, or home, those struggling through a break-up or divorce or those dealing with holiday-associated trauma, the bright lights, cheerful music, social gatherings and festive events can be more painful than joyful.
“The holiday blues,” reports the website Everyday Health, or “temporary or situational anxiety or depression during the winter holidays is quite common.” For those living in the State College region, though, the good news is that there are plenty of resources available to help you cope with this sometimes-lonely season.
Family and friends, honest communication
When it comes to overcoming anxiety and loneliness, “I am a big proponent of relying on family and friends [and] open and honest communication regarding how you’re feeling,” says Dr. Fidelis O. Ejianreh, a family practice physician at Toftrees Family Medicine. “Joining groups or communities with shared interests, such as sports, exercise, music, or crafts may help to alleviate the anxiety of the holidays. Do not be afraid to explore interests out of your comfort zone — including volunteering or taking a new class.”
The Women’s Adventure Club of Centre County (WAC) is one of dozens of local groups that uses the website (and app) Meetup to coordinate and advertise events. A quick search of State College on the site brings up a mix of clubs and groups dedicated to diverse interests, including astronomy, brunch, wine, gaming, hiking, writing, running and “love after divorce.”
Group members of the Women’s Adventure Club pose for a photo during one of their weekly hikes.
Lisa Wandel started WAC, and one month after the group began, back in 2011, met Linda Marshall, who is now one of her best friends.
“We think everybody experiences loneliness or has lonely aspects at some point during their lives,” the friends say. “Having the chance or opportunity to join other women who share a common interest — hiking, kayaking, biking, backpacking — helps one feel less lonely, especially if new to the area, socially isolated, away from family and friends, etc. Time and again, our members express their gratitude for these opportunities to be outside and more importantly, having someone to do them with.”
Many WAC members, says Wandel, “are women who have recently moved to the area. These women, as well as those not new to our area are looking for other women to do outdoor activities with, to learn what opportunities our area has to offer in terms of outdoor adventure, as well as learning skills and know-how from other women, such as backpacking trips, bicycle tire changing, packing for bike touring, etc.”
Another beautiful aspect of this club is that it’s welcoming to all ages.
“It’s neat to see college students hiking with women over 60,” Marhsall and Wandel say. “During our events, it’s not uncommon to hear women sharing their knowledge on other similar interests, i.e. knitting groups, running groups, birdwatching, etc.”
The friends cite scientific research that’s found “two of the key factors in keeping your brain healthy — and slowing the decline of memory loss and lowering the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias — are regular exercise and social interaction. Furthermore, social interaction helps ward off depression and stress, according to the Mayo Clinic and other credible sources.”
“There really is nothing more uplifting than getting out in the fresh air for exercise and activity,” Wandel adds. “And having somebody to do it with is truly icing on the cake! And guess what? It doesn’t cost anything — it’s free!”
Free events are abounding in the State College area, and if you’re looking to partake in something festive that will be full of new faces, check out downtownstatecollege.com/events.
St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on Foster Avenue also provides a free community dinner at its Community Café each Thursday “to anyone and everyone who comes through the door.” In past years, Santa Claus himself was one of those “anyones” who walked through the door.
Dr. Ejianreh is a big advocate of yoga and notes that it can be done in a group or individually. Though social interaction helps stave off loneliness and is associated with many health benefits (State College is home to many yoga studios), Ejianreh understands group yoga isn’t for everyone. To realize yoga’s advantages, he says, “You don’t even have to leave your bedroom if you don’t want to.”
Find a way to occupy yourself
Ejianreh understands the feeling of being alone during the holidays. He is from Nigeria and when he moved to America for his schooling, “I didn’t have any family. I just threw myself into work. I worked extra days, overtime, so other people could be with their families. Work was one way that I dealt with loneliness.
“I realize this may not work for everybody,” Ejianreh continues. “Take advantage of the rise of technology. It is now very easy to connect with friends and family. Video call them; be a part of the party. Join different groups. Find a niche, whether it be volunteering, joining a hobby group, or get in your car and just drive. I love doing that. If you have friends locally, make plans to spend time with them. Find a way to occupy yourself by reading, listening to music, going to the outdoors and finding a way to expend physical energy.”
Outdoor exercise, by the way, is a “natural antidepressant,” reports Piedmont Health, and “can help ward off seasonal affective disorder, depression and anxiety because sunshine naturally increases serotonin, a hormone that affects your mood. And exercise itself produces endorphins, another feel-good hormone that boosts your mood and reduces pain.”
Eating and drinking sensibly should always be a priority, but the National Mental Health Alliance notes it can be especially challenging at this time of year, when indulgent foods and tempting beverages are everywhere. Overdoing it on rich foods and alcohol — which is a depressant — might feel good in the moment but makes us feel worse in the long run. Be mindful of what you’re eating and drinking, and partake in moderation.
Executive Director Jordan Taylor serves lunch at Out of the Cold in State College.
The power of volunteering
Volunteering is an activity that can combine social interaction with physical activity, resulting in “lower rates of depression and anxiety, especially for people 65 and older,” says the Mayo Clinic. The Mental Health Foundation reports on evidence that “shows that helping others can also benefit our own mental health and wellbeing” by reducing stress and improving mood, self-esteem, and happiness through a dump of dopamine — our brains’ feel-good chemical.
The holiday season is typically when many non-profit organizations are busiest, and volunteering in the State College area has never been easier thanks to Volunteer Centre County, “a free, user-friendly website and app that enhances community engagement through promoting nonprofits’ needs for volunteer service and donated goods, thereby increasing the quality of life in our community, while helping to build a stronger Centre County.”
“With more than 75 Community Partners and an increasing number of opportunities to give back, Volunteer Centre County is a good starting place for finding ways to give of your time and/or donated goods in Centre County,” says Volunteer Centre County executive director Ann Echols.
Reflecting on how helping others helps her personally, Echols says she feels “refreshed and renewed, because when I focus on the needs of others, I can put my own needs behind me and/or get a better perspective on things. This helps my mental health and also gives me a sense of satisfaction and gratitude for having been able to make someone else’s life better. The gratefulness of others lifts my spirit and increases my faith in the goodness of our community.”
Like the Centre County Meetup page, Volunteer Centre County offers many opportunities to suit various abilities, availabilities, interests, and needs. Other organizations, including Penn State Student Affairs and the Centre County YMCA, also provide lists of volunteer opportunities.
“The need for volunteers is always changing,” says Echols. “Yes, some needs are for long-term reliable volunteers to serve on a regular basis. Centre Volunteers in Medicine, for example, is blessed to have some volunteers who have been with their organization over 20 years. Some volunteer opportunities are for one-time events or are for tasks that can be easily accomplished in a short amount of time, like helping paint Out of the Cold’s new space. There is a lot of variety. Volunteer Centre County uses filters to help sort volunteer opportunities by what age(s) are recommended for the task, by cause, by group or individual, etc.”
When asked about the emotional, mental, and spiritual benefits she’s witnessed in others who volunteer and benefit from volunteer work, Echols is brimming with examples.
“With Master Gardeners’ adult outreach, my heart smiled when one program participant in a wheelchair said that she travels across town on the bus to come to our Tuesday programs because they make her so happy. Look at the effort she goes through to get there, I thought, ‘Wow! I am humbled!’ I was truly touched,” she recalls. “With Big Brothers Big Sisters, the smile on a kid’s face is a huge day brightener when you listen to their story and get it and give them a high-five for being brave and they smile back and say ‘Yeah, thanks.’”
Sometimes, even the simplest gestures can have an immense ripple effect, Echols reminds us.
“When you pay forward a cup of coffee for the car behind you at Starbucks or Dunkin’ — which happened to a friend the day she heard some sad news — profound. She felt cared for by a stranger which really amazingly touched her and helped her feel cared for.”
If you’re an animal lover, Volunteer Centre County offers plenty of opportunities to help our four-legged friends through Centre County PAWs and other organizations. And, if you’ve been considering adopting a rescue pet, this lonely time of year might be the pawfect time to make that dream a reality: Forbes reports that, “Studies have shown that pet ownership may be associated with lower degrees of loneliness.” If you’re adopting a dog, you’ll be required to get out and about for walks, and remember that fresh air and exercise are excellent at assuaging stress and anxiety. Plus, you may even make some new friends at the park, too.
“Listening, being empathetic, being compassionate, being energized by love and being a helper do wonders for my spirit,” Echols says. “Some people call it servant leadership. I tend to think of it as joy and goodness that warms the soul. The November 2020 edition of the Camden Chronicle quotes, ‘When you’re helping those in need, it’s easy to feel good about yourself. Volunteering stimulates feelings of euphoria and promotes the release of endorphins, which can give your self-esteem a much-needed boost. Volunteers report having better health, self-esteem, and personal satisfaction than non-volunteers.’ So, selfishly, if you have the energy to spare, volunteering may provide the boost you need to keep going during the busy holidays and demands of the season.”
Regarding holiday-specific volunteer opportunities, Echols has some ideas “During [this season], giving back becomes very popular. The holidays are about sharing, caring, and spreading joy — not just for your family, but for others. By volunteering and donating, you can brighten the holiday season for those who may not be as fortunate, and transform the world into a better, happier place. During the holidays, I used to host our neighborhood holiday party and for several years. We collected gifts for families sponsored by the Youth Service Bureau, and another year we all made Jared Boxes. Holiday parties can be really fun with a charity spin on them.”
Nevertheless, if you still don’t feel quite up to joining a group for a volunteering project but would like to follow Dr. Ejianreh’s top tip of keeping yourself occupied during this difficult time, the holidays are an excellent time to declutter your home, get organized and donate unneeded items.
Echols points out that “many organizations in Centre County rely on private donations.
Volunteers prepare a dinner in the Community Café for the public at St. Andrew’s.
“Volunteer Centre County is the place to find out what donated goods are needed in our community,” she says. “Supplies, meals, snacks. These small items make a huge difference in the budgets and functioning of local nonprofits. Those holiday gifts that you may not use? Well, re-gift them to a local charity’s silent auction. Or, are you replacing old things with new but the old are not in bad shape? Consider donating them to the Habitat for Humanity ReStore or to CentrePeace. Check out the website to learn where you can help others this holiday season.”
Recognizing when you need professional help
There is, of course, dignity to be found on the receiving end of charity. Realizing when you need help and seeking it is sometimes the greatest gift you can give yourself and your community. Dr. Ejianreh acknowledges that mental health struggles tend still to be “very much stigmatized,” though they are also “a growing problem in society.
“People should seek help without fear of ridicule or shame if they think they need help,” says Ejianreh. “People dealing with mental issues should be treated with empathy, understanding, compassion, love and respect. If you have any thoughts or concerns about your mental health, it’s probably time to seek professional help. If family members, friends, or co-workers express concern about you, it is probably time to seek professional help. Typical signs of anxiety include irrational fears, irritability, change in sleeping pattern, anhedonia (losing interest in things that used to please you), isolation, avoiding friends and social gatherings, change in appetite, weight loss, etc. Some of these symptoms apply to depression, also. We recommend that you seek help from a doctor who has a holistic approach to treating mental health disorders.”
At Toftrees Family Medicine, patients can choose among many treatment options, says Ejianreh.
“Our treatment philosophy is a combination of traditional medicine and complementary therapies,” he says. “While we prescribe medications, including anxiolytics — as a last resort, not first — we have great success treating anxiety (and other health disorders) with medical marijuana, which has been approved for the treatment of anxiety in the state of Pennsylvania. We certify patients and follow them closely, while working with other specialists, in a team approach, as necessary. We work with specialists with complementary treatment approaches such as mental health counselors, behavior modification therapists, nutritionists, acupuncture, massage, music, art, shiatsu and reiki practitioners. We treat the mind, body and spirit for a more wholesome outcome.”
Community members enjoy a free dinner in the Community Café at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church that is offered to the public every Thursday.
Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church serves weekly, free meals at its Community Café on Thursdays from 5–7 p.m. The Café is located at 208 W. Foster Ave. in State College.
The Café will host a Christmas dinner between 5-7 p.m. on Christmas Day, Dec. 25. It will either be ham or turkey, depending on donations.