When the holidays aren't as happy as they're supposed to be, counselors call the mental state -- unofficially -- the holiday blues. The generic moniker doesn't describe a clinical condition, but one that's all too common. Holiday blues occur when people stress out as times get too chaotic or don't live up to their expectations. Counselors say having the blues is about control: The holidays control the person and the person has lost control of the holidays.

'We're separated from our families, we overindulge -- eat a lot of rich foods, drink to excess -- and the overindulging can contribute to our feelings of not being ourselves and not feeling quite right,' says Dr. Karen Broquet, associate professor of clinical psychiatry and internal medicine at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in Springfield. 'It compounds things if you're feeling blah and unsettled, anyway, and you've got invitations to four parties in a week, and you're eating a lot of fatty foods or drinking more than you're accustomed to. It just contributes to a cycle.'

Randy Larsen, head of the Department of Psychology at Washington University, prefers to frame the malady as holiday stress rather than blues.

'The people who get in trouble around the holidays are people who do too much, expecting too much of themselves and others,' he said.

The birth of the blues

The blah feeling that's opposite of what folks are supposed to feel during the holidays has many sources:

Biology: Larsen says stress combines with a biochemical component to bring on the holiday blues. 'People drink more alcohol. People change their eating patterns. They eat more unusual kinds of foods that throw them off.'

Disruption: 'There's just a lot of disruption around the holidays, socially, biochemically,' Larsen said. 'People are thrown off-track, and they're more emotional and reactive.'

Too much time: Add that to the extra time on some people's hands, and the mix can be sorrowful. 'Some people have trouble when they have a lot of time on their hands,' Larsen said. He compared it to the Sunday effect: Psychotherapists generally get most of their emergency calls on Sunday. Their patients are alone, not at work, not socializing.

Loneliness: Loneliness is a feeling of being out of control, a feeling of being separated from family and friends because of forces that you can't control. Unrealistic expectations: 'If your expectations are too unrealistic, then you're setting yourself up for disappointment, and disappointment is a big part of the blues,' said Dr. Joan Lang, head of the Department of Psychiatry at St. Louis University School of Medicine. 'Take a realistic look at your expectations and how likely it is that this holiday will meet them at all.'

Flooded with false images: Television constantly presents the public with images of family and holidays that relatively few people are living.

'Resist the constant bombardment of things that don't exist but are presented throughout the atmosphere as the norm, such as the perfect family, the perfect body, the perfect incomes that few, if any, people ever achieve,' Lang said. 'It's the 'Santa only brings toys to good little kids -- not naughty kids or kids living in poverty.'

'If you're aware that you're being manipulated, the chances of (TV images) working are reduced a little bit. You know the shows on TV are made up, and the beautiful people who surround you at every turn, that's their full-time job, being beautiful.'

Counselors suggest doing something about it.

Larsen has co-written a textbook that includes a chapter on being happy. He says those elements can apply to holiday blues. The bottom line is take control, he says, and decide not to feel bad and not to do the things that generate bad feelings.

'Manage the stress or the expectations or activities,' he said. That sometimes means to learn to say no. 'Keep a lid on things and don't let them get out of control.'

Don't let demands on yourself and the demands of others wreck your disposition. For example, if you're supposed to bring pumpkin pies to a gathering, buy them at a store, he said. The hours it takes to prepare them sometimes can take more of a toll than just the time.

Broquet, of Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, says another way to take control is to embrace the original meaning of the holidays.

'People who have a strong faith or spiritual background tend to be less prone to the expectation mismatch of holiday blues than people who have a purely secular approach,' she said. 'And it doesn't matter what your faith background is, whether it's Christian or some other faith.

'One of the theories is that a strong faith goes hand in hand with a sense of meaning or a sense of purpose. When things are going well, having a core sense of meaning is nice, but when things are not going well, having a core sense of meaning or purpose for the suffering has a very strong protection against depression and other emotional fallout from the suffering.'

Lang suggested setting priorities and limits. 'Don't expect more than your world might deliver,' she said, 'and don't take on more than is realistic.

'Concentrate on the part of the holiday that has to do with being with loved ones, faith traditions. Look at the reality you have and see what you can do about it so it won't sandbag you.'

As for loneliness, 'Realize you don't have to be alone,' Lang said. 'There are people in the same boat, people in the neighborhood, or at work or more distant family.

'A lot of it has to do with how you frame it. If you're thinking, 'Poor me, I'm alone,' that's not likely to turn into a nice day.'

Larsen suggested continuing your routine and taking time for yourself. 'Don't quit exercising because you're busy,' he said. 'To keep down the disruption, continue doing the things you like to do.'

How to feel better

Mental health experts emphasize that you shouldn't get holiday blues mixed up with depression. Depression brings your life to a standstill and should be treated with counseling and possibly medication. Holiday blues can be relieved with some affirmative action. If you can laugh, and an invitation or getting out of the house cheers you up, you've got the blues, not depression.

Counselors suggest avoiding excessive alcohol as a way to buffer sadness. Alcohol is a depressive drug and will make matters worse.

Here are some other suggestions:

Don't automatically attribute sadness to the holidays. You may have a reason to feel sad that has nothing to do with the holidays.

Don't try to do and be everything. 'Negotiate with yourself,' said Dr. Joan Lang, head of the Department of Psychiatry at St. Louis University School of Medicine. Decide what you can and can't do and what you will and won't do, and then enforce your decisions.

Don't dwell on past bad holidays. Look to the future and dwell on the good things that are happening to you now. Both the good ol' days and the bad ol' days are gone.

Focus on what you have, not what you don't have. This attitude protects people around the holidays: 'In another generation we would have called that counting your blessings,' said Lang. 'We tend to focus on what we don't have. But when we focus on what we do have, regardless of how meager it might be, it really has an impact on the emotional component.'

Surround yourself with people who care. Make new friends. Renew old friendships.

Don't sit around the house feeling sorry for yourself. Hit the road, take in a movie. A lot of people are out after the day's festivities are done.

Do something new. If you haven't tried it, try it. If you have and you liked it, do it again.

Do free things. Drive around looking at holiday decorations. Go window-shopping. Check local calendars for free or inexpensive outings.

Accept people's invitations. Just because you're too cool for a tree-decorating party doesn't mean there won't be nice people there.

Have your own party. Invite friends over and enjoy the company.

Volunteer to help others. This can range from building houses to reading books to children. For ideas, check out the United Way Web site (www.stl.unitedway.org/ volunteer). Or call Rick Skinner at 314- 539-4284, or e-mail him at skinnerr@ stl.unitedway.org. 'It's fine to support charities that support your goals and values,' said Lang. 'The more personal and meaningful the gift, the better.'

The suicide myth

The belief that suicides increase during the holidays has become so entrenched that some news stories tend to repeat it without checking out the facts, according to several studies on the issue.

The truth is that suicides actually drop between Thanksgiving and Christmas, said Dr. Karen Broquet, a professor of psychiatry at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in Springfield. The American Association of Suicidology confirms that December has the lowest suicide rate of any month of the year. The National Center for Health Statistics has found that suicides drop by about 20 percent during the holidays.

Studies show that suicides average about 36 for every 1 million people nationwide during the year, but drop to under 30 during the holidays. April, June and July are actually the highest months for suicides in America.

Researchers found that very few publications attributed statements that the risk of suicide increased during the holidays. The studies didn't address television news.

The National Institutes of Health reports that the primary causes for suicide in America are bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, and conditions that mimic mental illness during episodes of drug or alcohol abuse. The federal agency added, however, that depression can intensify during the holidays.

(Copyright (c) 2004 The Post-Dispatch)