THE streets are alight with panoramas of Santa Claus dashing through the painted styrofoam and Christmas shoppers are crowding the malls. But some of us are feeling distinctly out of synch. We're not in the mood, we can't get into the spirit. In fact,we feel miserable, depressed. We're suffering the Christmas blahs, the holiday blues. What is it about this merry season that makes so many people so miserable? During the Christmas period, counsellors and therapists see a marked increase in clients, some of whom have taken drug overdoses in attempts to drown out the season. Some have gone further still, and tried to commit suicide. 'We usually find that our calls pick up around Christmas,' said Carolyn Neunuebel, a licensed counsellor in a group practice in Central. 'There's an expectation that we should be happier than usual and that everyone else is happy, so you think there's something wrong with you if you're not.' There are other pressures at Christmas, such as finishing projects at work or dealing with year-end finances. Some feel the pressure of friends and family, of having to spend more time than usual with cousins, uncles and aunts at obligatory family functions. And for those who are alone, there is rarely a worse time than Christmas. Christmas is a time when we think of people we miss, people who may be far from us or gone from our lives forever. Like Tom Hanks' character in Sleepless in Seattle, Christmas may bring on memories of happier times. As Hanks says of his dead wife: 'She made everything beautiful.' Memories such as this often serve to emphasise loneliness and displacement. But rather than trying to suppress these emotions, they should be examined. Dr Karol Misso, director of the St John's Counselling Service, said: 'Feelings cry out for recognition'. Interestingly, being away from home for is a mixed blessing for many expatriates. Some do feel a certain homesickness, but while this may contribute to depression, it does not necessarily cause it. And as Ms Neunuebel said: 'I have a number of patients whofeel that their decision to live abroad was a way of deliberately moving away from family.' One client, she said, was facing a home visit with great anxiety, because his memories of the festive season were decidedly grim. He would rather have stayed in Hong Kong. Dr Irene Allinson, who runs the psychotherapy specialist clinic at Canossa Hospital, cautions against thinking that feelings of depression are only holiday-related, especially if they last more than 10 days to two weeks. 'The holiday season itself serves as a catalyst for those who have been suffering unhappiness or depression for a long time,' she said. 'The season is supposed to symbolise goodwill, peace, unity, and festivities, but the person experiences the disparity between what their life is and what the season symbolises.' Dr Allinson sees a large increase in the number of people making appointments to see her at this time of year, but many are suffering deep-seated, long-term problems and may need to seek long-term therapy, she said. SYMPTONS AND SOLUTIONS Everyone experiences moments of feeling down, but clinical depression is a far more chronic problem than a few hours or days of feeling fed-up. The warning signs of depression have physiological, intellectual, and mood components, including the following: Trouble sleeping, loss of appetite, sex drive, and energy. (In up to 10 per cent of cases, exactly the opposite can occur - excessive sleeping, over-eating, etc). Lack of concentration and clear-thinking; loss of memory; obsession with the self. A feeling of being consistently down or depressed Lack of interest in job, family, and friends. This could lead to cutting yourself off from friends and wanting to stay at home all the time. Sudden, uncontrolled bouts of crying. A feeling of hope-less-ness, thoughts of wishing one were dead and of committing suicide. Ms Neunuebel said some patients say they get chest pains. 'I think we feel sadness in the heart area. I think all our emotions are felt in our body.' So what can you do when depression hits? The following suggestions are adapted from advice provided by Ms Neunuebel: Get adequate rest. Moderate your alcohol intake. People may drink more than usual during Christmas, going to parties and celebrations. However, alcohol is a depressant, and it depresses both your physical and mental functions. Drinking may also disrupt sleep patterns, which contributes to fatigue and irritability. Plan to do things you want to do. This will help you feel in control and provide something to look forward to. Talk to trusted friends. They will be sympathetic, listen patiently, and not be critical or falsely cheerful, which may leave you feeling worse. Adjust your expectations. Realise that you are not expected to be overjoyed. There are many others who are not completely happy, so remember you are not alone. Those who are severely depressed, especially those whose depression is accompanied by thoughts of suicide, must seek professional help. Some may wish to consult their family physician for a referral, others may wish to call one of the hot lines, such as the Samaritans (896-0000). The Samaritans provide 24-hour telephone counselling for emergencies and will refer you to further professional care, if necessary. The Community Advice Bureau, run by St John's Cathedral in Central, can provide a list of counsellors. Call 524-5444.