My journey through seasonal depression in a culture that doesn’t always talk about it

Everyone feels sad sometimes, but being raised in a conservative culture that has a hard time talking about emotions can make it harder.

Everyone feels sad sometimes, it’s a completely normal human emotion to feel. However, being raised in a conservative culture that doesn’t place much emphasis on emotions can have a real dire impact as you encounter hardships in life.

Such was my experience with Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. 

Seasonal Affective Disorder is estimated to affect nearly ten million Americans each year (and likely a comparable amount of Canadians), with another 10-20% of people experiencing mild SAD in some way, shape or form. The symptoms of SAD can occur year-round but are more commonly experienced during the fall and winter months when there are significant changes to the amount of daylight a person receives. 

The symptoms of SAD can blend with the symptoms of major depression; noted feelings include loss of interest or pleasure in activities that were once pleasurable, feeling hopeless or helpless, headaches, stomachaches, less productivity and a negative effect on interpersonal relationships.

What does this have to do with being Asian or growing up in an Asian household? Nothing and everything at the same time. 

There are a few scientific studies to support the hypothesis that seasonal depression more greatly affects people of Asian descent but of course, it doesn’t prove that there is a genetic predisposition towards SAD, nor does it exclude people of different ethnicities from experiencing it. We are all human after all. 

Still, I often wonder if there might be just the tiniest correlation between being from a culture that doesn’t historically engage in dialogue around emotions or arm us with tools to strengthen our emotional intelligence, and having a more difficult time moving past those feelings once they surface. At the very least, it would provide an iota of comfort in knowing that those feelings are in some ways out of our control. 

Growing up in the rainy Pacific Northwest, I am no stranger to gloomy, grey, soggy weather. It isn’t unusual to get three months straight of rain without a single break of blue sky.  

When I moved out East and endured the brutal -30º winters, I suddenly found myself discombobulated and submerged in a feeling that became a force of its own. Every year like clockwork, the symptoms started to appear in September, clouding my memory and blurring the winter months until late spring.

Motivation would dip, productivity would dissipate, and inexplicable apathy would erode any desire to follow through with plans or activities. Every movement felt heavy like I was wading through molasses. 

What added to the mountain of blues was this unspoken expectation to feel joyous during the holiday season and in the months leading up to them. Again, there is no correlation between being Asian and feeling more SAD during the holidays, but being in that mindset, it certainly did not help to feel left out of the North American holiday narrative as I witnessed friends, colleagues, and strangers experience mainstream holiday traditions.

The SAD hole would get more comforting to sink into.

When I reflect now on those hazy years with hindsight, it’s clear that the one factor that exacerbated my seasonal depression was not having an outlet within my family to express sadness without fear of judgment or catastrophe. It felt unnatural and dramatic to share with my parents how I was feeling as if admitting anything contrary to “fine” would cause us both great discomfort. Them in feeling helpless and me in feeling guilt for adding to their constant, overflowing concern for my wellbeing. 

As I end this piece feeling uncomfortably exposed, I think it’s always worth having a dialogue about less shiny experiences. Some people are fortunate enough to have an open dialogue with their family, and others may be fortunate to have a different outlet (I fall into the latter category). I also believe feeling more comfortable with emotions — especially negative ones — is a learned behaviour, one that I’m slowly teaching my parents to adapt to without undue panic. 

Most importantly, acknowledging sadness helps normalize talking about emotions or at the very least, validate that feeling sad is normal and not shameful. Being aware of its normality is the first step in reducing the stigma of being sad and preparing you for the next time you square off.

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