Third Culture Kids and the Winter Blues

by | Jan 25, 2022 | Blog | 4 comments

How are you doing? I mean, really? Something I’m hearing a fair bit of right now is how people are suffering from the ‘winter blues’. This seems to be a fairly common phenomenon in the northern hemisphere, and not a particularly Third Culture Kid issue. Humans need a certain amount of vitamin D, daylight, fresh air and physical activity to feel good – and winter typically messes with these elements. There are things we can do about this of course… we can take supplements, make ourselves go on walks even when it’s grey and cold and open windows every now and then to take in a lungful of cold air. But it’s a lot of work, and the sheer decrease of daylight hours can make our days feel… disappointing.

And while the winter blues are not strictly a TCK issue, they can taken on an extra layer when we grew up in a hot country and pine especially for warmth and light. Or perhaps we grew up in a cold(er?) country and winter triggers expectations of misery from those childhood years of frozen days. Either way, it comes to the same thing – we’ve not learnt to make friends with winter yet.

Some of you reading will be recoiling at that last phrase – who wants to make friends with the winter blues?! And okay, I hear you. But, as I often do, I’m going to invite you to consider your own story as guide here.

What were winters like as a child? Mostly pretty warm in my case – though an occasional cardigan became necessary if chilly mornings arrived in the Sahara. But English winters were grey, wet, icy and very occasionally, with snow. Worse, English winters required the wearing of tights, an item of clothing I continue to reject into my adulthood and one that I absolutely hated as a child. In fact, layering of any kind I found frustrating – all that putting on and taking off of layers and layers of clothes, just to try and stay warm. But the cold was worse. In adulthood in fact, this has become additionally complicated by my joint condition that makes cold a precursor of physical pain – where I just sort of shut down actually, if the cold gets, as I describe it, into my bones.

What about you? Were there skiing trips, or roaring fires? Was there any discernible change in temperature at all? Were their family visits? Or nothing special happening? Christmas often breaks up the monotony, but it’s simplistic to assume these were always happy interruptions to the rest of the winter season.

In your story, how have you learnt or been taught to feel about the season?

Perhaps you can find no distinct narrative from family or culture in your story about winter, and so your winter blues finds it’s home more your current dislike of the season, or even in in Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Whatever your story of the winter blues, there is a good chance you’d like to change it.

To do this, I think we have two paths we can use – and I’d invite a combination of both – Identity Behaviour and Identity Narration.

Let’s start with Identity Narration. We simply can’t feel better about winter if we are always telling ourselves we hate it and that it sucks. That simply tells our mind to feel terrible about winter and, voila – we have the winter blues. If every time we open the curtains on a winter morning we are communicating (to ourselves and anyone else who is around to listen) that we are a person who hates winter, we become a person who hates winter. We’ve written our own script to that effect, after all.

So let’s write a different one. I’m not saying you try and invalidate your feelings of finding winter hard. But there is a difference already in “I’m a person who finds winter challenging” and “I’m a person who hates winter and doesn’t do well in this season”. The first statement is an identity that has some wiggle room, some “growth mindset” as they say. The second is fixed, an identity that is static and ain’t gonna budge for no-one.

Instead we say to ourselves (and anyone who will listen!) “I’m disappointed the sky is grey again, but I’m looking forward to seeing the birds more clearly because the trees are bare”. We focus on what we are enjoying – despite and even because it is winter. We keep being ourselves, even in winter. Otherwise, the winter blues strips us of our identity, of our sense of self. I hear this a lot, “I just feel less myself this time of year”. No wonder we feel blue, it’s miserable and frightening to feel a season has the power to take away part of what makes us who we are.

And this brings us to Identity Behaviours. We are what we do, after all. If I do crochet, I’m a crocheter. If I play piano, I’m a pianist. If I find ways to continue to access who I am, even in winter, I preserve myself from the identity stripping potential of this season. What can be truly beautiful, in fact, is to notice how different seasons can invite us to lean into different aspects of ourselves. I’m a big picnic person. This is much harder to lean into during winter months (though not entirely impossible with enough determination!)

So I need to lean into different parts of me – the nesting part of me is good at this time of year. I become more focused on the interior of my home – candles, blankets, food. It’s easy for me to worry that my other identities (the parts that love outdoor socialising, gardening, etc) have failed me somehow at this time of year but if we can find a rhythm, where there is a time for all our parts, then winter can be something we actually look forward to, a time we access and express a different part of ourselves.

What parts of you could lend themselves to this season? Do you craft or have other ‘inside’ hobbies? These are probably ones you don’t want to do so much in sun and heat… so their time is winter time. If you see friends less, this might be the time to make use of letter writing and emails/social media, to stay in touch from the comfort of your own home. This can be hard during times of COVID especially, but online communities are abundant and are likely to exist around your areas of interest. It can be heart-warming to see your newsfeed fill up by people who get excited by the same things you do.

A bit challenge for me in this season of the winter blues is that I feel I get less done. The lack of daylight makes it hard to feel motivated either early on in the day, or later in the evening. My identity narrative tends to sound more like “I’m less productive this time of year” but with work and intention, this can change to, “I’m rolling with a different rhythm this season, taking time to rest and recover and taking my cue from the sun”. And that feels a whole lot better. So my identity behaviour needs to follow this too, expecting less burst of energy but instead validating my need for rest and comfort, trusting that when the sun comes the rest of my energy will follow, but the more effectively for this present time of rest.

I loved this article on how the Norwegians do it (and if you have experience of this culture I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!) – if a winter mindset can chase away my winter blues, I’m in!

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. dan elyea

    Hello, Dr. Rachel . . .

    I’m feeling miserably unwell, so experiencing my own “winter blues” in spite of living in Florida. Just clocking in with a couple random observations.

    Previously, I lived in coastal Massachusetts. I recall particularly the month of November as a time when many experienced heightened levels of depression (even though not officially winter yet). Reason being that you could go the entire month and never see the sun because of constant overcast. Just gloom and doom.

    Seems like excessively hot months can spark irritability and anger. We live surrounded by the weather. Winter brings a sharp upturn in expenses for heating; summer does the same for cooling. My favorite season is spring; signs of new life, and winter gradually fading; moderating weather (except for tornadoes and the like). But some of my siblings prefer fall . . . I’m not sure why. Perhaps the moderating temperatures, the fall colors, harvest time. But it seems rare to hear anyone say that either winter or summer is their favorite season. Guess we’re lacking Norwegian influence.

    Dan

    Reply
    • Dr. Rachel Cason

      I’m so sorry you are feeling unwell, Dan – and I hope you are feeling better now? Not seeing the sun much does seem universally challenging to our moods, and you make a good point about the additional stress of heating costs in the winter. Here in the UK we do very little about cooling costs but I hear you for your part of the world.

      Reply
  2. Olivier Fabre

    I used to hate winters as a teenager growing up in Tokyo until I moved to the UK for college and realized that even if Tokyo winters were cold they were more often than not magnificently sunny and bright. Until then I could only compare Tokyo winters with the weather in the region I first grew up before Japan (Chennai, India) where I had no concept of cold seasons. I still love hot humid summers but I have come to appreciate bright cold winters. And I think now I would be able to go back to Europe knowing I (probably) could find a way to appreciate cold wet winters (maybe).

    Reply
    • Dr. Rachel Cason

      I love this – thanks so much for reading! For me cold wet winters invite different behaviours or responses from me, warm stews, candles, blankets, cosy evenings… and while I don’t love the weather, I love how the weather invites me to respond to my needs…

      Reply

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