Are you depressed, or just sian?


Feeling weary, unfulfilled, restless and down all at once? This sense of ennui is so familiar to Singaporeans that we even have a colloquialism for it that perfectly embodies the complex mix of emotions – “sian”.

But what does it really mean to feel sian?

The term is a catch-all of emotions ranging from listlessness to despair, so it is important to know where your feelings place along the spectrum to determine if your sian-ness is really a deeper mental issue that needs to be addressed.


50 shades of sian

When you say you’re feeling sian, it’s usually because you have no interest in your current activity. Being bored, discontented or sad in a specific situation – be it at work or at home – signals that you aren’t engaged in the task at hand.

“This is perfectly normal. Nobody can be happy all the time,” says Joel Yang, clinical psychologist at Mind What Matters.

What’s important is that you should always be able to attribute that feeling to something. “A stressful week at work or an economic downturn are just some situational factors that could be triggers,” adds Joel.

But being perpetually sian is a cause for concern. It is not uncommon for a downward spiral of negativity to quickly take you from the healthy end of the sian scale to the other extreme – depression.

Feeling sian causes you to lack the energy to do things you ordinarily enjoy, Joel explains. In addition, we tend to isolate ourselves and become more anti-social when we feel this way.


Read more: 7 surprising signs of depression


When you stop doing the things you like and socialising with others, your mood suffers further and this creates a cycle of negativity. Before long, you’re trapped without any reasonable explanation for why you feel incredibly low all the time.

“Depression is a prolonged and persistent sadness that takes away the joy in doing everything, even things you used to enjoy,” says Joel. That’s when you know that you should seek professional help. Some of his patients with the disorder can’t even bring themselves to play with their kids.


Some are more prone to feeling depressed

While some people bounce back from a rough day easily, others let their ill feelings fester to the point where it develops into an emotional disorder. This is the difference between those who just feel sian and those who have borderline depression.

The main reason for this is your explanatory style, which is how you make sense of the events in your life and what causes them to happen. Your explanatory style can be optimistic or pessimistic.

According to Joel, people with a pessimistic style subscribe to the three ‘Ps’. They believe that when something bad happens to them, it is permanent (they cannot do anything to rectify it), personal (it’s their fault it happened), and pervasive (the negativity affects all aspects of their lives).

Optimistic people, on the other hand, believe life can get better and that the bad is always temporary. They acknowledge that external factors have a part to play in a bad situation and that they aren’t the only ones to blame. And they don’t allow the effects from the single domain of their lives to spill over into other areas.

In order not to let your feelings of discontent spiral into depression, Joel recommends training yourself to consciously make an effort to think about life in this optimistic style. Reframing negative experiences in this way can protect you against depressive disorders, he explains.


Keep the sian-ness at bay

1 Recognise that you always have a choice

When things go south, it’s tempting to feel helpless and resigned to fate. But remember that you have the power to do something about it.


Read more: How to be happy and motivated at work


Everything you do is a choice, says Joel. Even if you hate your job, remind yourself that you chose to persist. Identify the reason you made that choice. It could be to support your family or because you’re passionate about the work you do (just not at the present moment).

“Having a larger purpose makes it easier to get through the things you don’t enjoy,” says Joel.

Even if you do not find a meaningful reason for your choice, you still have other options. “People say they can’t quit their jobs, but the truth is that they can. There will be other consequences but ultimately, they make the decision based on their own evaluation. It is within your control to salvage any situation.”


2 Be curious

When you engage in something you are interested in learning more about, it is naturally more enjoyable than something you can’t be bothered with.

Take for instance the delight you get from your hobby. Do you sometimes lose track of time because you are so immersed in the activity? This is what is known as flow – a heightened mental state in which you’re intensely focused on and energised by your task. This feeling causes you to want to keep improving your skills and challenging yourself further.

Joel’s advice: “Know the feeling of being engaged and transpose it to other activities. Learn to be curious about everything you do, even the things you dislike. Ask lots of questions and keep finding ways to challenge your thinking.”


3 Use your brain

When sian-ness attacks, your amygdala, the emotional centre of your brain, immediately gets activated and floods you with an overwhelming rush of anxiety, frustration or sadness.

The part of your brain that should actually be in control is your pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for reasoning. Joel says that all it takes is six seconds to activate it – simply find a mental task that requires you to concentrate.

“One easy fix is to count backwards from 100 in multiples of six,” he suggests. This method allows your problem-solving mode of cognition to kick in and override the emotional response, so you can rationalise and put the situation into perspective.