“Everybody hurts sometimes,” as “R.E.M.” sang. In other words: some days, life sucks. You feel sad. But what is sadness? Can it be healthy? Might it even be helping us evolve? Here’s what you need to know to get over the hump and process your sadness in a healthier way.
Emotions are weird. They’re subjective, temporary, and rarely follow a logical pattern that you can track in your head. You might benefit, then, from keeping a mental health journal. It’s a smart idea that lets you look back over periods of low mood to see what might be affecting you:
- A journal helps you track your symptoms. At the bottom of each entry, rate your mood out of 10 for two key metrics: how negative you’re feeling and how intense that negativity is. Then, you’ll be able to spot patterns emerging at certain points of the week or month.
- Journaling helps you put your feelings in perspective. You can prioritize self-care during periods where your mood is notably low instead of worrying whenever you dip below a score of 6 or 7 out of 10. Not every bad day is a big deal. A journal helps you see that.
- Journaling empowers you to spot triggers and negative behaviors. If you spot something that’s setting off your sadness, don’t just ditch it. Instead, plan to replace it with something more constructive. It’s best not to simply avoid negative triggers, but to proactively approach positive ones. If you feel the urge to shut yourself away, make a conscious effort to get active.
Sometimes, however, sadness is unavoidable. Understanding and accepting it is the key to enduring and moving past it in the healthiest possible way.
The biology of sadness
Evolution has provided us with few tools that aren’t useful. It’s easy to see how emotions like anger and fear have helped to keep us alive as we evolved. But what about sadness? Crying isn’t known for its ability to help you dodge sabertooth tigers.
But researchers have worked out that when you’re sad, communication increases between two bits of the brain which deal with memory and emotion.
Evidence suggests that sadness carries some very specific evolutionary benefits, like:
- Increased motivation. Signaling to your conscious brain that something’s wrong with your environment that needs changing.
- Improved memory and judgment. Making you focus on the correct decisions to alter the conditions which are making you sad.
- Greater focus on social interactions. Helping you read emotional cues from others and express yourself better to improve your social environment.
So don’t worry too much if you’re having a bad day. It sucks right now, but the ability to feel and empathize with sorrow is part of being a complete, emotionally mature human.
So really, the question you need to ask yourself isn’t, “how to not feel sad.” It’s not even something specific like, “how not to be sad on Valentine’s Day when you’re single and your ex is all over Facebook with their new partner.”
What we really need to know is how to feel sad for a healthy amount of time, process it, and find ways to move on.
Getting there means ditching some big myths about happiness which have become ingrained in our culture:
- We like to think happiness is a human’s natural state. It isn’t.
- It feels like being unhappy makes us defective in some way. We’re not.
- Some think a good life contains no negative emotions. They’re wrong.
- Many feel we should have full control of our emotions all the time. That’s impossible.
Our current, evidence-based understanding of sadness runs counter to these myths. The name of the game is acceptance: realizing that in each life, some rain must fall. Here’s what three major schools of thought today have to say about sadness.
Sadness in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
In CBT, the key is restructuring those negative thoughts and behaviors.
A big part of CBT involves recognizing avoidant coping behaviors among peeps with feelings of depression and helping them act consistently with their values despite wanting to avoid action and isolate themselves.
CBT helps people with depression engage in “behavioral activation.” This means they can act more consistently with their values, becoming more active and social despite feelings of sadness or low motivation.
Once you can identify negative thoughts, you can then target them. Instead of “I feel sad, how can I magically get happy?” you think “such-and-such is making me sad… now what can I do to change that?”
Sadness in acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)
ACT focuses on embracing what you’re feeling instead of fighting it. It teaches you how to avoid adding discomfort to pain by trying too hard to get rid of sadness altogether — which runs the risk of an out-of-control spiral pretty darn quickly.
ACT assists people in focusing on behaviors that help you live out your values and find/work toward your purpose instead of devoting resources to the struggle against sadness directly.
If you’re sad, ACT tries to help you accept your sadness while pursuing what you value most in life. It’s a normal and inevitable part of the human experience — it makes sense that you feel sh*tty after painful experiences.
ACT helps you sit with your sadness without self-judgment. Trying to control or avoid sadness can make it more intense over time and lead to unnecessary suffering.
Sadness in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
DBT might be good for you if you have trouble regulating sadness, or if sadness gets in the way of your relationships with others. It helps you focus on what’s going on in the moment and what you have at your disposal to improve that moment.
It’s particularly good at helping you set clear, respectful boundaries with others when it comes to the triggers of your sadness.
You might see self-acceptance and desire for positive change as contradictory. DBT resolves that by saying “sure, it’s healthy, normal, and OK to be feeling sad right now, but it’s not your final destination.” This does wonders to ease the shame some people feel about feeling sad when everyone around them seems so happy.
People undergoing DBT learn a core set of skills, such as:
- interpersonal effectiveness
- emotion regulation
- distress tolerance
Realizing that other people’s feelings are as valid as your own, including their negative feelings, puts your experiences in a positive context.
Staying in touch with your emotions
Don’t feel as though you only need to engage with your own feelings in emergencies. You don’t just take your car to the garage for regular servicing and checkups when it’s about to break down.
Treat your body and mind in the same way.
Set time aside every few months for an emotional checkup. Reflect on your journal, and don’t forget to congratulate or treat yourself if you’ve managed to stay relatively upbeat for an extended period — not everyone manages that.
Consider speaking with a psychotherapist or counselor, even if you don’t feel like you have any chronic mental illnesses. It can really help to have another perspective on your life from a professional whose role is to listen. Some offer sliding-scale or low cost options if budget is a concern.
Once you’ve processed sadness, it’s time to move on.
It can be a huge relief to come to terms with your own negative emotions and understand their triggers. In particular, realizing that you’re not defined by your lowest moments is liberating. But the point is to acknowledge these feelings without letting them drown out what’s really valuable in your life.
How to boost your chances of happiness
Allow yourself a few simple changes to your daily routine which give you a little pick-me-up — whether it’s going for a morning bike ride or taking a long, hot bath instead of a rushed shower. These are small, controllable things in your life that may feel like luxuries, but they’re serving a very nonluxury purpose.
Don’t try to force happiness on yourself, you can’t do that. Instead, you’re engaging in behaviors which raise your chances of coming into contact with rewards. Exercise makes you feel better. Taking the time to pamper yourself nets you compliments from your cute coworker.
These rewards may then bring about feelings of happiness. They also might not, but if you’re doing enough positive things, you start to load those metaphorical dice in your favor.
Reassessing your relationships
Long periods of sadness might cause you to withdraw from social interactions. That’s not a great thing if it harms your ability to reconnect with people and get happy again. But listen to what your brain might also be telling you — not everyone is good for your mood, and peer pressure doesn’t only happen to teenagers.
We tend to seek the approval of those around us. Consider whether the people you spend your time with are encouraging positive actions and a healthy mental state.
Use your journey out of sadness to distance yourself from those who might be part of the problem and proactively seek out the company of those who encourage positive behavior patterns.
Sadness is a normal and sometimes even healthy part of the human emotional spectrum. Depression, officially known as major depressive disorder (MDD), is a recognized mental health condition.
Sadness has its time and place just like happiness, love, and even other negative emotions like anger. But if you find yourself experiencing sadness for extended periods of time, it might be a symptom of depression. Look for other triggers which might indicate a specific depressive condition like:
- persistent depressive disorder, where symptoms can come and go frequently over years
- postpartum depression, which happens during or just after pregnancy
- seasonal affective disorder, where your mood is affected by the onset of weather changes
If you think you’re dealing with depression rather than simply feeling sad for a couple of days, it might be wise to talk to a mental health professional.
Being sad sucks, but it’s not forever.
It’s best to take a proactive interest in your own emotional needs. This’ll give you the skills to spot when something more serious, like depression, might be afoot. But for the most part, try to enjoy the ride as best you can. Bad times can often be a sign that good times are on their way.