Sadness is a common and expected aspect of being human, but feeling sad can also signal a larger mental health condition. Being able to identify sadness and recognize the difference between it and depression is essential for anyone hoping to improve their mental wellness. Effective coping skills and professional treatments allow people to acknowledge, accept, and process sadness.
What Is Sadness?
Sadness is a basic emotion and human experience, but it can be challenging to define or explain. Often, sadness is viewed as a negative, unwanted, and undesirable feeling, so people work to avoid sadness and focus on happiness. People may learn to fear their sadness and feel that they are powerless to prevent or address it.
Sadness is actually a powerful tool that can help people adapt to problematic situations and grow into the person they wish to be in the future. Feelings of sadness can be the motivation for introspection about your life, your support system, your routines, and your goals for the future.1
Whether it’s called agony, hurt, sorrow, dismay, or distress, sadness has the power to affect people physically and emotionally. Physically, sadness can bring about pain in the form of headaches or stomach. It can cause soreness in the body. Emotionally, sadness can result in being tearful, angry, irritated, or isolative.
In most situations, sadness is a passing emotion that improves with time. People should practice caution with their coping skills, since some activities used to cover up or reduce sadness in the short-term can lead to future sadness that is more intense, more frequent, and longer lasting.
Why Do I Feel so Sad? Causes of Sadness
The causes of sadness are endless, but not universal. One person may experience great sadness brought about by something that has no impact on another. One person could feel sad about many causes, while another only experiences sadness from one or two stressors. Depending on your history, life experiences, and biological makeup, certain people, places, things, and situations can bring about sadness.
Some common causes of sadness include:1
- Poor relationships with family or friends
- Struggling to do well at home, school, or work
- Being ill or dealing with a loved one’s illness
- Moving to a new place
- Losing a loved one due to death, distance, or separation
- Physiological changes linked to puberty, aging, changing seasons, or substance use
- Feeling out of control or overwhelmed with world events
- New thought patterns that prove unhelpful
- Feeling lonely in a relationship
For some people, sadness is always laying in wait with only a sad commercial subtle reminder of a painful memory needed to spark tears. Other people may not feel sad on a regular basis as they shift their emotions towards other feelings.
Mental Health Diagnoses Related to Sadness
Sadness itself is not a mental health diagnosis, though several conditions are strongly correlated to the feeling. A range of depressive, bipolar, anxiety, and other disorders may all take root in sadness, distress, and despair.
When a person comes to a mental health professional with complaints of sadness, the expert will gather information to differentiate expected levels of sadness from diagnosable mental health conditions like:
Sadness and depression are associated but not synonymous. Sadness is a common symptom of depression, but sadness alone is not enough to have depression.
Depression is a multifaceted mental health concern that affects a full range of the person’s experience including:2
- Energy and motivation changes
- Diet, weight, and sleep changes
- Low self-worth
- Excessive guilt and shame
- Increased thoughts of death
- Lower levels of attention and decision making
A condition like major depressive disorder will have the ability to create periods of intense and lasting sadness. Another condition, called persistent depressive disorder, may have a strong link to sadness as well. In persistent depressive disorder, the person will experience sadness frequently for at least two years. At times, people with this condition may fail to remember times when they were not sad.2
An easy way to conceptualize bipolar disorder is experiencing depressive episodes and manic or hypomanic episodes. The mood episodes linked to bipolar disorder could alternate, or someone could experience several periods of one episode and then switch to the other.2
Manic and hypomanic episodes do not typically include sadness. This feeling will be isolated to depressive episodes and include other depressive symptoms. So, if periods of sadness are followed by periods of mania with features such as sleep deprivation, high energy, grandiose thinking, and increased interest in dangerous or risky behaviors, bipolar disorder could be the source of sadness.
The most common symptoms of anxiety disorders are worry, tension, fear, and panic, but sadness is linked to several anxiety disorders with separation anxiety being the most notable. Separation anxiety affects children and adults with most cases occurring in people 12 and younger.2
In separation anxiety, the person will feel intense worry and sadness when forced away from their attachment figure. During the time apart, the person could be tearful, irritable, sullen, and distressed.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) tends to present following an experience that threatens the health and safety of the individual or of their loved one. This condition will spur on many unwanted mental health conditions with sadness being a stand out.
Along with a desire to avoid thoughts of the situation and a new level of reactivity, PTSD can produce thinking changes. These cognitive changes can diminish interest in socialization, shrink wanted emotions, and magnify the presence of unwanted feelings like sadness.2
Alcohol and other drugs have power to alter a person’s feelings during and after use, and though they are typically consumed to elicit pleasurable feelings, substance use may cause sadness. Alcohol and stimulant drugs, like cocaine or methamphetamine, can trigger sadness during the intoxication phase.
Many additional substances may induce moments of intense sadness during the withdrawal process. In some cases, this sadness can be quite extreme and dangerous as it may result in self-harm and suicide attemtps.2
What to Do When You’re Feeling Sad: 8 Ways to Cope
Most see sadness as a negative and unwanted emotional response, so they quickly try to diminish and defuse the feeling. Sadness is not a positive, but positives can come from the situation when people take appropriate steps to cope with the feeling.1,5,6
If you’re feeling sad, here are eight strategies that might help you feel better:
1. Acknowledge Your Sadness
Denying and avoiding the feeling are common reactions when sadness first emerges. Ignoring sadness does make it go away magically, so people should always do their part in acknowledging and accepting the emotion.
Through acknowledgement, people can begin to understand the root of their sadness, the underlying contributors, and what makes it worse. Acknowledging and accepting the sadness does not mean you are happy about it. Rather it means that you are willing to recognize the response and the effect it has on your physical health, your mental health, and your overall well-being.
During the process, spend a few minutes each day tracking your sadness to see how it may change over the course of days and weeks. This information gathered may prove invaluable later.
2. Be Honest
Now that you can begin to see the sadness in your life, share your experience with others. Let them know the impact this feeling is having on your daily routines and health. Most importantly, work with them on ways to start feeling better through a give and take conversation that includes their input and your goals.
Although being honest is a good idea, being honest with everyone could be problematic. Inspect your life for friends and family members who have proven themselves reliable and trustworthy as helpful supports. Giving people this information may make you feel vulnerable, but it helps to give your loved ones a clearer picture of who you are and what you are struggling to overcome.
3. Check your Diet, Exercise, & Sleep
Plenty of helpful coping skills for sadness target your mental health, but no one should exclude their physical health to impact all aspects of well-being. Diet, exercise, and sleep share a bidirectional relationship with sadness. This means that sadness can affect these physical health facets, and they can also affect sadness.
Take some time to consider your current bedtime, mealtime, and activity habits. Are you scheduling enough time for restful sleep, are you doing your part to expel energy, and are you planning and preparing healthy meals, or are you so focused on your sadness that you are forgetting to care for yourself?
Invest some energy in eating well, moving your body, and setting the conditions for a restful night sleep. In combination, these three will yield a great impact on mood.
4. Avoid the Negatives
With any group of coping skills, there are positives and negatives. The positives will lead to wanted results in the long-term, but too often, the allure of the “quick fix” linked to negative coping skills is overwhelming.
Negative coping skills stand out because they appear easier and seem to offer faster results. They usually create more problems in the future, though. As a contrast, positive coping skills take more time, more effort, and more energy, but they lead to long-term happiness.
When people are sad, they may use alcohol and other drugs, food, sex, or shopping to feel better quickly. They may avoid their feelings by staring at their phone, video game, or TV. Others could spend all of their time and energy concerned with issues that have no tangible impact on them, instead of tending to their own needs.
Always remind yourself that what’s easy and what’s best are rarely the same. Go for the best solution. Don’t rush your happiness.
5. Get Uncomfortable
The best solution for sadness is not usually the comfortable one. People may use this discomfort as a rationale for stopping the process when, in actuality, this should serve as an indication of progress.
As an example, sometimes the best action plan for coping with sadness is to simply wait for it to run its course. Like grief, sadness is a process, and trying to force it to end can do more harm in the long-term.
Surely, feeling sad is uncomfortable, but there is so much your sadness can teach you about yourself, the people in your life, and the world around you. Try viewing your sadness as an opportunity to grow and adapt, so you can practice and prepare for periods of sadness in the future.
6. Devote Energy to Others
Sadness is often a selfish process where people need to overly focus on their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to acknowledge and resolve the issue. Since this selfishness can become problematic in time, people should seek out opportunities to give back and assist others.
People can consider participating in volunteer activities to benefit a national organization they believe in or a cause in their community. Giving to others can act as a temporary distraction from sadness while also inspiring some sense of positive contributions.
Like with other positive coping skills, these efforts do not have to be grand and world-changing. The simplest actions are frequently the most rewarding.
7. Get Creative
Exploring your creative and artistic side could be a great way to express and reduce your sadness.
Creative endeavors to help cope with sadness include:
- Writing poetry or stories
- Drawing, painting, and sculpting
- Creating, writing, or listening to music
These creative pursuits help people to express feelings and situations in new ways. No longer is a person bound by their verbal speech to explain complicated experiences.
This communication can help resolve unwanted feelings or offer new directions to prevent their return.
8. Know When to Call in the Professionals
Since there is a thin line between typical sadness and depression, knowing when to seek professional help is complicated. As previously stated, though, people rarely wish they had wanted longer to begin treatment.
Seeking therapy services from an experienced mental health practitioner is a safe and effective way to address feelings of sadness before they build towards something more nefarious. After meeting with a therapist, they can explain their assessment of your experience to recommend treatment if needed or if your experience is natural and expected.
When to Get Professional Help for Sadness
Seeking professional help for sadness is a personal choice, and one people have to make for themselves. With that being true, though, there is no substantial risk that comes from reaching out for professional services as soon as sadness becomes a problem.
Some levels of sadness clearly deserve treatment. If you or a loved one is feeling suicidal, unable to complete basic self-care skills, or self-medicating with alcohol or other drugs, the need for professional help should be the top priority.
Other levels of sadness are not so obvious, though. If sadness is beginning to disrupt your normal sleeping, eating, and activity patterns, consulting a professional can help to limit the impact of sadness and help return to a desired level of functioning. Seeking help for sadness is not a sign that you are weak, flawed, broken, or incompetent. It only shows that you are attuned enough to recognize a problem and seek proper treatment.
Who Should I Consult for Help in Overcoming Sadness?
People may resist reaching out for help overcoming sadness because they do not know who to turn to. In truth, so many mental health services are available that no one has to pick only one, which means individual, group, and family counseling from a counselor, social worker, or psychologist are all helpful choices. Forget the myth that only one type of treatment can resolve your symptoms.
Starting with individual therapy to help identify issues and set goals for the future is a great starting point. Adding other forms of treatment from there can be a decision made with your therapist.3
How to Find a Therapist
Finding a therapist may be much easier than you think. By completing an online search, asking for a recommendation from a trusted friend or primary care doctor, or calling your insurance company, you could uncover countless options.
With many forms of therapy, people may note significant improvements after only a few months of sessions. 4 Best of all, people with insurance can expect little out-of-pocket costs for their services.
How To Support a Loved One Who Is Feeling Sad
When someone expresses sadness to you, there are numerous ways to help and only a few ways to cause harm. In the beginning, always focus on listening intently and offering support to show that they are important to you and that their feelings are valid.
Rather than throwing many suggestions and solutions at them, ask how you can help and what they are looking for from you. They may only need a person to hear their story and to acknowledge the sadness. Let your loved one know that you are on their side and will serve as their teammate, while explaining the limits of your abilities since you are not a mental health professional.1
- Dismiss their feelings
- Tell them to “get over it”
- Blame them for their experience
- Suggest that alcohol and drugs are the solution
Remind your loved one that feeling moments of sadness is normal and healthy, but sadness can seamlessly transition to depression. Agree to check in with each other regularly to track the changes in symptoms to devise appropriate action.
Final Thoughts on Dealing With Sadness
Even though sadness is a universal feeling, your sadness is unique and individualized. Sadness may seem like a curse, but it can also be a powerful tool you use for motivation and self-exploration. By understanding the emotion and using healthy coping skills to address it, sadness can inspire greatness and positive changes.