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A Beginners' Guide to Sadness

Self-care for when sadness strikes.

Key points

  • People who were not properly soothed as children often find it difficult to experience sadness.
  • Sadness may trigger fear, avoidance, and unhealthy coping mechanisms.
  • Allowing yourself to feel sadness in manageable doses is perfectly healthy.

Are you afraid of being sad?

Do you studiously avoid feeling sad?

Have you managed to outrun sadness for years, only to be overtaken by something so sad you cannot ignore it?

Ideally, we learn to feel and tolerate sadness as children, with the assistance and comfort of safe adults. But if an adverse childhood experience interfered with this process, you might find sadness terribly uncomfortable.

You worry if you let yourself feel even an ounce of sadness, you will be swallowed up, unable to recover. Sadness may feel like a self-indulgent slippery slope that leads directly to never feeling happy again. You may have learned to numb sadness with tools such as:

  • Distraction
  • False positivity
  • Compulsive exercise
  • Binge eating or food restriction
  • Substance use
  • Tumultuous relationships

These tools may temporarily silence the sadness but intensify your suffering over time.

When we lose things that are important to us, sadness is the appropriate response. In these situations, allowing ourselves to feel sad is perfectly healthy.

If you are ready to face your emotions, but your sadness skills are lacking, here are a few beginner tips to help you through.

Get to Know Sadness

Cautiously make the acquaintance of sadness. If you’ve ignored sadness for years, you might have difficulty identifying it when it arrives. Sadness tends to be identified by a range of physical sensations, including:

  • A feeling of loss/emptiness
  • Crying, tearing up, or feeling about to cry
  • An aching around your heart
  • A sense of heaviness

When you are first getting to know your sadness, be careful to differentiate between sadness and depression. Sadness is an appropriate emotional response to loss or pain. Clinical depression involves a full range of emotional, cognitive, and physical symptoms sustained over at least two weeks:

  • Overwhelming sadness
  • Getting too much sleep or too little
  • Excessive fatigue
  • Inappropriate feelings of guilt/shame
  • Appetite disturbance
  • Loss of interest in activities of daily living
  • Low self-esteem

If you can differentiate one from the other, you can determine the appropriate response. Sadness requires patience, support, and self-care. Clinical depression warrants mental health treatment and extra support to make a recovery.

Set the Environment

So you’re ready to practice feeling sad! Imagine that you’re in a training program where the goal is being able to safely tolerate increasing amounts of emotion without engaging in harmful numbing strategies.

First, let’s create the optimal conditions to set you up for success – and by success, I mean not becoming completely overwhelmed by your feelings. If possible, clear time in your schedule when you don’t have to be anywhere or do anything.

If you must feel sad (and occasionally you must), you might as well do it in comfort. Get plenty of sleep. Obtain soothing, wholesome food–something tasty enough that you will realistically want to eat it but won’t leave you with a stomachache. Wear comfortable clothes. Get the nice tissues with the lotion in them. Wrap yourself in a blanket and prepare yourself to feel.

Feel in Manageable Doses

Finally, allow yourself to experience your sadness. Don’t force it, but try to simply feel your sadness when it comes. Observe your body’s response to sadness–aching, tears, heaviness–with compassion.

Lay down, cry, be pitiful. Do not criticize yourself for being pitiful–everyone has permission to be a little pitiful when something sad happens to them. Allow the emotion to flow through you and pass.

Take Strategic Breaks

Notice if the sadness becomes so overwhelming that dark thoughts or unhealthy urges start to creep in. This is your sign that your sadness is becoming unmanageable. At this point, take a strategic break from your sadness by getting out of the house or watching something funny on tv.

Try not to see this as a distraction but as a smart training decision. Feeling sadness is like building a muscle–the more you practice, the stronger you get, and the more you can tolerate it. But if you try to do too much too soon, you’ll end up feeling drained and defeated. Take things at your own pace.

Use Social Support Wisely

Social support is a proven protective factor for your mental health. You, uncomfortable with emotion, might find the prospect of someone else witnessing your sadness less than appealing. However, isolating yourself from your support system will likely prolong your suffering. It is healthy to confide in friends and family.

Allow yourself to be supported while recognizing that no social support can completely eliminate sadness. Expecting others to cure our loneliness creates an unhealthy relationship dynamic. Be careful to use your friends as a source of support rather than as a way of avoiding your emotions.

Remember That All Feelings Are Temporary

Remember, in the most painful moments of your sadness, that all feelings pass with time. You will not be permanently sad. Every time you allow yourself to experience an uncomfortable feeling, you make the future painful moments of life easier to bear.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.