Why We Experience Sadness and How to Get Through It

Take a deep dive into this essential human emotion and learn how to process it for emotional growth.

Published December 28, 2022
Thoughtful senior man sitting on chair in living room

It often starts as a pit in your stomach. Then, maybe the sensation rises to your chest and makes it feel heavy. Finally, your eyes begin to water, a tear breaks through, and rolls down your cheek. The feeling finally sets in: you're sad.

We all experience sadness at one point or another. So you probably know the telltale signs. But how much do you really know about this universal emotion? Sadness, like all primary emotions, serves several different functions. Learning more about sadness can help you to harness its power and can also help you to overcome the difficult sensations that accompany it.

What Is Sadness?

According to the American Psychological Association (APA) sadness is "an emotional state of unhappiness," but you probably already knew that. What you might not know is that sadness is actually one of the six basic human emotions, according to some theories in psychology. It exists on a spectrum from low intensity to high intensity, and it's important to who we are as humans.

Our understanding of basic human emotions has developed over time. We now know that primary emotions can provide certain important benefits. What good can come from being sad? Actually, a lot. Sadness can:

  • Encourage you to overcome a loss and build resilience.
  • Prompt others to be more empathetic and supportive of you when they perceive that you are sad.
  • Trigger reactions in the body, such as tears and frowns, that can be a sign to yourself and others that you might need help.

Common Causes of Sadness

What makes you sad? You can probably list examples that make you feel low and you might notice that some of those items have things in common.

Fast Fact

The APA notes that sadness is usually triggered by loss, especially the loss of something that is deeply valued. In addition, sadness has been linked to punishment, which is why you might feel down when you get caught doing something wrong.

Some events that might make you feel sad include:

  • Comparing yourself to others
  • Failing a test
  • Feeling left out
  • Going through a breakup
  • Loss of a loved one
  • Moving to a new place away from your friends and family
  • Watching a sad movie

Remember, sadness exists on a sliding scale. Both heavier and lighter events can make a person feel down. To get a better sense of what makes you sad, you can create a list of examples and note which aspects seem to impact you most.

How Sadness Affects the Mind and Body

When you're sad, you might notice that you don't really feel like yourself. That's because your brain chemistry changes and those alterations affect your mind and body.

More specifically, when you feel sad, less dopamine is generated in your brain. This chemical is linked to happiness, motivation, satisfaction, and pleasure. When it's in short supply, it can negatively impact your body and make you feel low.

Changes in the Body

Sadness can trigger a variety of different responses in the body. Some of these reactions are external, such as the production of tears. However, the body can also experience internal changes.

When you're sad you may:

Changes in the Mind

Not only does sadness affect your body, but it can also impact your mind, affecting the way you think, feel, and behave. Sadness can complicate the way you feel about yourself, how you view the world, and even how you relate to others.

When you're sad you might experience:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Feelings of hopelessness or helplessness
  • Increased thoughts of rumination
  • Irritability
  • Loss of interest in previously preferred activities

How to Stop Feeling Sad

Unfortunately, there is no magic button you can press to make your sadness disappear. However, there are some strategies you can use to help navigate through the situation. When you find yourself feeling sad, use the tips and tools below to help you process the emotion and take steps toward healing.

Give Yourself Permission

Don't judge yourself for feeling down. We've all been there. Being hard on yourself when you're already low is not going to lift you up. If anything, it might even cause you to fall deeper down the sadness rabbit hole. Instead, try to sit with your emotions and allow yourself to feel them. When you stop bottling things up, you might be able to experience a sense of release and relief.

During this time, you might yourself thinking, "Can't I just skip this part and go back to feeling happy?" Unfortunately, the best way out of sadness is through it. You can put off your feelings and try to ignore them, but that doesn't really make them go away. They might continue to build and impact other aspects of your life. Let the sadness in so that you can let it go.

Practice Self-Care

When we're feeling sad, we crave comfort and compassion. Most people want someone or something to help make the situation better. This is where self-care comes into play.

Do you have certain comfort foods that make you feel good? Do you have a go-to feel-good movie? Is there a cozy sweatshirt or PJs that feel like a warm hug? Allow yourself to experience your favorite things.

Some additional ways to practice self-care include:

  • Allow yourself to rest and take a nap
  • Finally read that book on your "to-be-read" pile
  • Light some candles with scents you enjoy
  • Put on music or relaxing sounds you enjoy
  • Order food from your favorite restaurant
  • Take a warm shower or a bubble bath

When you're feeling sad, it's perfectly okay to participate in activities to help lift you up. This is not a crutch, this is compassion. You deserve time to care for yourself.

Reach Out for Support

You don't have to experience your feelings by yourself if you don't want to. Maybe you want to talk to someone, or vent, or just hear a familiar voice. When and if you feel ready, reach out to your loved ones for some additional support.

You don't have to disclose how you're feeling or why you're feeling that way. If you don't want to discuss the issue you can say something like, "I had a rough day. I don't want to talk about it yet, but I wanted to call you." Or, if you do want to discuss the situation, you can say something like, "I've had a rough day. Is it okay if I talk about it with you?"

You might also find it helpful to communicate what you need from your loved one to ensure that you get the care you're looking for. Do you want solutions or support? You can share your feelings with your loved one at the start of your conversation to help guide the conversation.

Shift Your Attention

After you've experienced your emotions, practiced self-care, and maybe called a friend, your mood still might not be lifted. Negative thoughts, worry, or rumination might still be swirling around your mind.

If your thoughts are still focussed on the event that caused sadness, you might benefit from shifting your attention. Read a book, do some gentle cleaning, go for a walk, put your focus on something else so that your thoughts don't wander back to a low point.

What to Say When Someone Is Sad

It can be painful to see someone you care about feeling low. You may not know what to say to help them feel better.

What's important to remember is that your heart's in the right place. There's no perfect thing to say, so don't put that pressure on yourself. Do the best you can to gauge the situation and show your loved one that you care. Compassion can go a long way.

If you're wondering what to say to someone when they're sad, explore the list below for some options:

  • I care about you and just want to let you know that I'm here for you.
  • I don't know the right words to make the situation better, but I want to help in any way that I can.
  • I love you and just wanted to check in and make sure you're okay.
  • I'm sorry you're feeling down. Is there any way I can cheer you up?
  • I'm sorry you're sad. I love you.
  • We all feel sad sometimes and it's okay to lean on others when you need help.
  • How can I help? Do you need solutions or support?

The next time you or a loved one is feeling sad, take a second to remind yourself that sadness is a normal and important human emotion. Remember that it's okay to feel whatever you're feeling. You don't have to seek out the bright side of the situation if you don't want to. Experiencing your emotions and reminding yourself that you will get through them is enough.

Why We Experience Sadness and How to Get Through It