How to Accept, Understand and Transform Sadness
Everyone experiences sadness or “the blues” every now and then. Sadness is considered as one of the primary human emotions, around which forms a cluster of secondary, related emotions, including grief, sorrow, gloom, melancholy, dejection, despair, self-pity and depression. Sadness is one of the most discomforting emotions, and people generally try to escape it.
Evolutionary biologists and psychologists emphasize that every primary emotion, including sadness, plays an important role in our survival. Thus, however unpleasant, sadness and its related emotions have certain benefits which need to be acknowledged. In the book “Emotional Intelligence” Daniel Goleman explains how important the emotions of sadness has been throughout the history of humankind, both for our distant ancestors and forefathers:
“A main function for sadness is to help adjust to a significant loss, such as the death of someone close or a major disappointment. Sadness brings a drop in energy and enthusiasm for life's activities, particularly diversions and pleasures, and, as it deepens and approaches depression, slows the body's metabolism. This introspective withdrawal creates the opportunity to mourn a loss or frustrated hope, grasp its consequences for one's life, and, as energy returns, plan new beginnings. This loss of energy may well have kept saddened—and vulnerable—early humans close to home, where they were safer.”
Sadness stops being useful, and even begins to threaten our wellbeing and survival, gets our of control, turns into a debilitating condition, and develops into a severe depression. In such a state, sadness does not serve a survival purpose, as it in no longer a retreat until one can gain sufficient energy for a new start. On the contrary, the effect of depression is paralyzing, it deprives the individual of energy and will to do anything, and can often lead to an extreme—contemplating suicide as a way out.
Clinical psychologists have found out one key characteristic of people who are much more likely to turn their sadness into depression and worsen their state—the tendency to worry and ruminate about the problem. Such people spend a lot of time focused on those worries, but they take almost no action toward resolving the problem. This is a “passive immersion” in the sadness and does not lead to actions and change.
It has been suggested that crying is therapeutical, as it is a natural way of lowering the levels of certain brain chemicals that prime distress. What’s problematic about this approach is that, in some cases, crying reinforces further rumination, and the individual remains focused on the reasons to worry.
Cognitive Therapy which is often effective as a treatment for clinical depression uses two key strategies. The first one consists of challenging the thoughts which preoccupy the mind during rumination, by examining their validity and exploring positive alternatives. The second strategy consists of engaging in distracting, positive activities and events. One their own, neither of these strategies represents a quick solution, as their application often turn challenging.
Namely, depressing thoughts are automatic, intrusive, difficult to suppress, associative, and they can thus perpetuate in spite of any effort people make to distract themselves from those thoughts. As the psychologist Richard Wenzlaff explains, “Thoughts are associated in the mind not just by content, but by mood. People have what amounts to a set of bad-mood thoughts that come to mind more readily when they are feeling down. People who get depressed easily tend to create very strong networks of association between these thoughts, so that it is harder to suppress them once some kind of bad mood is evoked. Ironically, depressed people seem to use one depressing topic to get their minds off another, which only stirs more negative emotions.”
Some potentially effective distractors in cases of mild depression (if done in moderation) are reading a good book, attending a sport match, watching a light or funny movie, doing aerobic exercise, or giving oneself treats (taking a hot bath, listening to good music, buying something nice, eating a favorite dish). These activities cab break the vicious cycle of depression, but should not be excessive—otherwise, they can even worsen the condition. Other effective strategies to beat depression is called “engineering a small triumph” and consists of completing some long-standing task, which results in an immediate mood-lift. Some people ward off depression by focusing on their physical looks—getting a haircut, putting on makeup, or wearing nice clothes.
Cognitive Reframing is a powerful approach to deal with depressing thoughts. This technique consists of taking a step back and looking at the situation from a new perspective. The change in perspective often leads to unexpected realizations, and one begins to look at the loss differently. Sometimes, what initially had seemed as a catastrophe or unsurmountable loss, can even turn out to be an opportunity for something better in life.
It has also been shown that one of the best distractors and mood-changers is selfless service, volunteer work or helping others in need. In empathizing with the sorrow of other people, and by trying to alleviate some of their pain, one begins to feel connected with the world, and that is a powerful feeling.
Based on the book “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ” by Daniel Goleman, Bantam Books. 1995.