What to do when you feel sad

clowns -- when you feel sad

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Everybody has times when they feel blue, glum, sad, down-in-the-dumps, or bummed out. Many people refer to this as being “depressed,” but it’s not the same thing. Some depressed people, many of whom do not know they are depressed, may not feel sad at all, but rather angry, irritable, anxious, frustrated, numb, or other emotions. (If this is news to you, please take a minute right now, before you finish reading this article, and read up quickly on what depression actually is.) But just because it is common to feel sad once in a while, that doesn’t mean it’s fun. We still need to learn how to manage sadness properly, or it often grows into something worse.

First let’s make sure you understand human emotions. Most people probably don’t. Brain science has taught us that emotions usually come before logic. This means that although you will feel a certain way and attribute it to a specific cause (“I feel blue because it’s raining outside,” “I am sad because I feel like a failure at work”), the emotion is frequently not caused by what you think caused it. Human emotions are extremely complex, the result of a mix of chemical, environmental, situational, genetic, circumstantial, temperamental, and other factors. In a certain sense your emotions, like your thoughts, have a life of their own. Try this exercise:

Sit down and relax, with your spine straight and your feet flat on the floor.
Breathe deeply at first, and then normally.
Clear your head and think of nothing. Don’t feel anything either.
Maintain that state for three minutes

Did you fail? Most people will. Your brain generates thoughts 24/7, even when you are sleeping. (This is where dreams come from.) If you tried my experiment you might in that short time have been able to observe how quickly an emotion attaches itself to a thought. You think something, and then you have some emotion in response to what you thought. But as I said above, emotions also have a life of their own. If you sit long enough and still enough, you will notice that you will start to “feel” things. Even though you’re just sitting there, doing nothing. Your brain cranks out thoughts and feelings constantly. Sometimes they are random, like a certain song that gets stuck in your head. Other times they are obsessions and ruminations over something you have to do later on. Other times you are criticizing or judging yourself or others.

The point is that when you feel sad, you need to be aware that your sadness might be a totally random emotion, not particularly connected to anything at all. That, of course, doesn’t mean your brain won’t scrounge around in your mind (ever think about the difference between your brain and your mind? — that’s a fun one for another post) for a “reason” to assign to the emotion. If it finds something, which it often will, you will be convinced that you are sad because of whatever that reason is. Maybe you are. Maybe you aren’t. If you’ve generated a false cause — let’s say you think you’re sad because you want cereal and you’re out of milk — then taking action to clear up your sadness based on that false reason will not work. If you’re not really sad because you’re out of milk, buying all the milk in the world isn’t going to make you feel any better.

To deal properly with sadness, or any other emotion, you must understand that your brain is an emotion and thought-generating machine. Once you understand this, you can put sadness in its proper perspective. With this in mind, next time you are sad:

Ask yourself if there’s any obvious reason

Obvious means that it occurs to you nearly instantly, or perhaps even that the reason happened first, such as a) your spouse your spouse leaves town, and then b) you start feeling sad. If there is an obvious reason, and you are confident it is the cause of your sadness, the situation itself should suggest what to do. In the case of the now-gone spouse, you might call a friend, or busy yourself with the children, or go to the store and buy something the two of you can enjoy together when you are reunited. If you are sad because you lost someone you love, do what your heart is leading you to do. There’s a reason something keeps telling you to listen to songs that remind you of them, or read old letters from them, or watch movies you used to love together.

When sadness is directly and obviously connected to a specific cause, pay attention to it. Do not run from it. Pretty much any way you choose to deal with it is fine, as long as you observe Dave’s #1 rule for living well: try not to do anything stupid. (Of course, failing at any time to observe this rule is the stupidest thing you can do.) So don’t allow your body to connect sadness with getting drunk, or jumping into the wrong bed, or spending yourself into oblivion. These things are stupid because you will regret them later. Anything you do now which you will regret later is stupid. The more you will regret something later, the stupider it is. So deal with your sadness however you wish, just don’t do anything stupid.

If there is no obvious reason for your sadness,

Realize there may be no reason at all

This may allow you to do what is best in this situation, which is not to take the emotion very seriously. Why should you? It’s random! There’s no real cause! The temptation in these times is to dig around in your mind looking for a reason, and then assign a reason to it that seems possible. Don’t bother. If you don’t know why you’re sad almost immediately upon feeling it, there’s a good chance there is no reason. In that case, live your life. The feeling will almost certainly go away just like it came, with no effort or analysis from you at all. Analyzing it will only root it more deeply and you’ll end up even sadder.

If you frequently feel sad and cannot find a reason (most days, most of the time, with few breaks between these feelings),

See a therapist as soon as you reasonably can

There may be unresolved grief in your life, or even internalized anger. You may even have a dysthymia (kind of a depression-lite), or even a major depressive episode, going on. These are things you want to take seriously. Depression can be fatal if left untreated.

What is the takeaway here? I want you to realize that feelings of sadness are random more often than you probably realize, and you don’t have to do anything with them at all. They will usually go away on their own. In our culture, a lot of people think the way to deal with all negative emotion is to ignore it. Now if you’re sad and there is no real reason for it, that’s pretty good advice. It probably will go away if you ignore it, without doing any damage. If there’s an obvious reason, deal with it as the situation calls for. If you’re always sad, see a doctor or a therapist.

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