All The Feels #2 - Sadness

May 20, 2018

In the last issue of All The Feels, we explored happiness - what it is, how it works, and how we can maximise it in our lives.


Now let’s look at the flip side: sadness. Feeling blue, down in the dumps, bummed out. However you describe it, sadness is usually associated with negativity, even being confused with depression. But it turns out that despite being among the most difficult to understand and process, sadness is one of our most important emotions (something you’ll already know if you’ve seen Inside Out).


Coming to terms with sadness is a vital part of becoming emotionally healthy. So, without further ado, here’s the down-low on feeling low.


Sadness is really an umbrella term for a whole host of different emotions that are generally associated with lack of happiness - despair, grief and disappointment all fall under this term. Sadness is generally a response to a negative event in life, like rejection, failure or loss.


It’s important to note that sadness and depression are not the same thing, and shouldn’t be referred to interchangeably. Sadness is a healthy and important part of life, whereas depression is a mental illness. You’ll remember from the last issue that depression is often characterised by dulled emotions, and this includes sadness. Someone can be depressed but not feel sadness, or be sad and not have depression.


In brain imaging studies, people were given stimulus to trigger sadness, like remembering funerals or looking at pictures of sad faces. The imaging showed activity mostly in the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system.

The prefrontal cortex is no surprise. This brain region is a major player in high-level mental processes, including judgement and emotion, which is why it also lights up in experiences of happiness and disgust. The limbic system is also a big one in behavioural and emotional
responses, especially ones connected to our instincts for survival. It includes the amygdala, which helps sort and store memories, attaching them to emotional responses.

This is where the distinction between sadness and depression is really illustrated. Brain imaging of people experiencing sadness shows increased brain activity in the left prefrontal cortex, whereas those with clinical depression it appears “shut down”. This may be why people who have experienced persistent sadness for extended periods of time - especially after significant loss, like the death of someone close to them - are at higher risk of developing depression. The left prefrontal cortex burns itself out, and are eventually left feeling numbed to the sensation of sadness.


Unfortunately for us teens, we’re stuck in an awkward in-between of brain development that makes processing emotions more difficult. Basically, our pre-frontal cortex (the part that regulates emotional response) isn’t fully developed yet, while the amygdala (the part producing the emotional response) is going into overdrive. That’s why it can often be so difficult to “just get over it” - teens tend to ruminate on sadness more, because we need the extra time to process.



What can we learn from all this brain imaging? Well, it looks like sadness must have an evolutionary purpose, since experiencing it lights up our survival system. In fact, it’s just as important as happiness. Though we tend to want to avoid it, feeling sad is an important part of
learning and building resilience. In situations of failure and loss, sadness forces us to reflect, and makes us avoid the situations which brought about this negative feeling in future. This gives sadness adaptive value - while happiness is useful because it drives us to seek positive experiences, sadness is important because it teaches us what to avoid in future.

Although it’s tempting to tell someone who’s sad to just “cheer up”, it may not be the most helpful way of going about it. Similarly for ourselves, avoiding sadness altogether or repressing it isn’t healthy. Instead, we should focus on processing sadness at our own pace.

It turns out one of the best ways to do that is to listen to sad music. Music that emulates sadness usually has elements like slow tempo, minor key - that classic dramatic violin sound. Studies have shown that when participants listened to this kind of music, they were induced into a state of reflection that increased their emotional awareness and resilience. Essentially, listening to sad music when we’re sad and having a big old cry can trigger what is known as catharsis - the process of releasing and ultimately experiencing relief from negative emotions.

Expression of negative emotions can also mean writing down how you feel and why, or talking it out with someone you trust. However you best deal with sadness, the most important thing is to let yourself feel bad from time to time. Sadness is a temporary and (counterintuitively) useful state, and it’s important that we all learn how to use it to our advantage.

(Disclaimer: If you’ve been finding that sadness has been the dominant emotion in your life for a substantial period of time, or are worrying about a friend who has, talk to a trusted adult, councillor or GP, or contact KidsHelpline.)

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