We all experience sadness sometimes. It is never pleasant, of course, but it can be useful – for example when it pushes us to make time and conserve energy after something goes wrong, so that we can reassess the events and plan forward. However, sadness can become unhelpful. It may lead us to feel very distressed. It may influence the way we behave, for example making us so tired and fatigued that we struggle doing things we like. It can even affect the way we think, keeping us stuck in the past, suggesting that we may be guilty for what happened or unable to get out of the situation, and making us see everything shades darker than it is. However, these relationships are mutual, which means that if we can make small changes in the way we think and behave, we may be able to reduce the intensity of our sadness. Here are some tips that many young people have found helpful in coping with their sadness.
“What helps me is making healthy meals”
Stay physically healthy. Sadness can make us feel tired and sap our energy. To reduce fatigue, it is important you get enough sleep and eat enough throughout the day. Click here for NHS advice on diet, sleep, and physical exercise.
“It feels so good to remember what I’m capable of”
Do the opposite of what you were doing when you started to feel sad. It is difficult to directly change our emotions, but we can change the way we behave and indirectly influence our emotions. When we’re sad, we may feel as if we’re being pulled into a downward spiral, which can cause us to distance ourselves from the relationships and activities that bring us joy: we’re sad, so we stop doing the things we usually enjoy, which in turn, makes us feel even more sad. To stop ourselves from being sucked into the spiral completely, we can make a conscious effort to do the things we like to do.
First, write down a list of activities that are meaningful to you (e.g., they can bring a sense of achievement, closeness, and/or enjoyment), noting how rewarding they are (or used to be) and how easy they are to do now. This is to help you prioritise which activities to do.
Second, you can schedule these activities in your diary to make sure that you have time for them.
Third, try to follow through with them, even if you don’t feel like it! Commit to spending just 5 minutes at a time doing your fun activity at first if it feels too overwhelming – or 2 minutes if you need to break it down even further.
Finally, note down how you felt before and after the activity, to learn which activities you enjoy the most and want to continue. Which are yours? Immersing yourself in art, starting a new hobby, going for a walk, talking with friends or family?
“I send emojis to friends… until I am ready to meet face to face”
Nurture your relationships. Sometimes sadness is triggered by interpersonal conflicts, difficulties in starting or sustaining relationships, losses, or big life changes. At other times, sadness gets in the way of interpersonal connections, as it can make us turn inward or lash out if we’re feeling irritable. How can you better navigate challenging relationships? Can you say things in a different way? Distance yourself from toxic relationships? Be more forgiving and kinder to others? Be more open about how you feel? Making any of these changes can be very difficult, but they can be really helpful. Greater social support can help you face any challenges.
“Sitting down to meditate… gets me into here and now”, “Do something kind”
Letting go of negative thoughts. When we are sad, our brain can trick us into thinking that everything is a shade darker than it is. This means that we may focus on the negative aspects of the situation and ignore other information. These negative thoughts may become increasingly repetitive, intrusive, and difficult to suppress. This type of “ruminative” thinking can sometimes be beneficial: it can help us solve problems and take steps to prevent future errors. However, it often also consumes important cognitive resources and can often lead to us feeling much worse. So, what can you do?
Try to identify negative thoughts when they appear and label them as “negative thoughts”.
Be compassionate with yourself, accepting that the negative thoughts are just another symptom of sadness and probably not true, even though they may seem incredibly real in the moment.
Try to recognise positive thoughts, practice gratitude, and engage in acts of kindness (for yourself and others). Creating more of these positive experiences can help balance the negative bias that sadness often brings.