Sadness – Concept, causes, consequences and physical expression

We explain what sadness is, its causes, consequences and how it is expressed in the body. Also, how to deal with it and alleviate it.

The intensity of sadness usually depends on the severity of the stimulus that triggers it.

What is sadness?

We commonly call sadness (from the Latin sad), yet affective state characterized by emotional pain or suffering, that is to say, by the mental decay, the opposite of the joy. We usually express it through depression, tears, crying or lack of energy and appetites, among many other possible symptoms.

According to the American psychologist and pioneer in the study of emotions Paul Enkman, sadness should be understood as one of the seven universal emotions of the human being, along with anger, contempt, fear, disgust, happiness and surprise. This means that everyone suffers from it at some point and that it is in no way indicative of mental disorders or other problems.

The sadness it’s a passing feeling (That is its main difference with respect to certain problems such as depression) derived in early childhood from fear.

However, like all emotions, understands a range of emotional states ranging from disappointment and discouragement, among the least intense, to grief, pain and misery, among the most intense. Logically, the intensity of sadness generally corresponds to the severity or seriousness of the stimulus that triggers it.

At the same time, it is possible to feel sadness in the absence of immediate stimuli, and in those cases we usually give it other names, such as melancholy or nostalgia (when the memory causes it), and on many occasions we perceive it in conjunction with other types of emotions, like anger or fear. We must not forget that the human emotional spectrum is wide, complex and diverse.

Why do we feel sad?

Sadness can be triggered by very different reasons, which have to do with the person’s history or with their existential, emotional or family situation. However, the most common triggers for sadness are usually the following:

  • Loss. The death of a relative or a loved or admired one, the breakup of a couple, or even the geographical distance from said people (such as in emigration or on a very long trip).
  • Rejection. Being rejected by a potential lover, or being denied entry into a group of friends, or publicly humiliating us and making us feel despised by others.
  • The failure. The frustration of our expectations regarding something important, or the cancellation of an event that we intensely desired, or the impediment of some personal initiative in which we invest time, effort and hope.
  • The disappointment. The betrayal of a loved one, the breaking of an alien promise or some situation in which we feel our emotions violated by a person we trust.
  • The transition. The loss of some aspect of our personal identity due to personal changes and life transitions, such as job changes, graduations, etc.

Body expression of sadness

sadness body expression
The facial expression of sadness reflects greater introversion.

Sadness imposes certain predictable reactions on the body, especially on the facial features, the purpose of which is the social expression of the state of mind. In general, a sad person will have several of the following bodily reactions:

  • Your body will be down, with loss of muscle tone and head down or hunched posture.
  • His gaze will tend to avoid that of others and fixate on indeterminate points, reflecting greater introversion.
  • Your face will tend to lose firmness, with the lips and eyelids curving down, and the eyebrows meeting in the center of the brow and up.

On the other hand, you will have feelings of tightness in the chest, heaviness of the limbs, wet eyes and lack of appetite. All of this may or may not be accompanied by crying, lamentation, or silent tears.

Now, from a neurological point of view, sadness is associated with the decrease in serotonin in the brain, and increased neuronal activity in the temporal lobe, tempral cerebellum, vermis, myencephalon, putamen, and caudate.

Consequences of sadness

Sadness is a painful emotion, but it has a specific purpose in our emotional life, which is to draw our attention to an emotionally important event. That is to say, allows us to deal with emotional pain, loss, and grief, and thus prevents these emotions from silently nesting within us and then expressing themselves in less controllable or unpredictable ways.

On the other hand, sadness (your own and also that of others) invites us to empathize with the pain of others, which is key for the construction of the social fabric of human beings, and can also have a cathartic role, that is, an emotional purge, which leaves us renewed and strengthened. For this reason, many people seek to undergo artificial experiences (movies, books, etc.) that induce temporary, manageable and superficial sadness.

In general, we must understand sadness as a moment of transition between an unsuccessful attitude or an invalid emotional panorama, and new ones. In that sense, usually consists of an adaptive emotion, part of a process of change.

How to deal with and alleviate sadness?

The first thing to know, when dealing with sadness, is that it is a natural and necessary emotion, which we should normally be able to go through without bringing more catastrophic consequences in our lives. In other words, sadness is a natural reaction to a painful event, and there is no point in pretending to live a life totally free from sad feelings.

That being said, there are natural reactions to sadness:

  • Isolation, since we seek to withdraw from what caused us pain and “lick our wounds”, figuratively, alone or accompanied by those we consider part of our intimate and safe environment.
  • The distraction, since many people prefer to avoid the pain they feel through recreational activities or induce them to a necessary joy. However, this distraction can only work for a time, and eventually the sadness will have to be dealt with, whether we want to or not. People unable to do so run the risk of falling deeper later, or of taking irresponsible actions while fleeing from sadness.
  • Vulnerability, that is, the expression of pain openly, inviting the compassion of other people and allowing the emotion to complete its cycle. Many times the only way to live sadness healthily is to cry.

In the event that sadness does not subside over time, but ends up aggravating in depressions or other chronic conditions that impede vital functioning, specialist intervention may be necessary (psychologists or psychotherapists) that provides additional psychic or medical tools, so that sadness completes its cycle and a new stage opens for the person.