How to Cope with Sadness and Depressive Feelings
What’s the difference between sadness and depression?
Sadness is characterized by a low mood or feeling down, often in response to something that was disappointing or discouraging, or caused other negative feelings. Sadness can happen on its own, but is usually relieved by the passage of time, self-care activities, or doing something you enjoy to cheer yourself up.
Depression, on the other hand, is characterized by an unusually low mood, sometimes with no real cause or trigger, for two or more weeks. Depression can also be accompanied by outbursts of anger or irritability, fatigue/lethargy, and a disinterest in activities you usually enjoy. Depression isn’t easily relieved, and can span from mild symptoms to clinically severe symptoms that need to be attended to by a doctor (such as suicidal thoughts). While it can be linked to a particular trigger at first, depression will often persist even when the triggering situation is resolved.
The main difference between experiencing sadness versus depression is that sadness is universal; depression is not. And while there are varying degrees of depression, there are things you can do to cope with sadness and depressive feelings.
Coping with sadness or mild depression
Situational sadness and mild depression can be challenging to differentiate. However, both often respond to lifestyle changes and better self-care habits. Here are some things that may help:
- Doing activities that engage multiple senses like:
- Watching a favorite movie/show or looking at art, a sunset, etc.
- Eating a favorite snack or candy that you see as a treat
- Listening to or making music that expresses how you feel
- Touching a favorite blanket, stuffed animal, or other textured object
- Connecting with others or talking to a friend or loved one
- Giving to others or getting involved with your community through volunteering
- Moving your body like walking or running, working out, dancing, or playing sports
- Doing things that you enjoy like playing with your pets, or creating something, like art, music, crafts, gardening, mosaics — anything that engages you and results in something you find satisfying
- Journaling with pen and paper, voice recording, or in an e-journal (journaling with paper and pen has benefits that e-journaling doesn’t have, but all forms of journaling are helpful)
- Crying – while some people resist crying, crying can be profoundly cathartic and beneficial; not only can crying be a satisfying expression of sadness, it can bring greater clarity about the cause of that sadness
- Educating yourself about mental health and wellness: JED has lots of resources to help
- Giving it time – time can sometimes be enough to alleviate sadness; being patient, allowing the feelings to arise and come out through crying, journaling, taking quiet time to be in nature or with yourself, and/or talking to others, and simply accepting where you are can make a big difference
- Checking in with your physical and emotional needs including:
- Getting enough sleep, water, and healthy food
- Ensuring you have enough leisure time compared to your time working
How to help someone who’s sad
When we’re close to someone, we’re often best suited to notice when they might be feeling more down than normal. It’s important to reach out and check in. If you’re not sure where to start, these tips can help you start the conversation. Some other things you can do include:
Feeling sad or depressed can often impact how we accomplish daily tasks and how we interact with our loved ones. This can cause negative feelings like guilt and shame that can further contribute to an already depressed mood. Avoid language that shames them for feeling sad or shames them for how their depression is affecting their life.
Be a good listener
When your loved one does share their feelings or concerns, be present and listen with an open heart and mind. The kinds of questions and comments that arise in each of us when we’re in a space of authentic openness and care can be really helpful for the person sharing with us. But, to listen and respond from an authentic place of care means you need to temporarily set aside your own worries, judgments, to-do lists, and/or anything else demanding your attention and be open to listening.
Simply showing that you care and that you can be fully present for your loved one as they share can make a big difference. And, as much as you might want to leave your loved one feeling “up” when the conversation ends, trying to fix someone’s problems or cheer them up can feel like a lot of unwanted pressure to someone feeling sad or contemplative. Lastly, sticking to simply listening, or to asking open, honest questions, is often much more helpful than dispensing wisdom or advice, unless it’s solicited or very minimal.
Ask how you can help
This is an important question to ask because different people have different needs. Something that might be really helpful to one person may have no effect or even be harmful to another. Let them tell you what they need.
If they don’t have a concrete answer, or don’t know exactly what they need help with, offer small, doable things that you’d be willing to help them with. This could include:
- Being an active, available listener the next time they’re feeling sad
- Planning a movie or game night or other fun activity
- Helping them with a small task like laundry, dishes, studying, etc.
- Offering to accompany them to a first therapy appointment, or to get coffee/lunch before or after their appointments as a reward for going
Notice changes in feelings, thoughts or behaviors. Sometimes, sadness stays at just that — a feeling. But sometimes it can lead to more persistent depression. If you’re concerned that your friend or loved one might be suffering from depression, refer them to a licensed professional or crisis hotline. If they need immediate help, text “START” to 741-741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
How to notice if you need help
It’s common to dismiss our own feelings or changes in behavior as “nothing” or “just a rough patch.” But how can you notice when your sadness or depressive feelings are becoming more than just temporary? Some things you should ask yourself and keep asking:
- Is your sadness getting worse?
- Is your sadness persistent, or doesn’t seem to ever go away?
- Do you get sad at a specific time of year, month, or day?
- Do you experience sudden fluctuations in mood?
- Do you ever experience feelings of euphoria, or feeling unreasonably energetic or “high,” before or after feeling depressed?
- Did you experience a big life change before you started feeling sad? This could be the loss of a loved one, a change in job, school, or living situation, etc.
- Do you ever have thoughts of intentionally hurting yourself for any reason, such as to punish yourself or to “feel something?”
- Do you ever have thoughts about ending your life or wanting to die? Passive or active suicidal thoughts, like “I wish I were dead,” are cause for concern and should be talked about with someone you trust. If you feel actively suicidal it’s important to talk to your doctor, a therapist, or other authority (parent/caregiver, teacher etc.) immediately.
Remember, sadness is normal, but if at any point your depressive symptoms are getting in the way of how you live your life, or how you perform in work, school, or in your relationships, please see a professional for help.