Understand sadness

Learn to understand the emotion, so you’re better positioned to deal with sadness in yourself and others.

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Why this matters

Sadness (or hurt) is an emotion that makes us feel low, down or “blue.” In the extreme, we may feel hopelessness or despair. Sadness is often tied to a sense of loss of something dear to us. For example, we may grieve the death of someone special or the loss of physical abilities as we age. 

We may also have an overwhelming feeling of disappointment when our hopes or wishes are dashed. Finally, sadness can take the form of loneliness or isolation – a sense we’re disconnected from others.  

There are several ways we can experience sadness physically: 

  • Slowing of our nervous system 
  • Lethargy 
  • Fatigue 
  • An urge to cry 
  • Decreased appetite 
  • Trouble sleeping 
  • Trouble focusing 
  • Aches and pains in the body 

Sadness can impact us – and what we tell ourselves – in other ways: 

  • Thoughts associated with sadness tend to be negative and self-critical, like “I’m so inadequate.”  
  • We may experience sadness – and feel less hopeful – if we have a negative outlook on our future, such as “I won’t do well as a mother.”  
  • Our mood may be dampened by negative thoughts about other people. For example, we may think “People will always see me as a weak person.” Or we may feel blue about the world: “The planet’s being destroyed.”  
  • Mental images can also bring about sadness. For example, we might recall a disapproving look on a teacher’s face. Feelings of sadness tend to intensify when negative thoughts are extreme, and we may think “I have nothing good to offer” or “No one will ever give me a chance again.” 
  • When we’re sad, we likely feel less energetic. Often, sadness involves withdrawing from others and becoming quiet and inactive. We may also express our feelings outwardly through crying or sighing. 
  • Because we’re thinking sad thoughts and feeling blue, we might speak in pessimistic and self-deprecating ways.  

Explore and reflect

The examples below show situations that may involve sad or hurt feelings, thoughts and behaviours. Notice how actions could or would be different if the thoughts were different. 


A student gets a poor grade on a test. 

Sadness-provoking thoughts  

“I’m not smart enough. I’m not cut out for academics. I don’t belong in this course.” 

Sadness-driven actions  

Don’t volunteer answers to the teacher’s questions or withdraw from interactions with classmates. 

Sadness-moderating thoughts  

“The grade isn’t what I’d hoped for but it’s fair. Even though I’m disappointed, I’ll try different study habits or reach out for help.” 


An organization has to cancel an annual social event due to budget issues. Some of the volunteers have been on the planning committee for many years – and many are retired. 

Sadness-provoking thoughts  

“This is awful. I’ll never see these people again – and I now don’t have any reason to get out of the house.” 

Sadness-driven actions  

Try to see the positives, like more free time, but struggle with missing the social interaction and the sense of purpose. Maintain a sombre facial expression. Remain quiet and refrain from socializing. 

Sadness-moderating thoughts  

“Feeling sad is normal and means I care. I’ll miss the other volunteers, but I can find ways to maintain contact over time. It’s important I express how I feel, so they know they’re important to me.” 


A neighbour isn’t personally invited to a block party organized by a few people on the street. 

Sadness-provoking thoughts  

“They don’t enjoy my company. People here can’t stand me.” 

Sadness-driven actions  

Avoid approaching neighbours when you see them. Seek isolation. Try to look “too busy” to socialize. 

Sadness-moderating thoughts  

“It’s possible they didn’t think I was going to be home – we’re often away at that time. I’ll ask one of the organizers and see if this is the case or if it’s something else. Then I’ll figure out the best way to respond.” 


A manager has had some of their more challenging responsibilities shifted to another manager, who’s completed the duties with no problems. 

Sadness-provoking thoughts 

“I’m being replaced. Soon I won’t have much of a role here.” 

Sadness-driven actions  

  • Speak in a less authoritative tone.  
  • Become less motivated at work.  
  • Lounge around in the office, procrastinating on work. 

Sadness-moderating thoughts  

“I know I wasn’t as strong in those skills, but I excel in others; the decision was the best for the organization.” 


A football player didn’t make the cut for the university team after working out and practicing all summer. 

Sadness-provoking thoughts  

“What’s the point of trying? I might as well give up and accept it. I’ve missed my chance to play at this level. I’ll never make the team.” 

Sadness-driven actions  

  • Give up trying to improve.  

  • Avoid walking by the field.  

  • Don’t seek other athletic opportunities. 

Sadness-moderating thoughts  

“I can’t let myself be discouraged; there have been a lot of times in the past when I haven’t achieved what I wanted. I’ll talk to the coach and find out what I can do to improve my chances of making the team next time.” 

These examples show sad feelings can be more complex when other types of feelings and motivations are involved. For example, we may feel emotional pain and hurt when weve experienced or perceived an interpersonal betrayal.  

Take action

Sympathy is experienced when we feel badly for another person.  

We can have regret when the sadness pertains to something that’s been done or not done in the past. 

When sadness sets in, a natural response is to withdraw from others and dwell on what made us feel this way. This can impact our place with friends, family or social settings. Unfortunately, when others see this behaviour, they may perceive us as less confident. They might respond to us in an uninterested, apathetic way. This can make us feel even more down.  

It can be useful to recognize feelings of sadness and to be mindful of our actions despite how we’re feeling. It’s important not to ignore sadness and to seek support if we believe it’s necessary. 

Additional resources

Loss and grief. Learn about the responses to grief and ways you can cope after the death of a loved one or another significant loss.

Contributors include.articlesDr. Joti SamraMary Ann BayntonMyWorkplaceHealth

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