Feeling sad is the worst. Whether it is heartache, feeling lousy about yourself, a crappy day in the office or pain in response to seeing someone else treated badly, nobody wants to cope with a heavy head and eyes full of tears.
Yet sadness has an important role to play.
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It’s an emotion that helps us relieve stress, empathise with other people and makes us think about what we really want in life. And luckily, once it’s played its role, it usually passes after a good cry, hug or chat with a friend.
However, people who have experienced significant depression know that’s not always the case.
Sometimes sadness doesn’t pass and, instead, can manifest into an all-consuming monster that alternates between emptiness and a heady concoction of tears, sleeplessness, disinterest and despair. Sadness can take a terrifying turn. So when people do finally find the help they need, making their way into recovery, and starting to feel stable or even happy, becoming sad again can be absolutely terrifying.
I was diagnosed with Complex PTSD and Melancholic Depression a couple of years ago, and have previously written about my experiences in more detail, but I’ll relay the short version now.
The best way I’ve heard depression described is to imagine that most people in life walk along a flat road with a few bumps, whereas a person with depression constantly walks up hill.
Everyone will get to the same place in the end, but with depression it’s much harder. For me, it meant that I could go to university and work, hang out with friends and lead a mostly functioning life. Every day was a struggle, and it hurt to tear myself out of bed each morning, but I could just about manage it. I constantly questioned the point in living, and frequently found myself hiding tears in a bathroom stall throughout the day.
Finally, I fell into a double depression, which is basically a full whack of significant depression on top of melancholic depression. It meant I wasn’t able to get up any more in the morning, I could no longer pretend to function and soon I wound up in a hospital bed.
With the help of a brilliant Psychotherapist, a crisis team and medication, I got better. I realised that constant low levels of sadness is not normal. Most people do not wake up in the morning and think: ‘How am I going to get through another day?’
How I learnt it was OK to be sad after recovering from depression. It took time but within a year I was feeling better. Tears hadn’t fallen down my face in a long time; instead, I felt positive about my life and truly believed it was worth living. I was able to start working on the issues surrounding my PTSD.
I had plans for the future for the first time in a long while. I even finished my university dissertations and started my PHD that was going well. I was working full time at the university as a lecturer and enjoying it.
And then it happened. I felt sad again. I had a long, hard day at work and an argument with my friend and all I wanted to do was climb into bed and sob.
My mind went into overdrive as I convinced myself things were going to be the way they used to be when I couldn’t stand to be alone with my thoughts. I went into full-blown panic mode, all because I had a crappy day at work.
It’s hard to describe how strong that fear was, but having experienced a level of normality and good mental health for the first time in my life, the idea of going back to the darkness that came before was gut-wrenchingly awful.
Luckily my crisis team had given me a number to call in case I needed anything after they stopped visiting.The person on the phone chilled me out and reminded me it was OK to feel sad in response to negative things in your life, it happens to everyone sometimes. That if I still felt this way in a few days to go see a GP, but that it would most likely pass. And it did. Things went back to normal, everything was good again.
It’s important to call for help if you’re worried but that evening of fear and worry was something I never want to go through again. I spoke to my Psychotherapist to see if I was alone in this experience, and it turns out I wasn’t.
‘When people have had significant depression in their lives, they can become extremely vigilant and watchful of emotions and feelings in a way they may not have before,’ she said.
‘While sadness is part of the human experience, it can take a more sinister turn as people may question is it a sign of getting depression again?’
It’s not unusual for people to start examining everything they’re feeling in great scrutiny, and when things go off course this can lead to heightened responses.
When to seek help
My therapist says to try and not over-analyse isolated incidences of feeling low. That being said, it’s important to keep an eye on things, ‘Being sad is part of the human experience, depression isn’t.’
Depression is a syndrome, or a collection of symptoms. If you are experiencing these symptoms it’s important to speak to your GP and get help.
- Persistent sadness for more than two weeks
- Lack of sleep
- Overeating or loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Lack of concentration
- Lack of energy
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness and hopelessness
According to my therapist, it’s not uncommon for people to completely lose their confidence when they experience sadness after a depression. After doing well for a long time, it can feel like you’re letting yourself or other people down by having these emotions.
My Psychotherapist offered some reassurance: ‘It’s important for people to be kind to themselves, to remember it’s just a bad day and everyone feels sad if they’ve had a bad day, at work for example. Isolated incidences of feeling low are entirely normal.’
If this is something you’re worried about, it’s important to try not to freak out, even if that’s easier said than done.
Question if there’s anything that might be rationally causing you to feel unhappy. If there is, try talking it out with a friend and remember everyone has bad days from time to time. However, don’t be afraid to seek help if you are worried, especially if feelings don’t pass after a few days.
As to why we feel sad, no one is entirely sure.
But it is a way we connect to each other, and that’s what makes this crappy emotion not entirely rubbish. We connect to one another and form relationships between shared human experiences, both good and bad. ‘Sadness likely has an adaptive function as evolved creatures. If we didn’t feel sad, the world would be an incredibly different place,’ she said.
‘If we didn’t feel sad when we saw atrocities on the news, or when a child was in pain, we would be without empathy and that would be a very difficult world to live in.’ So as scary as feeling sad is after experiencing depression, it’s important to remember it’s a crucial human emotion that bonds us. It usually does pass.
For me, in a strange way, experiencing sadness ended up helping me feel more connected to other people.
Rather than the isolating feeling of despair that depression brought around, this kind of sadness reminded me I was feeling a range of human emotions that I could talk about with friends.
In a way, it told me I wasn’t so alone after all.