How not to be sad: nine tips for managing the emotion

The goal isn’t to not feel sad; it’s to understand what’s causing the sadness and learn and grow from it

Psychologists say sadness is the emotion we experience when we encounter some kind of loss. It can be a difficult emotion to feel. “But the goal should not be to reject sadness,” says Ethan Kross, PhD, a professor of psychology and management at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who studies emotion and self-control. Like all emotions, sadness helps us understand our actions, our behaviors, and ourselves.

The work is really about learning from sadness,” says Deb Dana, a psychotherapist in Kennebunkport, Maine, who specializes in complex trauma. You want to allow yourself to listen to what’s causing your sadness and understand why it’s making you feel sad, which she says will help you learn from it and figure out what to do next.

To do that, you need strategies to cope with the feeling without getting stuck in it. “The really good news is that we know that there are many, many ways people can manage sadness,” Dr. Kross says. But he says you should know there’s no one-size-fits-all; you may need to try a few different approaches to find out what works for you.

Here are some tools psychic health experts suggest you try when you feel sad.

9 Tips for Coping When You Feel Sad

  1. Shift Your Perspective

We mistakenly think we’re doing a better job when we can’t feel sadness, says Steven C. Hayes, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Nevada in Reno who developed Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

Instead, Dr. Hayes says sadness can be a useful emotion that provides information about what’s going on, like the oil light on your car’s dashboard. “It doesn’t make sense to turn off the sensor, and that’s what we’re doing all the time,” he says.

When you feel sad, adopting this perspective can contextualize sadness and transform how you think about the feeling. This is an evidence-based emotion regulation strategy that psychology researchers call cognitive reappraisal, which involves reframing how you see a situation to make it less distressing.

  1. Cultivate Awareness

What can’t awareness help with? It’s a widely prescribed technique because it is a profoundly helpful approach, Hayes says. Think of awareness as flexible, fluid, and voluntary attention to whatever your current situation is (or the matter you intend to be aware about), he explains.

Practicing awareness can help you cope better with a host of challenging emotions, according to Mayo Clinic. In a large study that analyzed nonpharmocological psychic health interventions, Hayes said he and his team found that a majority of approaches that have been linked to positive psychic health outcomes could be described as psychological flexibility and awareness.

Studies show that awareness can help with sadness, in particular. A study published in April 2017, which had 171 participants, found that after awareness training, people were better able to regulate sad moods over time than with other techniques (like suppressing those feelings). Those who received a reappraisal training were also better able to regulate sad mood over time.

  1. Try the 3-N Approach

When you feel sad, it can help to work through the feeling using a three-step process, Dana says:

  • Notice
  • Name
  • Normalize

Noticing draws on your capacity to identify how you’re feeling, which relies on the ability known in psychology as interoception. A study in the January 2022 Journal of Psychosomatic Research linked interoceptive awareness skills to improved emotional regulation.

Naming means putting words to your feeling of sadness. A paper published in April 2018 in Emotion Review argued that this approach, sometimes called affect labeling, promotes emotional regulation and reduces self-reported sadness.

Finally, Dana says you can normalize sadness by connecting with others. She says you can also listen to stories, read, or watch TV. “Sadness held in combination with others is a very different experience from sadness in isolation,” she notes.

  1. Inspire Awe

When you contemplate something vast, like a beautiful view, it leads to a phenomenon called the shrinking of the self, which Kross says can be an effective emotional regulation strategy to cope with sadness (among other challenging emotions).

In a study published in 2022 in Emotion, older adults who took weekly 15-minute “awe walks” — for which they were asked to walk somewhere new (if possible) and were given brief instructions on how to tap into their sense of wonder (such as by experiencing novelty and vastness) — reported decreased emotional distress.

  1. Time Travel

Many studies, including research published in Emotion in 2022, suggest that temporal distancing, which takes place when you adopt a retrospective (looking to the past) or prospective (looking ahead) point of view, can help reduce distressful emotions, such as sadness.

When you feel sad, Kross recommends looking to the past to recall how you dealt with similar adversity. Traveling forward in time is effective, too. He says it can help to contemplate how you’ll feel about your circumstances down the road when you’re moving on with your life.

  1. Take a Break

Sometimes the best action to do when you’re sad is to take time to regroup temporarily, says Kross. It’s not avoidance (which typically isn’t a good approach to coping with sadness), Kross explains. It’s taking a brief beat to cool off before coming back to difficult feelings, he says.

Research suggests distraction can be an effective emotion regulation strategy even when implemented some time after a sad event.

Kross says that taking a break allows the intensity of sadness to subside. “When we return to the problem, we have more perspective to manage it,” he says.

  1. Try the 20-Second Rule

To build your capacity to be with sadness rather than feel hijacked by it, Dana suggests that you practice turning toward the feeling for 20 seconds, then returning to your day.

This exercise, where you “tune in and keep going,” makes it easier to be with sadness over time. “It’s the back-and-forth that creates the capacity to not drown in sadness,” she says.

The 20-second rule can help establish a sense of safety in the body and brain, which research published in May 2022 in Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience suggested is foundational to emotional wellness.

  1. Look for the Glimmers

Dana says that recognizing that we all have the built-in ability to experience “a micro-moment of fine-ness” can be helpful when you are in the midst of deep suffering and sadness.

To do this, she encourages you to look for instances “when something else is there” in addition to the sadness, which she calls “glimmers,” in her book about emotional regulation Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection.

Looking for glimmers “doesn’t mean the sadness goes away,” Dana says, “It means that I have the capacity for both.”

  1. Take Action

Since sadness relates to loss, Hayes says the feeling can serve as a reverse compass, pointing toward what matters to you. He says that the reverse compass can guide action that helps you live a “more vital life” in the present.

For example, you may feel sad because you loved to dance, but you’re aging and have lost the ability to do it. Hayes says you can use the reverse compass technique to take action that honors your love for dance, such as raising money for a dance troupe.

The next time you’re sad, consider what its cause suggests you care deeply about, Hayes says. “If you have the capacity to move your foot one step further in that direction metaphorically, take it.”


April 12, 2023



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