How to Release Sadness: Lessons from Experiential Psychotherapy
Did you ever have the feeling that you were sad and needed a good cry, but you couldn’t get the tears out? I certainly have.
Sadness is a natural adaptive response to loss. Losses like death, break-ups, our children growing up, moving from a house, city, or country we called home, a broken or missing cherished object, and other kinds of losses, are born from our wired-in capacity to love, connect, and emotionally attached to people, places, and things. Love and loss go hand in hand.
But sadness, like other emotions, gets a bad rap. Myths in modern society lead us to believe that emotions are for weak people and that it's best to “rise above them.” Stigmas surrounding emotions make us judge ourselves when we feel sad. We are instructed not to "wallow" or "be weak." As a result, most of us strive to push sadness away. We suppress sadness with all sorts of clever maneuvers that our malleable brains, minds, and bodies can invent to take us away from our discomfort. These are the defenses on the Change Triangle.
In fact, sadness is a universal core emotion that all humans are wired to experience. We cannot stop the brain from triggering sadness in the body, where emotions live, even though we can stop our mind from experiencing sadness by suppressing it. When we deal (or more accurately not deal) with sadness by burying it, symptoms like anxiety, depression, numbness, or a nagging feeling of disconnection from one's authentic Self may result.
There is nothing weak about feeling sad. It’s as human as human can be. However, the lessons we learned about sadness from our families, communities, and cultures influence our relationship with this tender emotion. For example, if we were raised in families where it wasn’t safe to feel sad because we were criticized as being needy, we might judge our sadness and push it away. If we were overwhelmed by losses without enough emotional support from a “safe other” to usher us through our grief, we might push away sadness for fear of being overwhelmed again. Conversely, we might feel perfectly comfortable with sadness. Perhaps our parents accepted our sadness, gave us comfort, and made sense of the pain we were feeling. Or perhaps our parents or friends modeled that it was safe to feel sad by how they spoke about and demonstrated their own sadness.
It’s important to know that sadness, like any of the core emotions (anger, fear, disgust, joy, excitement, and sexual excitement), can be suppressed with inhibitory emotions like anxiety, guilt, or shame. Until I learned tools to understand my emotions, I felt only anxiety around death. Many of my patients also report feeling embarrassed by their sadness, afraid to feel it, and even that they look “ugly” when crying. How unfortunate! In fact, when we learn to let sadness flow, our anxiety, shame, guilt, and defense mechanisms (like addictions, perfectionism, judgment, obsessiveness, and many others) diminish because we no longer need them to ward off sadness with inhibition and protective defenses.
Crying is one way we release sadness. Releasing sadness is vital for both immediate and long-term emotional health. For those of us who struggle to get the tears out or who want to process sadness but find it hard, the following gentle “prescription” might help. If at any point something doesn’t feel right to you, just stop. It probably means you need a live, emotionally-safe person to be with you. Nothing could be more natural.
A Gentle Exercise to Release Sadness
Get very cozy and comfortable on your bed or chair.
Bring a soft pillow, blanket, or pet to snuggle for comfort.
Take 5 or 6 deep belly breaths: breathing through your nose or mouth, imagine sending the air deep into the base of your abdomen, try to keep your chest from moving up, and instead let the air push your belly out like a buddha. Hold for a second so you feel the pressure of the air inside you. Then slowly release the air through pursed lips, like you’re blowing on hot soup. Tune into your body as you exhale and adjust the airflow so it feels maximally relaxing. It’s normal to feel a little dizzy as the inhale switches to the exhale. It’s also normal to feel your heartbeat speed up on the inhale. You will slow it down by the end of your nice long exhale. By the time you get to the 6th breath, you should feel much more relaxed. As you breathe, also try to notice the chair or bed against your body. Feel yourself weighted by gravity to feel connected to the chair or bed. This type of breathing is a life-long practice of knowing how to breathe in a way that feels most right for you. Deep belly breathing is a skill that helps us move through the full wave of our core emotions.
Next, bring into your mind the loss you have experienced.
Notice what changes in your body. Scan your body from head to toe as you breathe nice and easy, and see if you can find the sensations of sadness in your body. You might notice a heaviness in your chest, a lump in your throat, or a feeling behind your eyes. Or you might notice another sensation associated with sadness. There’s no right way. Whatever you feel is normal and natural for you.
Stay with the sensations of sadness and breathe gently. You might start to feel the wave of sadness moving or building. Just deep belly breathe through it, noticing the sensations moving through you. If it feels too much, try dropping any thoughts or images in your mind and merely focus on the body sensations of sadness with a stance of curiosity and compassion towards yourself.
Ride the wave of sadness, stay with it, allow yourself to cry until it is over and the wave naturally comes to an end. Stay breathing until you feel calmer.
Finally, when you’re ready to move again and continue with your day or night, remember to treat yourself kindly and gently, like you would care for someone you loved.
Below is a video to try this sadness-processing exercise with me:
Sometimes sadness cannot be processed because there are other emotions that first need tending. For example, losing a parent that we haven’t spoken to in years because they were too difficult, controlling, or hurtful, might bring up guilt, anger, shame, and more. If we had mixed or complicated feelings towards the object of our loss, sadness may be hard to process. The Change Triangle tool to understand emotions might help sort them out.
Allowing ourselves to cry when sad, either on our own or with someone else, is good for our emotional and physical health. Pushing down emotions leads to stress in the mind and body. If your sadness feels too overwhelming to experience on your own, AEDP psychotherapists or psychotherapists who are well-trained in helping people through big emotions will help. Painful as it can be to ride the wave of our sadness, that is precisely how we feel better sooner than later.
Further reading: It's Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self (Random House & Penguin UK)