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What is Sadness?

Updated: Dec 28, 2020

Historically, sadness has been considered to be a ‘basic’ emotion. Happiness, anger, surprise, fear, and disgust are the others and all of us have the capacity to experience these emotions.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), Sadness is an emotional state of unhappiness, ranging in intensity from mild to extreme and usually aroused by the loss of something that is highly valued, such as the breakup of a romantic relationship or death of a loved one. Humans usually express feelings of sadness by crying, withdrawing from others, increase in lethargic behaviour and decrease in reward seeking behaviour. Psychologically, there may be evidence of ruminating negative thoughts, dampened mood, increased use of coping mechanisms. For example, when Mayank had a breakup with their longtime girlfriend who cheated, they were obviously saddened and became withdrawn in the days following the breakup. They had also taken to sitting in their room and playing the guitar and writing sad, heartfelt poetry as a way of pouring out their feelings about this recent event. Eventually, Mayank started getting over the sadness and started opening up to close friends which helped.

It is no wonder then that sadness is mostly viewed in a negative light, as it is most often experienced because of unpleasant situations.


However, it may also be considered to have an adaptive function. Sadness may serve a motivational aspect. What this implies is that a situation or action that causes the individual sadness, will also motivate them to try to avoid it in the future. For example, Mayank became more careful about who they opened up to and the connections they built with others in the weeks and months following the breakup. They also focused on their personal ambitions more, some of which had taken a backseat as Mayank was investing a lot of time and resources in the relationship.

Thus, sadness is serving other social and personal functions as well - It pushes the individual to re-evaluate their priorities and goals because of the loss they have faced. There is an increase in self-focus. Another outcome is the strengthening of ties with their support system, which also helps to foster compassion in other people.


Sadness is a very complex psychobiological state. When individuals experience sadness, transmission of oxytocin is reduced. However, remembering or actually experiencing physical contact with a loved one may increase oxytocin again.

Studies have shown that sadness causes changes in activity levels in more than 70 areas of the brain. A German neurologist Korbinian Brodmann conducted studies in the 1900s to learn more about the structures of the human brain. He divided the cerebral cortex into 52 distinct regions.

One of these regions which was buried deep inside the brain, was named as Brodmann Area 25. Popularly, it became referred to as the brain’s “Sadness Center.” Reason being, that whenever an individual’s experiences sadness, this region gets activated. For individuals who are diagnosed with depression, this area is perennially activated.

There is further clinical evidence of sadness being linked with increased activity in the left amygdala and right temporal pole. Illnesses that increase activity of neurons in these brain areas could contribute to sadness.

Very often, depression and sadness are used interchangeably to describe one’s feelings during a particularly difficult phase of life – post breakup, death of a loved one. People say things like “I’m so depressed!” without fully comprehending what they’re implying. While sadness may be a part of depression, it doesn’t necessarily mean that one is depressed – Infact, one can be sad without being depressed.


So how do we tell the difference between the two?


Sadness is an adaptive emotion, acting as a facilitator for group attachments and prompting emphatic responses. It is also generally experienced as a transient emotion.

But, when it occurs in an excessive and prolonged state, it can develop into a depressive disorder and could cause harm to the individual. Persistent sadness is one of the two defining symptoms of a major depressive episode. However, for someone to meet the diagnosis of depression, the individual might typically also experience other symptoms such as feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt on a daily basis, inability to concentrate or make decisions lasting for more than two weeks. This may be accompanied by sleep disturbances or changes in appetite, weight loss, loss of interest in one’s regular activities and even thoughts about self-harm or suicide. Thus, depression is not just about “feeling sad”. In fact, it can be very devastating to the individual.

If indeed one is experiencing any of the above-mentioned symptoms, it is highly recommended to seek out the help of a mental health professional.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has been found to be effective in helping individuals challenge negative thoughts. It would also be prudent to reach out to loved ones or a support system to help one navigate challenging times in life.


Evolutionary theory encourages human beings to embrace all of their emotions - happiness, love, fear, sadness and anger. After all, each does have an important role to play under the right circumstances. So, while we may want to increase happiness (because, why not?), we could also be mindful about embracing sadness as well. It does exist for good reason.


References

1. Arias, J. A., Williams, C., Raghvani, R., Aghajani, M., Baez, S., Belzung, C., ... & Ibanez, A. (2020). The neuroscience of sadness: A multidisciplinary synthesis and collaborative review. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 111, 199-228.

2. Joaquim, R. M., de Oliveira, F. C. S., Fajardo, R. S., & Caramaschi, S. (2018). Psychobiology of sadness: functional aspects in human evolution. EC Psychology and Psychiatry, 7(12), 1015-22.

3. Lokko, H. N., & Stern, T. A. (2014). Sadness: diagnosis, evaluation, and treatment. The primary care companion for CNS disorders, 16(6), 10.4088/PCC.14f01709. https://doi.org/10.4088/PCC.14f01709

4. Freed, P. J., & Mann, J. J. (2007). Sadness and loss: Toward a neurobiopsychosocial model. American Journal of Psychiatry, 164(1), 28-34.



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