Every day, we feel a wide range of emotions, and one of those is sadness. In fact, even though the emotional spectrum is really wide, there are six “basic emotions” that appear in the natural development of every person in every country, culture, and age. These six emotions are, in addition to sadness, joy, fear, anger, disgust, and surprise. All of these are necessary for our personal and social functioning.
However, even though these emotions have certain functions that make them useful in our lives, it can be that in particular moments or circumstances, they can begin to be dysfunctional or even pathological. It is important to know how to determine the difference between a normal emotion and a pathological one so that one can identify when it is necessary to employ specific resources to confront the problem, like consulting a medical or psychological specialist.
To this point, it is important that you remember that all emotions have a function, both the most agreeable ones (like joy) and the less desirable ones (like sadness, fear, and anger). Whatever the emotion, it prompts us to do that which is most adaptive for us in any given moment.
In this article we will talk about one particular emotion: sadness. Sadness is an uncomfortable emotion to experience. It is related to a negative mood, a lack of motivation, and a dearth of energy.
If we find it difficult to bear our own sadness, it is probable that we will also have a hard time witnessing the sadness of another. It is for this reason that it is so common to hear phrases like “Cheer up!”, “Don’t cry,” “Crying does you no good,” and “Now what you have to do is leave the situation behind and just enjoy yourself.”
However, life isn’t like that: sadness is an emotion with a key function for our well-being. It invites us to reflect on and analyze our adverse situations. We will illustrate this purpose with an example. Say that you have experienced a breakup with your partner. It is very normal to feel sadness after a situation like that. That sadness often causes other people to notice your suffering and offer you care and sympathy in your moment of vulnerability.
Now that we’ve seen that sadness can give rise to vital emotional support, it is important to distinguish the differences between sadness and depression. Depression is a mood disorder formed by a list of symptoms like apathy, anhedonia, despair, a lack of energy, irritability, discomfort, and the subjective sense of inability to face the demands of life.
Reading the symptoms of depression, one could come to confuse it with sadness. The key to differentiate pathological emotions from ordinary ones comes from the cause of one’s mood, its intensity and duration, and the extent of the deterioration of one’s social and general functioning.
We are going to explain these causes in detail:
- Cause-effect: Normally, the emotions that we experience are responses to an event. For example, if I hear a suspicious noise at night, I will feel scared. However, when we are facing a dysfunctional emotion, we feel it even in the absence of a clear impetus. This happens when a person suffers from depression; s/he doesn’t necessarily have a clear motive for his/her sadness.
- Frequency and intensity: Throughout the day, we feel distinct emotions with intensity and short duration. If the intensity is high and prolonged, it is possible that we are facing something more dysfunctional. For that reason, the degree of suffering is much greater.
- Deterioration: Mood disorders have a huge impact on the lives of people who suffer from them. As opposed to what happens with normal emotions that allow us to continue with our days, pathological emotions cause serious deteriorations in one’s quality of life, including not only one’s cognitive and emotional well-being but also one’s physical health.
Apart from how we experience the emotion, it is important to take into account the strategies that we employ to resolve our complicated situations. In broad strokes, we can differentiate between the ruminative style and the avoidant or distractor styles.
The ruminative style is that in which the person constantly dwells on the causes of his/her mood without taking any action. The distractor style, on the other hand, sees its practitioners engage in other activities to divert their attention from the negative emotion. At this point, it is important to clarify that neither style is better than the other. Each one is, in some situations, more or less adaptive in its attempt to deal with the event at hand.
In the case of depression, different studies show that the ruminative style of response is more harmful for the patient, while the distractor style allows us to approach the situation a bit more and is thus a bit more effective.
Learning to identify, assimilate, comprehend and regulate our emotions and those of others determines in large part our quality of life. The fathers of emotional intelligence, John Mayer and Peter Salovey, assert that the capacity to regulate one’s emotions serves as an important protector against adverse situations in life, including depression.
We cannot control all of the events of our lives. There will be some happenings that are really pleasant, and others will be more distasteful. However, we can employ our strategy of confronting each and every one of the events. Now, the ball is in your court; you can make the choice to get to know yourself better and learn to relate in a healthy way to your emotions.