What to do when you feel sad and don't know why

October 17, 2022

Sadness can be a difficult emotion to manage, but there are plenty of situations where feeling that way is a perfectly natural reaction—like when you’ve run into a setback or lost an important relationship. But when you’re feeling sad on a regular basis and you aren’t sure why, that can be a sign that your mental health needs attention.

So how can you tell if what you’re experiencing is normal (even if unpleasant) sadness or an issue that needs addressing? Read on for some key differences to look for, plus tips for handling sadness whenever it happens.

Is It normal to feel sad and not know why?

Even sadness you can’t explain can be a healthy reaction to your situation. For example, sadness can be your way of responding to a problem you haven’t consciously noticed yet. But once you start feeling down, you look for the issue (and ideally, find a solution too).

Surprisingly, research shows that sadness can even improve your relationships with other people. Being in a bad mood can even make you more persuasive and less judgmental.

Looking for a good example of how sadness can be beneficial? Talkiatry therapist Tracey Griffin has a movie recommendation for you.

"Inside Out does a wonderful job of showing how sadness can make people more empathetic," Tracey says. "I often use this example to help my patients see how sharing their sadness with other people can actually strengthen their connection."

But healthy sadness tends to subside after a few hours or days, once you’ve solved or accepted the issue that’s bothering you. Persistent sadness, on the other hand, can be a sign of a mental health concern.

What conditions can lead to constantly feeling sad?

Depression

Clinical depression can come in a few different forms. Major depressive disorder (MDD), often (but not always) causes near-constant sadness for more than two weeks at a time. That low mood might go away for a while, but it always comes back.

If you always seem to feel sad in the winter months but your mood brightens with the weather, you might have a different type of depression: seasonal affective disorder (SAD). On the other hand, persistent depressive disorder (PDD) causes year-round, but milder gloominess.

Apart from sadness, you’ll recognize all types of depression by these symptoms:

  • Difficulty thinking, remembering things, or making decisions
  • Eating a lot more or a lot less than you normally do
  • Experiencing body aches and pains with no explanation
  • Feeling anxious, hopeless, guilty, or worthless
  • Feeling tired no matter how much you sleep
  • Getting angry or irritated easily
  • Losing interest in your hobbies, work, and relationships
  • Sleeping too much or too little (a.k.a. insomnia)
  • Speaking or moving more slowly than usual
  • Thinking about suicide or self-harm

If you’re relating to this as you read, it might be a good idea to reach out to a psychiatrist who can help you manage your symptoms.

Bipolar disorder

Unlike depression, bipolar disorder doesn’t just bring you down emotionally and physically. Instead, periods of persistent sadness alternate with spells of intense happiness. You might get a brief breather from your symptoms in between episodes, or you might feel depressed and euphoric at the same time.

During a depressive episode, you’ll see the same kinds of symptoms that normally come along with clinical depression. You’ll recognize a manic episode by these symptoms:

  • Acting impulsively
  • Feeling more confident
  • Feeling unusually happy, jumpy, or restless
  • Having difficulty thinking or focusing
  • Sleeping less than usual
  • Talking more than you usually do

If any of this sounds like you, consider reaching out to a psychiatrist for help.

Changing hormones

Sometimes, a consistently down mood can be a side effect of a significant shift in your body’s hormone levels. You might always feel sad shortly before you get your period, or you might feel depressed for some time after giving birth, which is called postpartum depression. You can also develop depressive symptoms later in life, when your testosterone or estrogen levels drop.

In these cases, you’ll experience all the usual symptoms of depression, so you may have a hard time connecting the change in your mood to what’s going on inside your body. Tracking your mood over time can help you recognize patterns and pinpoint a cause, like if you always tend to feel depressed around the same time each month. If you’ve been struggling with symptoms that may be related to changing hormones, tell your primary care doctor or your psychiatrist, who may refer you to an endocrinologist.

What should I do when I start feeling sad?

  • Make time for yourself: Sadness can be your body’s way of letting you know there’s something missing from your life. You might need a creative outlet like journaling, quality time with friends or family, or even just fresh air.
  • Talk to a therapist: If you can’t identify the cause of your sadness, seeing a licensed therapist can help you understand why you feel the way you do and learn coping mechanisms for working through your emotions.
  • Talk to a psychiatrist: If you’re experiencing symptoms like the ones described above, consider reaching out to a psychiatrist. They can walk you through your medication options, which might include antidepressants like selective-serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). Some psychiatrists also offer talk therapy, or you can see both a psychiatrist and a therapist and ask them to collaborate on your care. Talkiatry can take the confusion out of that process by matching you with the right psychiatrist and therapist for you.

Feeling sad can weigh you down and make it tougher to enjoy your life, but it’s an important part of the human experience. Sadness can make you more empathetic toward others and yourself.

But no one deserves to feel sad all or most of the time. If you’re struggling with depressive symptoms, Talkiatry can help. Take our quick assessment to get matched with one of our expert psychiatrists.

Talkiatry is a mental health practice, and our clinicians review everything we write. However, articles are never a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you think you may need mental health help, talk to a psychiatrist. If you or someone you know may be in danger, call 911 or the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 right away.

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