Sadness. Just the very memory of it can lower our mood sometimes, and yet there is an important question to consider about it. Is it something that we can live without or is it an important part of being human?

One aspect of sadness to consider is that if we try and suppress any emotion (whether happiness, sadness, fear or anger), then it may be converted (or somatised) into physical symptoms (such as headaches). So, it could be said that sadness helps us to remain healthy, or put another way, well balanced.

Another aspect of sadness is that can be seen as a natural part of life and provides a signal for meaning or value in life. It tells us what matters. For example, feeling sad can tell us that we have lost something or someone of value.

Yet, sadness is often associated with pain and so there can be a tendency to avoid it. Sadness is also associated with depression – in some cases sadness is even said to equal depression – which can carry a stigma or be experienced as an illness. Yet, sadness is not an illness. It is not something to be avoided, and we don’t need to protect ourselves from it.

“You cannot protect yourself from sadness without protecting yourself from happiness” (Jonathan Safran Foer)

In fact, all emotions provide us with information about how to be OK, and when we suppress negative emotions we also lose the capacity for others that give life meaning – such as joy, love, warmth or excitement. When we avoid a particular feeling, what we are actually doing is disconnecting from ourselves, losing touch with ourselves in an attempt to protect ourselves from pain. Conversely, if we can feel sadness, we can feel other emotions more too – feel happier, for example.

It is, however, true to say that if sadness becomes chronic – in other words we become stuck in sadness – then this can be quite destructive for our wellbeing. On the other hand, feeling sadness about a loss we experience can be something like a wave. It escalates, reaches a peak and then subsides.

This is different from depression. Depression is a persistent emotional state. It includes sadness, but also affects thinking, perceptions and behaviours. In depression, sadness pervades everything and it is not triggered by a sense of loss or disappointment. In fact, to an outsider, the life of a person experiencing depression may appear to be good but rather than feel happy, fulfilled or excited about life, the depressed person feels desperate, lacks energy and also a sense of connection and meaning to their life or the people they share it with.

In finding the courage to allow ourselves to feel sadness, a fuller experience of life can be opened up

So, when we fear depression is on the horizon, it is easy to imagine why we may want to avoid sadness, or to move away from it very quickly. But what is actually around the corner? We might find out if we allow ourselves to feel sadness, but if we don’t and instead try to stop the sadness by busyness (for example throwing ourselves into more work, or doing more exercise) then stuckness may be the end result. We are not allowing the wave to escalate and subside. We are trying to hold the wave back, but eventually it will just spill over us. Instead, in finding the courage to allow ourselves to feel sadness, a fuller experience of life can be opened up. Sadness may serve as the precursor of change. It can allow us to connect with other emotions. It can give self-understanding and help provide clarity for the trajectories of life – its meanings and values. Like an escalating wave it can feel scary, and perhaps even overwhelming, but once experienced, maybe waves of sadness can be viewed as part of a regenerative cycle, supporting other emotional states and contributing to growing towards full humanness.