Did you know you can deal with sadness alone? After almost two decades of allowing myself to be crushed by my sadness and overwhelmingly painful emotions, the pain had become so unbearable, I could not go on like this anymore. Even though I was alone and had virtually no emotional support, I had to find ways to overcome my sadness on my own. I succeeded and so can you.
You can deal with extreme sadness alone too, and there are ways to manage the overwhelming emotional and physical pain you feel in your chest. Yes, I said physical pain: if the extreme sadness and emotional pain you are experiencing right now feels like real pain in your chest, that’s because it is. It’s not an illusion (Fogel, 2012) although, to be honest, I do not necessarily adhere to this idea of a separation between the psychological vs biological.
As a matter of fact, this notion is being increasingly challenged in western scientific research (Lumley et al. 2012) because the truth is, in both cases, the same area of the brain is activated whether you are experiencing physical or emotional pain. So, you kinda feel them both in the same way.
Anyway, after a couple of years of reading, learning, meditating, talking to a therapist (well, Eve was a social worker, but I digress), I gradually discovered or came up with strategies to help me manage this constant feeling of deep sadness, on my own.
Until I stopped feeling sad altogether.
Related article: 21 habits that helped me overcome depression without medication.
I find these techniques to be very effective when dealing with intense emotional pain and extreme sadness, especially when you are alone and have no one around to comfort you. And you know what? Even if you have people around to comfort you, you shouldn’t rely on other people to make you feel better. The wise thing to do is to learn to comfort yourself.
These tools teach you both to accept your pain instead of trying to avoid or deny it, whil at the same time shifting your attention “away” from it.
And the best part is, these thechniques for dealing with sadness can work pretty fast. Like, scary fast.
So, here are 7 effective strategies I use to deal with extreme sadness and ease my emotional pain alone.
The Storm at Sea Analogy
This is one of my favorite ways of dealing with sadness, especially deep sadness.
Imagine yourself at sea, in the middle of a storm. Close your eyes.
Now, picture it: you are on a tiny boat in the middle of the ocean. Pitch-black sky, violent wind, pouring rain… and you, tossed back and forth by the waves. That’s the storm happening inside you right now.
Now picture yourself diving in the water, deeper and deeper, leaving the storm behind, on the surface. Keep going further deep, until the water feels calm again; until you’re no longer in the storm.
You’ve now entered another world, below the surface. It’s calm. If you look up, you can almost see the storm. But you are no longer in it; you have removed yourself from the chaos.
You are simply observing. Even though you know what is happening on the surface, but where you are right now, everything is calm. There is no sadness or pain. You are just floating.
Picture it, imagine it, feel it. Stay there for as long as needed. Allow yourself to be gently rocked by the current, but don’t swim back up.
I always try to give credit where it’s due, and I’m pretty sure I read or heard this somewhere. But I cannot for the life of me remember where, sorry! But I’ve applied this tactic a few times and it worked.
If someone ever reads this blog and decides to give this a try, do this, let me know how it went. I’d be curious to know.
The “Patronus” Trick
Okay, maybe this one is my actual favorite? I “came up” with it one night, as I was lying in bed sobbing, alone, and wondering how I would get through yet another night of sadness and emotional pain.
It was not long after I had been musing on Harry Potter, wondering if J.K. Rowling had “real life” in mind when she invented the Dementors.
I mean, seriously. Think about it.
A Patronus is “a kind of anti-Dementor – a guardian which acts as a shield between you and the Dementor. It’s a kind of positive force, a projection of the very things that the Dementor feeds upon, but it cannot feel despair, as real humans can, so the Dementors can’t hurt it” (Source: Wizarding World).
So, there I was, lying in bed, sad, and scared. I guess I was desperate because I decided to close my eyes and I started projecting my own Patronus around me.
I pictured a positive shield radiating softly all around me: I imagined it, felt it, and gave it as much power as possible.
You know what? it worked. Seriously! Even though my Patronus was weak and barely there, it still succeeded in creating an imaginary distance between me and my inner demons, between me and all the negative thoughts that were feeding my sadness and despair.
So, I kept focusing on my Patronus, and eventually fell asleep.
I’ve used this trick often in the past.
If you are feeling crushed right now by your sadness or intense emotional pain, close your eyes, and try to create your own Patronus around you.
And if you try it, please let me know how it went.
The Weather Analogy
This one is about accepting what is.
Often, when we are in the middle of emotional turmoil or we are experiencing intense sadness, we want to fix it, make it go away, or make things better. I think that more often than not, that’s a mistake.
Feelings are like the weather: sometimes it’s sunny, and sometimes it rains; sometimes a mini storm hits, out of nowhere, but only lasts minutes; and sometimes it rains for 3 days, non-stop.
The weather doesn’t need a reason. It just is. It rains because it rains, but then it will stop on its own.
Our feelings are kind of the same. Sometimes you need to simply allow yourself to be sad because that’s just the way it is. During that time, be understanding with yourself, use comforting words in your internal dialog, be patient, calm, and give yourself some love.
But don’t try to change things. Simply trust that the sun will come out again, and let things be.
This tactic works best in conjunction with The Detective technique (see below).
When experiencing extreme emotions or emotional distress, most people tend to focus on what they are thinking. They keep going over the pain in their mind, based on the illusion that if they think about it hard enough, they will somehow find the magic solution that will put an end to that pain forever.
Rationalizing your sadness and emotions while you are in distress is not optimal, and it actually makes things worse.
What you should be doing instead is pay attention to the ways that pain expresses itself in your body:
- What is happening in your body at the moment?
- Where exactly in your body are you feeling the discomfort? Is it a pain in your chest? Do you have a knot in your stomach?
That’s where you should put your attention. Not on your thoughts; your body.
The upside of this technique is that it can be pretty quick, and the impact on your mood can be drastic. It’s so surprising that it’s almost scary. When you start zooming in on the present, the pain fades away, sometimes pretty quickly. If it comes back, it’s ok; just start over.
Sometimes the emotional pain goes away so quickly, that it’s almost as if I’m the one actively trying to bring it back. As if somehow, it was impossible for me to feel better that fast after feeling so badly… so I make myself feel bad again.
Joseph Goldstein’s guided meditations on the Ten Percent Happier App have helped me tremendously in this area. His courses were my favorite. The app is not free but I used it for two years and it was worth it. They also have a Ten Percent Happier podcast that you can listen to for free. (Please note that I’m not an affiliate).
This one is a mix between The Detective, The Storm at Sea, and The Weather analogy.
The surfer is about learning to surf on the wave of your emotions.
In order to surf on the wave of your emotions, you must:
1) Accept that your emotions are what they are and that it’s okay to feel sad right now;
2) Not allow your self to sink into the dark pit of your emotions, but rather float at the surface;
3) Observe your body’s reactions;
4) And accept that the pain and sadness will come and go, for as long as it takes (an hour, a day, a week, a month), in waves.
And you, my friend, you “surf” on that wave.
This means, let it out.
There are probably other ways of doing this (like talking to a friend), but I personally always go with journaling. I swear! Journaling has magic powers.
Related article: How to start journaling and why you should?
I cannot tell you how many times I have been obsessing (sometimes for months!) on something, or been in extreme pain about something and felt utterly distraught.
But then I suddenly remember my journal, grab it, and let it everything out on the page. It doesn’t matter if my sentences are incoherent, that I can’t understand my handwriting,that I tear the pages in my rage, or wet them with my tears… It’s like word vomit. It comes spewing out of me, and I fill 1-5-20 pages. But then it suddenly stops, and I feel better. Truly better.
Journaling is one of the most therapeutic things I’ve ever done in my life.
It’s even better if you mix it with CBT tactics (CBT stands for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy).
When you feel extreme emotional distress and can’t seem to get past it, grab a pen and paper and write. Don’t overthink it, forget the pretty cursive and the clean paragraphs. Let it out for as long as it takes. You will know when you are done.
The idea is to do one small thing that will inevitably take your attention away from the internal pain you are experiencing. I call it the “distraction despite yourself” technique.
My three favorites are push-ups, a (cold) shower, or a walk outside, especially if there’s some type of “extreme” weather going on like if it’s winter or windy, or snowing.
I prefer those three because they are the easiest to do when you are in so much pain you can barely find the will to breathe.
I mean, you are probably already sitting on the floor crying, right? Might as well get down a little bit more and try a push-up. Then another one; and another. Let me tell you, the effort will stop your tears in 10 seconds because you are putting your attention on something else. You have to! It’s a damn push-up!
Try something else: hop in the shower then set the water temperature slightly below what you would normally go for. See? distraction; your attention is now on the cold.
Some final thoughts
On the paradox of attention
Dealing with intense emotional pain raises an interesting paradox. You have to pay attention to it, and yet you have to shift your focus away from it. Sounds confusing?
Well, it’s not as paradoxical as you may think.
The idea is to not engage in the neverending loop of thinking or rationalizing your pain, but rather to pay attention to the way that pain manifests itself in the body. So, while you are still paying attention, you are actually disengaging from your (often unhelpful internal dialog). As mentioned above, Joseph Goldstein does a good job explaining and walking you through it, so definitely check out his resources.
As most articles on the internet (like this one) already focus on that, you probably already know that you should make yourself food; you should call a loving friend or family member; you should run yourself a bath, or go for a walk, or do all those things that you already know you should do.
But I’m being realistic here. Rarely have I been in a situation of extreme emotional distress and found the strength to cook myself dinner. I do it now, but that’s only because I’ve spent months and months building new habits, training myself mentally, and using the strategies listed above.
But if you can do those things, then definitely do them.
On seeking help
Sometimes, we are so deep in our pain that it completely clouds our judgement. We start seeing the world through a mostly negative lens, and it can be extremely hard to come out of it on our own.
I spoke to tens of people in vain before finding that one person who (literally) changed my life.
If you have that opportunity where you live, you should seek help. Call your local help line (this one in Canada, or this one in the U.S.) or check out other resources, such as BetterHelp, that offer online counseling services.
… and finally
I’m convinced that these techniques have helped me come out of depression because they’ve taught me new, more effective ways of dealing with my sadness and general emotional pain.
Instead of allowing myself to spiral down the darkest corners of my mind (and become more and more sad), they act as some sort of “buffer” and stop me from falling too deep.
But these are immediate, “first-response”-type solutions that should be accompanied by other, more long-term, and transformative habits. Habits such as creating a routine, self-care, self-awareness, acceptance, etc. that will ensure you don’t sink below a certain point in the future.
How do you deal with extreme sadness? Is that something you feel often?