No one likes being sad, and I don't think any of us like what happens to our bodies when we're sad. But although it feels absolutely horrible, it can actually be good for us to feel sad occasionally. So even though sadness can literally hurt sometimes, it's important to let yourself feel it — because whether it's due to the loss of a loved one, the end of a close relationship, an unexpected but major life change or something smaller, sadness is a necessary part of life that often precedes personal growth.
That said, sadness can have negative physical side effects, too, which range from disturbances in your sleeping patterns to an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. Additionally, while sadness and depression are not the same thing, both sadness and depression have many of the same physical side effects — so ignoring extended periods of sadness can actually be quite detrimental to your health.
If you've been feeling sad a lot lately, know that it's perfectly OK to not be happy all of the time — but also make a point of being aware of what your body goes through when you're sad. This can help motivate you to develop healthier ways to cope with sadness, and it may even help you find your way back to a good mood. However, if your coping mechanisms fail you and your sadness lingers for weeks, consider talking to your doctor about it before your emotional health disrupts your relationships and your life. Here are three things that happen to your body when you're sad.
1. Your Heart Literally Hurts
Believe it or not, you can literally die from a broken heart. If your sadness is the result of grieving (particularly if you're grieving the loss of a loved one), you could be at higher-than-average risk for developing a disorder called cardiomyopathy, or "broken heart syndrome." When this happens, your body may perceive your grief as stress (or you may actually just become stressed out by the intensity of your grief); this can both weaken your immune system and make it easier for your sympathetic nervous system to initiate your "fight or flight" response.
As you may already know, when this response is triggered, your body releases the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, and too much of these hormones can lead to high blood pressure and high blood sugar. And there's some even scarier news: If you're experiencing a particularly rough episode of cardiomyopathy, your heart could stop pumping blood as strongly as it's meant to, which results in heart attack symptoms like chest pain, shortness of breath, arm pain and sweating. Cardiomyopathy can result in heart failure, too — so while you're unlikely to develop cardiomypathy from sadness, it's still a good reminder to take your grief-related sadness seriously, and take care of yourself.
2. Your Facial Recognition Skills & Memory Recollection Improve
Although sadness mostly sucks, it can come with this one major benefit. In August 2011, LiveScience talked to Peter Hills — a researcher and cognitive psychologist from Angila Ruskin Universtiy in England — about experiments he helped conduct regarding sadness in college students. His findings showed that sad people are better at facial recognition than people who are in happy or neutral moods. Evidently, being sad results in elaborate thinking, and elaborate thinking makes it easier for someone to recognize faces.
Sadness can also help us recall the past more clearly. Joseph P. Forgus reported in his June 2014 article for the University of California at Berkeley's The Greater Good that sadness improves our attention to detail. So while being happy definitely feels better than being sad, it can also result in less focused and attentive processing, which can cause us to incorporate false information into the recollection of our memories. So there you go — your sad memories may feel clearer than your happy ones simply because you were paying more attention during your sad times.
3. Your Appetite Changes
If you've ever been through an especially devastating breakup, then you already know how sadness can mess with your appetite — but you may not know why. Experts claim that intense sadness results in high stress and a weakened immune system — since our immune systems are located in our guts, it's not surprising that our appetites change when our immune systems do. When we're going through heartache, it puts our bodies in a state of repair — this means they have to work overtime until we're back to a state of repose, and it also means our appetites aren't likely to go back to normal until then, either.
So while this means that you should take extra special care of yourself when you're sad, it also means that sadness is more than just a bad mood that you can just shrug off or "get over," as some of your less helpful friends might think. Sadness is very real — and like every other very real event in our lives, it takes some time to get over.