What to Do When a Friend Tells You They're Feeling Sad

We've all been sad friends. We've also all had sad friends. The big question is, how can sad friends be helped?
What to Do When a Friend Tells You They're Feeling Sad
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

What do you do when your friend tells you that they’re feeling sad? The first thing that crosses your mind is that you must ‘rescue’ them. You might make a plan to get them out of the house and put all your efforts into making them smile, shifting their attention from their problems to more cheerful matters.

Sometimes, this works but only in a fleeting and temporary way. Because sadness isn’t like the dirt on a pair of spectacles that can be cleaned so we can see more clearly. Sadness is like an anchor. It runs us aground on the shore of sorrow, forcing us to travel through its island of solitude for a few hours or even days.

None of us are obliged to be experts in emotional support. However, if you really want to help someone, it’s good to have an instruction manual at hand, in effect, a psychological first aid kit. This will ensure you don’t hinder them or further intensify their discomfort.

We’ve been taught since we were little that emotions with a negative valence such as sadness, are bad and that it’s best not to think about them. We’re told that we should shift our attention to happier realities.

Man comforts his partner
Sadness is a normal emotion. There’s nothing wrong with it. Therefore, it isn’t good to repress it.

What to do when a friend tells you that they’re sad

Mario Benedetti rightly said that he never realized there was so much sadness in happiness. In fact, of all the human emotions, being sad is inherent to life itself. It bothers us and hurts like a thorn in our side. It’s an indefinable weight or an absence that we don’t know how to fill. That said, it’s also a normal, acceptable, and necessary state.

Unlike depression, sadness is one more part of psychological reality. Furthermore, it has a really clear purpose. It forces us to stop and start an introspective process with which we find new meanings. Our brains want us to retreat into our shells to face those disappointments and losses.

When sadness comes knocking on the door, we shouldn’t try and erect psychological barriers. It shouldn’t be encapsulated or displaced by thinking or doing happier things. As a matter of fact, if it’s not dealt with, it’ll always be there, like the musty smell of an unventilated room.

If a friend tells you that they’re sad, this is what you should do.

Ask them what they need

When a friend is dealing with sadness, they don’t need you to save them or solve their problems for them. You should also avoid acting without thinking. Although your first reaction may be to go straight round to their house, first ask them what they need. Don’t be invasive. Don’t generate even more stress for them with your good intentions.

The most important thing is to know what your friend wants from you. Point out that you’ll give them whatever they need. Try to make them feel your understanding, empathy, and closeness.

Promote their emotional release

Say, for example, that your friend tells you they want to talk to you. In this kind of situation, bear in mind that your job is to be good support. Remember, you won’t necessarily be able to solve their problems for them, be the Band-Aid for their pain, or the answer to their sorrow.

  • The most important thing in helping a friend when they’re sad lies in knowing how to listen. This implies not judging, not explaining what you would’ve done in their place, and, even less, underestimating their feelings of sadness.
  • To provide comfort, you should maintain eye contact at all times. This transmits empathy and closeness, and understanding.
  • Avoid giving false hope. There may not be a solution for what’s upsetting them. Therefore, don’t suggest a reality over which you have no control.
  • Facilitate their emotional relief. Create an environment of comfort so that if they need to cry, they can.

Provide support while giving them solitude and time to reflect

When a friend tells you they’re sad, they might spend a few days on the couch or even in bed. They might wander aimlessly around the house, neglecting their obligations. This kind of disconnection and apathy is a part of the sadness itself. In fact, the anatomy of sadness is such that it affects the individual’s energy. It consumes it in order to heighten their processes of introspection and reflection.

At these times, you should help them fulfill their tasks. Also, try and give them a resource to help manage their emotional state. For example, a journal, in which they can write or draw or a book to read.

Sometimes, people tend to repress or even dramatize their emotions rather than allow themselves to feel them. This can hinder the process of emotional regulation.

One person gives their support to build trust in their relationship symbolizing what to do when a friend tells you they are sad
Social support is the best ally when human beings go through difficult times.

Sadness should be an occasional visitor, not a permanent tenant

On its own, sadness isn’t the basis of depression, but it does form part of it. For instance, if a friend tells you they’re sad, the usual thing is to assume that it’ll be a transitory state, a few days of a downturn that, sooner rather than later, will disappear when they adopt a new perspective and recover their hope, desire, and spirit.

However, if your friend continues to feel down, is apathetic, and seems devoid of hope, you should recommend that they seek specialized support. A study conducted by the Paris Descartes University indicates that persistent sadness is a central symptom of depression.

It never hurts to monitor a friend’s emotional state. That said, you should make sure you do it without invading or pressurizing them. Be affectionate and show closeness and complicity. Be the kind of friend who recognizes when they need to be left alone, but also knows how to support them when their strength fails.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Arens EA, Stangier U. Sad as a Matter of Evidence: The Desire for Self-Verification Motivates the Pursuit of Sadness in Clinical Depression. Front Psychol. 2020 Feb 19;11:238. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00238. PMID: 32153462; PMCID: PMC7045069.
  • Arias JA, Williams C, Raghvani R, Aghajani M, Baez S, Belzung C, Booij L, Busatto G, Chiarella J, Fu CH, Ibanez A, Liddell BJ, Lowe L, Penninx BWJH, Rosa P, Kemp AH. The neuroscience of sadness: A multidisciplinary synthesis and collaborative review. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2020 Apr;111:199-228. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2020.01.006. Epub 2020 Jan 27. PMID: 32001274.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.