How to Tell the Difference Between Sadness and Depression

Given how we use the words “sadness” and “depression” in everyday life and in pop culture, it can be hard to differentiate one from the other. Even though they might seem similar, they’re not. Experts say it’s like comparing a single star to a constellation. Understanding what separates sadness from depression is important, as it can help people know when to seek professional help and prevent needless suffering.

Experts who spoke to Lifehacker described sadness as a normal emotional state that all people experience in their lives following a loss, disappointment, or other upsetting events. Depression, on the other hand, is a mental health condition characterized by a persistent sad mood or loss of enjoyment for most of the day and nearly every day for at least two weeks, according to Dr. Kathryn Gordon, a clinical psychologist and author of The Suicidal Thoughts Workbook.

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One of the biggest differences between sadness and depression is how long the person’s experience persists. Dr. Bedford Palmer, a licensed psychologist in California and founder of Deeper Than Color, said sadness is specific to a moment.

“It can be a melancholy that lasts a day. It can be that right now the weather has changed,” Palmer said. “It can even be something that honestly isn’t that bad. Sadness is something you can feel and appreciate, like, ‘I feel sad because this thing happened,’ and that’s appropriate.”

Depression, however, is far more complex and can seriously impact a person’s life. Palmer explained that depression is a constellation of symptoms that includes sadness, but that other things are also happening. People may lose their appetite, have a hard time sleeping, experience stomach discomfort, have trouble concentrating, or not enjoy things they normally would.

In these cases, the person is experiencing something beyond sadness that can be difficult for them to deal with on their own.

How depression is different from a sad or bad day

Dr. Jessi Gold, a psychiatrist and assistant psychiatry professor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, said in an email that medical professionals look for a variety of symptoms when diagnosing depression, not just sadness. For a major depressive episode, which consists of intense and overwhelming symptoms that interfere with an individual’s daily life, symptoms need to be present for two weeks.

According to Gold, this criterion emphasizes that “people have reactions to life events or even just a harder day at work, and those don’t need to be pathologized.”

“A lot of people feel sad, it is a normal reaction, but it is important to notice what else is going on with you when you feel sad, how long those symptoms are going on, and if they are interfering with your day-to-day life,” Gold said. “That matters.”

Furthermore, depression can manifest itself in different ways beyond sadness, and sometimes people with depression might not feel sad, Palmer notes. Depression can cause people to have trouble concentrating or become really irritable. It can also cause people to have low motivation or lead them to withdraw from others.

Sadness is momentary, but depression can be difficult to come out of

Palmer points out that it’s helpful to think of depression as if it were on a spectrum. Put simply, someone can have a minor depression all the way to a major depression. What differentiates these episodes is their level of intensity, which refers to how they’re interfering with a person’s life, and how long they last.

“It’s very different from listening to a sad song and feeling melancholy. It’s even different than losing a family member and being really, really sad for a month, but then coming out of it and feeling a little bit better week after week,” he said. “With depression, it’s not about an emotional trigger or the distance in time from an emotional trigger. You don’t come out of it and feel OK until the biological causes of the depression change naturally, or through medication.”

Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean that sadness can’t affect people in profound ways. Gordon, the psychologist and author, said in an email that sometimes sadness can have a larger impact on people, even if they are not also experiencing depression. For example, she explained that when sadness is tied to grief, it can impact people in their lives and moods for longer periods of time even if they do not also have depression.

People who don’t treat their depression are at risk of having another episode

In our society, it’s common for loved ones to tell people experiencing depression to power through it, or that it’s a part of life. Gordon explains that sometimes, depression does go away on its own. This can be due to time passing, life circumstances changing, or what is called “spontaneous remission” without knowing the cause, she said. But this doesn’t mean a person can’t experience another depression in the future.

“[I]f depression goes away on its own without treatment and learning new coping strategies, it increases the risk of depression returning at some point,” Gordon said.

Palmer agreed and said that a lot of times, people with depression will go down into a valley and then come back out. The effects of depression go away, and they may feel better, perhaps even for a long time. But susceptibility to depression is a different story. Palmer compared susceptibility to having a physical ailment, like asthma. Maybe you haven’t had an attack in years, Palmer said, but that doesn’t mean the potential for an attack isn’t there.

People with depression may have suicidal thoughts

Suicidal thoughts are another big differentiator between sadness and depression. According to Gold, the psychiatrist, suicidal thoughts and depression often go hand in hand, and depression is a risk factor for suicide. However, she stressed that not everyone who has suicidal thoughts is depressed. Similarly, not everyone who is depressed has suicidal thoughts.

Gold said that she considers suicidal thoughts to be a serious warning sign when it comes to depression, but also pointed out that for a psychiatrist, there are different levels of severity in thoughts. These nuances are generally not something that friends or family members notice, but mental health providers are trained to do so.

“To a psychiatrist, there is a difference between, ‘It would be nice if I just didn’t wake up tomorrow’ versus ‘I have started to save my meds and know I would want to end my life that way,’” Gold said, adding that when suicidal thoughts become more frequent or less easy to ignore, psychiatrists become more concerned.

How to know when you should seek help

All the experts who spoke to Lifehacker emphasized it’s important for people to know what their “baseline” is—the normal behavior for them—and pay close attention to any changes. Gold suggests asking questions about specific habits and activities. Do you usually sleep seven hours and now sleep five? Are you eating differently than usual? Are you isolating and not wanting to do things with friends?

Another important aspect to consider is whether a person’s symptoms are getting worse, the psychiatrist explained. (For example, if you used to be able to get yourself out of the house to go see your friends, but now you can’t.) People should also think about how their symptoms are affecting their lives. Just because you’re still functioning and going to work or school doesn’t mean you’re OK.

“I see a lot of healthcare workers and college kids who say ‘I am going to school and my grades are fine,’ or ‘I am going to work and still able to do my job well,’ so I can’t be depressed,” Gold said. “In my experience, school and work is something a lot of us can do for a long time while we are depressed, and it is the other areas in our day-to-day life that [are affected first].”

Some people might stop taking care of themselves or their home, Gold said. They may also stop maintaining friendships or dedicate less attention to relationships with partners or kids.

Palmer and Gordon point out that other warning signs include feeling sad for a long period of time, such as most of the day or nearly every day for weeks. People should consider getting help when their emotional state is causing them great distress and affecting their relationships, work, or school. Suicidal thoughts are also a big and serious warning sign. People experiencing repeated suicidal thoughts should seek professional help right away.

How depression is treated

Treatment for depression depends on a lot of factors, Gold said, including the severity of symptoms, the person’s mental health history, and family mental health history. Many people can start to manage their depression with therapy, she said, which allows them to identify the reasons behind the depression and triggers. Cognitive behavioral therapy can provide people with skills to deal with the depression without medication.

However, other people might not be able to get better with just therapy alone and will require medication, according to Gold. In those cases, the preferred first line of medications psychiatrists turn to are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, which are the most commonly prescribed type of antidepressant. Research has shown that a combination of medication and therapy is the best treatment option for people with moderate to severe depression.

Overall, all the experts who spoke to Lifehacker stressed that there are many evidenced-based treatments available to help people experiencing a depression. They also said it’s never too early to get help.

“Depression affects many people. It is not a result of weakness or a personal flaw. It is a mental health condition with helpful treatments available,” Gordon said. “Please be compassionate toward yourself if you are struggling and know that you are worthy of support.”

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