a man on bench suffering from sadness or depression

It’s not unusual to hear people describe themselves as “depressed”, so it can be confusing to tell if they (or perhaps you personally) are experiencing sadness or depression.

This article helps you to understand the difference between sadness and depression, and why it’s important. Sadness or grief is inevitable because loss is part of being human. But sadness is an adaptive and healthy response (even if it’s serious and painful), whereas depression is a mental illness that needs intervention.

How to know if you’re suffering from sadness or depression

Sadness is an emotion, and like all other emotions, it’s not a state of being. It’s temporary, it doesn’t last for long, and it’s usually a reaction to a specific event. Sadness is a part of grief that can be overwhelmingly painful, but it usually comes in waves and the feelings are connected to the loss of somebody or something that was important to you.

Grief or sadness doesn’t usually impact your self-esteem. It doesn’t change your opinion about your self-worth and it tends to fluctuate from day to day. It usually also gets better over time.

However, if it goes on for longer than two weeks, and is accompanied by other symptoms, your grief or sadness may have triggered a depressive episode and you could need treatment.

What is depression?

Depression, more formally known as major depressive disorder, is a mental illness that causes significant distress and dysfunction. This means it causes changes in your ability to function at work, at home, or in your interpersonal relationships.

Depression is more common than you think

It is estimated that at least one out of every fifteen adults are affected by depression in any given year, and one in six people experience depression in their lifetime. That’s a lot.

It’s important to rule out other causes of sadness or depression

Interestingly, thyroid problems, vitamin deficiencies (Vitamin D, Vitamin B12, iron) or anemia can cause a lot of symptoms that mimic depression. You might even feel extreme sadness or depression, because your mood is so low as a result. See your family doctor for blood tests so that you can rule these conditions out.

The warning signs and symptoms of severe depression

Depression often includes sadness, but sadness is only one of a constellation of symptoms that may present differently in different people. In order for a psychologist to diagnose depression you must have experienced at least five of the following symptoms for most of the day, nearly every day, for at least two weeks:

  • A difference in your cognition (how you think)

If you’re depressed, you’ll experience cognitive changes, such as poor concentration and attention. You might find it hard to make decisions or think clearly.

  • A difference in your ability to find joy and pleasure

You’ll notice that you no longer enjoy things or activities that you used to enjoy, or the things which used to cheer you up no longer work. Depression is usually characterised by some level of anhedonia – the inability to feel pleasure in normally pleasurable activities.

  • A difference in your mood and emotions

You might notice that your mood goes up and down like a yoyo or it’s just ‘flat,’ where you don’t really respond to anything at all and feel numb and empty. You might be irritable and get angry easily. Your low mood may be accompanied by a sense of intense or pervasive guilt. Self-loathing is common, and you might feel helpless and out of control.

Different people express the symptoms of depression differently, but there will almost always be some kind of noticeable difference in your mood and how you feel “inside yourself”.

  • Lack of motivation

If you’re depressed, you’ll find yourself “going through the motions” or living your life on “autopilot” at best. You’ll find it hard to motivate yourself to do more than the minimum, and sometimes you can’t even manage the minimum.

  • Physical symptoms

Depressive illness usually causes problems with your sleep – either you sleep a lot more than you used to, or your sleep is disturbed, and you sleep less. Either way, you’re likely to feel exhausted when you wake up, and fatigue easily sets in through the day. Changes in appetite are common, either you just don’t feel like eating or you find yourself comfort-eating your way through the day. Lack of libido is often present.

  • Social withdrawal

When you’re demotivated and chronically tired, you find it difficult to socialise in the way that you used to. You tend to stop going out with friends, and likely become more isolated and withdrawn.

  • Feelings of depression are constant

Depression may be triggered by a stressful or difficult life event, like losing a loved one, or having trouble at work, but it often occurs for no apparent reason and it doesn’t easily lift. It’s pervasive and is present in most situations.

  • It persists for two weeks or more

Whereas sadness comes and goes, or is pervasive for periods, it tends to lift when you’re distracted or between ‘waves’ and there are moments when you almost forget you’re sad. Depression just hangs around – it must persist for at least two weeks or more in order for you to be formally diagnosed.

  • It gets worse

If left unattended, depression can become severe and thoughts of suicide may be present or may escalate. You might feel you can’t stand to go on because it’s too hard, or have thoughts that others would actually be better off without you.

Depression is dangerous, but it is treatable

If you’re wondering if you’re experiencing sadness or depression, rather play it safe and get a professional diagnosis. If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts, you need to take yourself seriously. Make an appointment to see your family doctor and a mental health professional right away. Your mental health is not something you can dismiss, and it’s impossible to “snap out” of depression.

Depressive illness responds well to a combination of medication and therapy/counselling. Early intervention is generally more effective, but even long term and chronic depressive illness can and does improve with proper treatment.

As a coach and psychotherapist, I’m here to help you deal with the sadness or depression that is holding you back from achieving your potential. Contact me to schedule an online consultation (or find out more about online psychotherapy).