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Sadness vs. depression: How to spot the difference

Reviewed by Mary T. Johnson

A woman looking sad and possibly depressed.

To say that the last year and a half has been a turbulent time would be putting it mildly. Distance from family, cancelled plans, increased division—the COVID-19 pandemic swooped in and upended lives everywhere.

Like countless others, my life today looks entirely different than it did at the start of 2020. In just 18 months time, I’ve had two family members pass away, lost a job, moved across the country, and missed meaningful milestones in loved ones’ lives as we kept our distance to keep everyone healthy. 

There have been times where it felt like there was no end in sight for the bad news that kept pouring in, from both within my personal bubble and from the world at large.  And I know I’m not the only one who has found these “unprecedented times” challenging. 

With the enormity of what we’re all experiencing it’s easy to find yourself overwhelmed and frustrated, anxious and stressed. And sometimes there’s no better word for what we’re all feeling than sadness. 

It’s sad to not be able to see your loved ones whenever you want. It’s sad to have to wonder if it’s too soon to go to big events, or miss meeting your friends’ newborn, or go to the funeral of someone who mattered in your life. Over and over again we’ve been faced with difficult choices that we never foresaw ourselves having to make, and it’s easy to lose sight of hope amongst all the heaviness.

There were times I  worried whether the bouts of heavy sadness I’d been feeling were normal reactions to emotionally challenging situations, or if they were symptomatic of something deeper.

Sometimes it can be hard to tell. 

What is sadness?

Sadness is one of the basic human emotions alongside happiness, anger, and fear. It’s a completely normal reaction to situations that are upsetting, painful or disappointing – such as the loss of a job, or the breakdown of a relationship. Unlike depression, feelings of sadness are temporary and should alleviate over time. However, if these feelings interfere with your daily life, don’t diminish over time, or repeatedly come back, it may be time to seek help.

What is depression?

Depression is a mental illness that has an overpowering effect on many aspects of a person’s life. It can be characterized by a persistent low mood that makes it hard, or even impossible, to continue with your day-to-day life and activities. 

While most people go through periods in life where they feel sad, people with depression can often feel sad for weeks or months at a time. There are all sorts of reasons why depression can be triggered, from the loss of a loved one, divorce, or illness to feelings of loneliness, financial concerns, or low self-esteem.

A simple way to separate sadness and depression: when you’re feeling sad, you’ll typically know the steps you can take to feel better and, in your own time, you will use them to move forward with your life. Someone with depression, however, may be aware of what they could do to help themselves, but may find this impossible to put into action due to lack of energy, hope, or drive.

What are the symptoms of depression?

Someone diagnosed with depression may display any of the following signs and symptoms:

  • Constant feelings of discouragement, sadness, or hopelessness
  • Lack of motivation
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Changes in sleeping or eating patterns
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Loss of interest and enthusiasm for things which used to provide pleasure
  • Feelings of deep, unwarranted guilt
  • Physical symptoms, such as headaches or body aches, that do not have a specific cause
  • Constant thoughts about death
  • Suicidal thoughts or actions

It’s worth remembering that many people with depression also have similar symptoms of anxiety, including struggling to sleep, irritability, and difficulty concentrating. 

The DSM-5 criteria for depression

Mental health professionals use the American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to help diagnose someone with depression. The severity of each symptom is also weighted as part of this process. The nine symptoms are:

  1. Feeling depressed, or experiencing a depressed mood, nearly every day
  2. Reduced pleasure in all, or almost all, activities nearly every day
  3. Significant changes to eating habits (e.g. weight loss, weight gain, appetite decrease or increase)
  4. Feeling fatigued, or having a significant loss of energy nearly every day
  5. Feelings of restlessness or reduction of physical movement, leading to irritability or agitation
  6. Changes in sleeping patterns (e.g. sleeping too much, trouble sleeping)
  7. Trouble concentrating, or indecisiveness, nearly every day
  8. Excessive feelings of guilt and worthlessness, nearly every day
  9. Recurring thoughts about death (or suicidal thoughts or actions)

If you feel these criteria apply to you or someone you care about, it’s a strong indicator that it may be time to involve a mental health professional. 

Risk factors of depression

Depression doesn’t discriminate. It affects people across all genders, ethnic groups, and socioeconomic backgrounds. There are a number of risk factors for depression, including:

  • Brain and Body Health– depression can be a response to an imbalance in your brain chemistry, the stress of having a medical condition or chronic illness, or a hormone imbalance
  • Family History and Genetics – a family history of genetics is a significant risk factor, with estimates suggesting that depression is approximately 40% determined by genetics
  • Lifestyle Factors – these include poor quality of sleep or insomnia, poor diet, trouble coping with stress, substance use, or lack of a support system

Someone showing signs of depression could also have experienced earlier trauma that they either haven’t processed, or are still dealing with. Alternatively, they could be struggling to cope with a devastating life event, such as the death of a child or spouse. 

Depression can also show up in people with a history of prior mental health disorders, including eating disorders, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and anxiety disorder. 

If you’re taking any medication, it’s worth checking that they aren’t known for having mood-altering side effects. Certain medications like beta blockers, corticosteroids, hormonal medications, and statins can cause depression. If you need help with this, seek the advice of your doctor or a medical professional.

Treatment of depression

Many people who have experienced depression describe it as ‘suffocating’ and will tell you that, unfortunately, there are no quick fixes. However, it’s important to remember that recovery is always possible. There are many different routes to improved mental health. A typical solution involves a combination of medication and psychotherapy (also known as ‘talking therapy’). Working closely with a therapist can help you identify what triggers your depression, and teach you coping mechanisms for when your symptoms start to appear.

One of the most popular types of psychotherapy for depression is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which aims to help people unlearn their negative beliefs and replace them with more positive, helpful beliefs. CBT is based around the idea that our thoughts, behaviors and emotions are all interlinked, and we have the power to change them.

It’s likely your doctor will also ask you about your lifestyle and environment when trying to determine the cause (or causes) of your depression. They may advise you to maintain a balanced diet, regularly exercise, ensure you see friends and family, and have tangible, clear goals to strive for.

How to get help for your depression

Depression isn’t something you can just ‘snap out of,’ but despite how bad things may seem, you always have more power over it than you realize. One of the first steps on the road to recovery is reaching out to someone you trust, whether that’s a friend, family member or healthcare professional.

At therapist.com, we have an extensive range of therapists in our network who are professionally trained to help you overcome your depression. Browse our directory of therapists to find high-quality professional help and support today.

About the author

The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.