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What’s the difference between sadness and depression?

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It’s normal to get the blues every now and then. But it’s not always easy to separate sadness from clinical depression. Learn the warning signs and how to get the support you need.

Everyone has sad days. Feeling down from time to time is a part of life. But when that giant storm cloud overhead doesn’t move on, it could be a sign of something more serious.

We’re talking about depression. It’s a mental health problem that can negatively affect the way you feel, think and act.1 Depression can make it hard to care for yourself. And that can put your physical health at risk, too.

The good news is that depression can be treatable. But it can be tough to know when you have it. People with depression may have a wide range of symptoms. And the symptoms can mimic everyday feelings. Think: irritability, lack of energy and worry.

Here’s how to tell if your sadness could actually be depression and how to find the help you need.

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What’s the difference between sadness and depression?

We’ll tackle sadness first. It’s an emotional state of unhappiness.2 Feelings of sadness can be slight. Or they can be intense and last for longer periods, as with the death of a loved one.

Depression is more than just sadness. It’s a mental health problem that doesn’t always go away on its own. Lingering sadness is often a symptom of depression. But it’s certainly not the only one. Depression can make you feel worthless.3 You may even have physical symptoms such as body aches.1

The cause of depression is also much more complex. A stressful life event may spark depression. But other factors, such as the balance of brain chemicals, are also involved. Depression seems to run in families, too.4

To top it off, there are different types of depression. Some are more severe and may be clearer. Others are much more subtle.

The spectrum of depression

Everyone’s experience with depression is different. It can come in mild, short-lived episodes. Or it can be life-altering. Major depressive disorder (MDD) is a severe form of depression. And as many as 1 in 6 people will go through it at some point in their life.3

To be diagnosed with MDD, you must have at least five symptoms for more than two weeks. Some of the most common symptoms of MDD include:1,2,3

  • Constantly feeling sad, empty or hopeless
  • Lack of joy in hobbies or activities you usually love
  • Feeling restless or frustrated
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Changes in your appetite or weight
  • Loss of energy, especially for everyday tasks
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Struggles with self-worth
  • Thoughts of self-harm or suicide

If you don’t meet these criteria, you can still benefit from support. In fact, there’s a milder form of MDD called subclinical depression. And it can still impact your physical and mental well-being.5

Another type of depression is persistent depressive disorder. It’s said to be milder than MDD.1 But it lasts for so long that feeling down or low can seem normal. (And it certainly is not.)

When you should seek help

If your symptoms linger, it might be time to reach out for help. “We all have down days,” says Nekeshia Hammond, PsyD. She’s a psychologist in Tampa Bay, Florida. She’s also the former president of the Florida Psychological Association. “But if your symptoms persist for weeks, it could be depression.”

Even if you don’t think a mood change is serious, it’s better to be safe than sorry. “Depression is very treatable,” says Hammond. “And research shows that people can reach better outcomes if it’s treated early.”

One important sign to watch for? It’s hard to do your usual routine. “When it impacts how you’re functioning, that’s when you should definitely seek help,” says Shara Sand, Psy.D., a psychologist based in New York City.

It can help to compare your current mood to what you’ve experienced in the past, too. Maybe your irritability over small things escalates quickly. Or maybe you’re withdrawing more from family and friends. Both can be signs that you should reach out for help, says Sand.

How to find help for depression

A good first step is to contact your primary care physician, Hammond says. They can do an exam that will rule out any conditions that could lead to depression. Common culprits include thyroid issues or vitamin deficiencies.

If your doctor thinks you have depression, they can send you to a therapist. They may even do the outreach for you. “Finding a good therapist can be one of the best things you can do to feel better,” Sand says.

If you’re not comfortable speaking with your doctor or have trouble finding a therapist near you, you can consider virtual options. Optum has resources that can help.

Realizing that you need support from a therapist can be tough. But it certainly doesn’t mean you have any shortfalls as a person. “Just because you’re seeking therapy doesn’t mean you’re damaged,” stresses Sand. It just means you’re having a hard time. And with the right support, you can take the steps you need to get through it.

 

Sources

  1. National Institute of Mental Health. Depression. Last reviewed February 2018. Accessed June 29, 2022.
  2. American Psychological Association. APA Dictionary of Psychology: Sadness. Accessed June 29, 2022.
  3. American Psychiatric Association. What is depression? Last reviewed October 2020. Accessed June 29, 2022.
  4. Mayo Clinic. Depression (major depressive disorder). Accessed June 29, 2022.
  5. BMC Psychiatry. Definitions and factors associated with subthreshold depressive conditions: a systematic review. Published October 30, 2021. Accessed June 29, 2022.

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