Sadness is a normal human emotion. We’ve all experienced it and we all will again. Sadness is usually triggered by a difficult, hurtful, challenging, or disappointing event, experience, or situation. In other words, we tend to feel sad about something. This also means that when that something changes, when our emotional hurt fades, when we’ve adjusted or gotten over the loss or disappointment, our sadness remits.
Depression is an abnormal emotional state, a mental illness that affects our thinking, emotions, perceptions, and behaviors in pervasive and chronic ways. When we’re depressed we feel sad about everything. Depression does not necessarily require a difficult event or situation, a loss, or a change of circumstance as a trigger. In fact, it often occurs in the absence of any such triggers. People’s lives on paper might be totally fine—they would even admit this is true—and yet they still feel horrible.
Depression colors all aspects of our lives, making everything less enjoyable, less interesting, less important, less lovable, and less worthwhile. Depression saps our energy, motivation, and ability to experience joy, pleasure, excitement, anticipation, satisfaction, connection, and meaning. All your thresholds tend to be lower. You’re more impatient, quicker to anger and get frustrated, quicker to break down, and it takes you longer to bounce back from everything.(source)
People sometimes believe that the difference between sadness and depression is one of degree — as if people who are just feeling sad measure a one on the “feelings that are hard to deal with” scale, while depressed people hover around somewhere between a seven and a 10. But the reality is much more complex; the differences between sadness and depression aren’t so much a matter of “seriousness” of feeling as they are a combination of issues relating to duration, symptoms and bodily impact. Sadness is part of the normal spectrum of human emotion, and it’s important to feel free to experience it at appropriate times (like when David Bowie died, for instance, or when you get dumped). Depression is a different beast entirely: it is a mental illness that doesn’t follow any “normal” emotional rules.
One of the most important distinctions between sadness and full-blown depression is the broadness of its effects on the body and mind. For a full diagnostic description of the characteristics of depression, we should check out its definition in the DSM-IV, the text used as the basis for diagnosis of conditions around the world. Among medical professionals, depression is called Major Depressive Disorder, and it comes with a combination of nine different symptoms, ranging from weight loss to fatigue. To qualify, you must have experienced as least five of them, and must experience them every day for a sustained period of time. We’ll get into the nitty-gritty in this list, but one thing to take away from this is that depression is a far more of an overarching experience than sadness.
So if you’re wondering if you’re depressed or just a bit bummed, here are six questions to ask yourself.
Sadness is an emotion. Depression is a mental illness.
Sadness is a basic emotion and a part of what makes us human – everyone knows what it feels like. Experiencing sadness might even be helpful in working through difficult experiences in life, such as rejection, a breakup or disappointment.
Depression, on the other hand, is a mental illness. This means that it shows itself in many different depressive symptoms for at least two weeks. The things that once brought you joy or cheered you up don’t help anymore. You feel constantly exhausted and at a loss of motivation.
Persisting sadness is only one part of depression! It is likely that some of your thoughts, behaviors, and even physical experiences have changed alongside with your emotions, causing general distress and a fundamental change in your perception and attitude towards life.
Sadness is brief
Emotions are momentary conscious experiences. They fade with time. If an emotion continues during a phase in life, it does so in lapses. Thus, it can last for a few hours before decreasing, at least a little. Even during a sad period, there are moments in your day where you feel ok. You are able to laugh, enjoy your favorite song, or the presence of a friend. Sadness fades with time – that’s its job.
Depression lasts longer however, without proper attention: It persists for most of your day for at least two weeks, to be exact. “Snapping out of it” is not an option. All the symptoms you are having appear to be constant, although they might be worse during the morning. Nonetheless, depression defines your entire day. It seems unthinkable that you will ever feel better again.
Depression is an abnormal general state
Sadness usually is a reaction to something, for instance a painful event. Your sadness is caused by this particular experience and it is a normal and healthy, nonetheless often unpleasant, emotion. But Depression often occurs without any apparent reason.
Maybe your life seems like it should be fine. During depression, your symptoms don’t only occur when thinking of a certain event or person. They are present within nearly every situation. Your concentration might be lower. You have a negative view on the future, you possibly feel unreasonably guilty or suffer from a helpless feeling of being out of control.
If depression begins after a specific event, it was probably the trigger rather than its sole cause. In this case, your behavior and reaction are out of proportion with the event and it is harmful to you. If disregarded, it can turn into a downward spiral.
The loss of a loved one causes a severe grieving response that goes beyond what we call sadness. It is hard to distinguish from depression because symptoms such as loss of appetite and sleeping problems can be a part of grieving. Grief tends to be a long process that comes in waves. Like sadness, grief tends to fluctuate from day to day. Depression does not so much.
Usually, grieving individuals tend to accept help and support, whereas people with depression pull back and isolate themselves. Additionally, people with depression can experience feelings of guilt or a decline in self-esteem, while sad or grieving individuals usually do not.
Depression changes your life.
During a sad day or week your mood changes. Your mind might be preoccupied and you can find yourself falling back to sad thoughts. However, you can still go about your day normally. When you are clinically depressed, however, your daily life has become difficult to endure.
Your life has changed. Maybe your friends are noticing it too. You might be having a harder time falling or staying asleep. Maybe your appetite or your sex drive has gone down. You might be experiencing lower self-esteem. You have lost interest and joy in your favorite activities, constantly feeling weary and without energy.
Sadness is subjective.
It is up to you to say that you are sad. No one can deny that you are sad, it is something you experience subjectively and independently. Depression, on the other hand, has set criteria and requires an official diagnosis. After all, not only the time period is key to the diagnosis, also a specific combination of core and additional symptoms. Consequently, a depression test is necessary.
Questions that can differentiate your sadness to depression:
Can You Still Enjoy Things You Like?
Sadness: Being seriously bummed can be terrible, but even if you’re sad, you’re still able to enjoy things like pie, Gilmore Girls marathons or other stuff you loved in the period before your sadness hit. It may take a bit of persuasion, but you do get into it in the end.
Depression: One of the most important aspects of depression is the experience of anhedonia, or a lack of interest or enjoyment in things and activities you once got a lot of pleasure from. If you absolutely loved kickball/writing/graffitiing haunted buildings at night, and now you can’t seem to get through the fog of sadness to feel excited about them again (in fact, they likely seem pointless), you’re probably experiencing depression.
Are Your Emotions About A Specific Event Or Thing?
Sadness: This is an interesting one, because there’s not a distinct line — you may just feel sad for reasons you can’t put your finger on. However, often sadness is specific in its cause: the death of a relative, an upheaval or change, homesickness, a friend’s illness, you name it.
Depression: Let’s be clear here: depressive episodes can still be triggered by specific events. ( Scientific American did an entire report in 2013 on studies examining what precisely these triggers are, and how they work in the depressive brain.) But the depressed person is uniquely primed to react badly to a negative event, and after it occurs, they often experience a deeper, more general feeling of depression and misery that lasts beyond “normal” boundaries. Plus, depression can turn up for no apparent reason at all.
Are You Maintaining Normal Eating And Sleeping Routines?
Sadness: You may be badly upset after a break-up or when experiencing the blues in general, but on the whole, you’re still able to maintain your desire to eat breakfast, work out if you want, or get to sleep roughly as planned.
Depression: This is one of the DSM-IV definitions. Depression is often associated with serious disruption of normal eating patterns, sleeping patterns, or both. You may become an insomniac, or sleep all day and not want to get out of bed. Eating disruptions are often a manifestation of the “everything is pointless” thinking of depression; what’s the point of making a healthy dinner, or indeed eating at all?
Do You Experience Variations In Your Low Mood?
Sadness: The blues are not a life sentence (even though many classic jazz songs may tell us otherwise). And there’s room in them for alleviation; you have periods where you don’t feel sad at all, like while you’re doing something distracting, for instance.
Depression: In moderate depression, low mood is fairly consistent throughout the day, though you may get bright spots sometimes. In severe depression, the depressive episode is constant, daily and seemingly unrelenting.
Do You Experience Self-Punishing Or Extremely Self-Critical Thoughts?
Sadness: While you might feel responsible and a bit sucky for something bad you did, you often don’t experience any permanent sense of worthlessness or guilt.
Depression: Depression has its own special host of accompanying thought patterns, some of which are particularly strange. One of its most distinctive features is that your thoughts often become incredibly self-punishing; it’s difficult to see yourself as anything except rotten, bad, worthless and to blame for everything. Seeking help for depression is always important, but it is especially pressing if you’re dealing with this symptom.
Have You Had Self-Harming Thoughts?
Sadness: Suicidal ideation is not typically associated with normal levels of non-depressive sadness.
Depression: Severe depressives may sometimes take the self-punishing thoughts mentioned in the previous item to higher levels — as described in the DSM, those struggling with severe depression may have “[t]houghts of death or suicide, or [have a] suicide plan.”If you have experienced any suicidal or self-harming thoughts, seek help from a helpline, a friend or family member you trust, or a mental health professional immediately. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline any time at 1-800-273-8255 (1-800-273-TALK); you can find phone and chat support at the American Society for Suicide Prevention website; and you can find resources to help keep yourself safe right now at websites like The HopeLine. You shouldn’t feel like you have to deal with any of these symptoms alone, but if you’re struggling with thoughts of hurting yourself, know that there are many people who will listen to your feelings without judgment and just want to help you.
If you are still uncertain, keeping track of your emotions, cognition, and physical experiences can support the detection of depression. Moodpath regularly measures all depressive symptoms. The app, created to help you detect depressive symptoms and episodes, will ask you questions three times a day over the course of two weeks, giving you a sound doctor’s letter at the end of that period. This way you’ll be able to rule out any remaining doubts and gain a deeper understanding of what it is you’re experiencing.adness vs. Depression – The Essentials
Sadness: You are sad about something for a few hours at a time. After a negative experience your mood changes, at most for a few weeks. Over time it gets a little better by itself.
Depression: Most areas of your life are affected, and you show a combination of depressive symptoms for most of your day during at least two weeks, causing general distress.
As the Help Guide Suicide Help page says: “Remember that while it may seem as if these suicidal thoughts and feelings will never end, this is never a permanent condition. You WILL feel better again.”
Professional help is a great first step for dealing with depression — but know that you don’t need to fit the professional criteria for depression in order to see a therapist, or even just talk to someone about how you’re feeling; there’s no need to suffer through your sadness on your own just because you don’t feel that you’re clinically depressed. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America has a list of online resources for depression that anyone can use, and know that mental health professionals won’t turn you away just because you don’t have specific symptoms. (source)
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