How to tell the difference between sadness or depression

Feeling down is part of life — it happens to everyone from time to time. From an unexpected illness in the family to an upsetting news report, sad events can affect our lives and impact our feelings. Other times, we may feel down and have no idea why. 

Usually, people find they’re able to carry on with their regular routines, even if sadness sticks around for a few days. Sometimes, though, the feelings don’t go away or they are severe. You may find yourself persistently sad. You may experience a loss of interest in things you once enjoyed and may withdraw from friends or family or have a feeling like you’re in a fog. These may be signs of depression. 

Sadness is one part of depression, but depression goes beyond sadness. Knowing the differences between sadness and depression and getting the right kind of support can be life changing. 

What’s the difference between sadness and depression, clinically speaking?

Depression has an array of signs and symptoms and tends to last over two weeks. And it can interfere with a person’s functioning. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 1 in 6 people will have depression in their lifetime.1

On the other hand, sadness is something we all deal with now and then. It’s usually in response to something negative happening, and it can be very short-lived.

Symptoms of depression

Some symptoms of depression are mild, while others are more severe. A diagnosis is possible when you have several of the symptoms below for more than two weeks. Per the National Institute of Mental Health, symptoms of a major depressive disorder may include the following:2

  • Experiencing persistent sadness, hopelessness or a depressed mood
  • Experiencing unintentional weight loss or gain
  • Feeling irritable or frustrated
  • Having trouble sleeping or sleeping more than usual
  • Feeling uninterested in activities you usually like
  • Experiencing a significant drop in energy
  • Having trouble focusing or concentrating 
  • Suicidal thoughts

What are steps I can take if several of these symptoms describe me?

Depending on your state of mind, connecting with your primary care provider is a good next step to determine a diagnosis and an action plan.

How to get immediate help 

If you’re having thoughts of taking your own life or harming yourself in any way, call the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 for immediate help. Then reach out to your primary care physician. They can help you manage your depression over time.

Some conditions that have symptoms like those of depression include thyroid issues, hormone changes and vitamin deficiency. 

What does severe depression look like?

In more severe depression, some people experience anhedonia, which is the inability to enjoy experiences that are typically pleasurable.3 And depression can also come with specific dangers, like thoughts of or attempts at suicide.

What happens after a depression diagnosis?

Next steps can vary depending on the severity of the depression. It’s really about what works best for the individual. The best path forward is to understand the diagnosis, your preferences and your doctor’s recommendations.

How is depression treated and can depression go away?

According to Mental Health America, there’s no cure for depression, but there are many effective treatments.4 People can recover from depression and live long and healthy lives. Lifestyle changes, support groups, medications and therapy can all help. Medication can be life-changing for some people, but it takes time and patience. Most antidepressants take 4-8 weeks to work.5 And there may be some trial-and-error as you learn which medication or medications are effective. Everyone is different, so you may need to find a combination that works best for you.

Managing sadness

Some common suggestions for managing sadness are:6

  • Exercising
  • Eating healthy
  • Getting proper sleep
  • Being around people
  • Staying in the enjoyment of the moment

And while sadness isn’t diagnosable the way depression is, therapy may still help and is worth exploring. If you have health insurance, your insurance provider can help you find support. Many insurance companies’ websites have online search tools, or you can call the number on your health plan ID card. You can also ask friends and family who are in therapy if they can recommend someone, or you can ask your doctor for a referral.

Your doctors are there to help

If you’re not sure whether you’re dealing with sadness or depression, have a conversation with your provider. They’ll help you figure out the right steps to take to protect your mental health.

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available.

Call or text 988 or chat for 24-hour, toll-free, confidential support and prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones. For TTY users, use your preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.

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