Sadness vs. Depression: Why It Matters & How to Tell Them Apart
Have you been feeling sad? Like you want to swim to the surface, but the weight of your sadness keeps pulling you down? Are there days you don’t even want to get out of bed, much less leave your house and talk to anyone? Have you skipped work, canceled important social events, and pushed people away?
If you’ve asked yourself these questions, you’ve probably also wondered: Are you depressed? Do you need therapy?
You might be depressed… or you might just have the blues. You can be intensely sad, tired, or discouraged without being depressed. It’s also possible to experience a brief, situational, mild depression that doesn’t require mental health treatment to resolve.
It’s important to get treatment when you need it, and it’s important to know that you don’t have to have depression to benefit from therapy. However, it can be helpful to understand when your sadness is natural, even healthy, and not indicative of a disorder. In this article, we’ll explain some differences between depression and sadness to help you figure out what kind of care you need.
Everyday Sadness Versus Depression
Sadness is a natural part of life’s emotional spectrum. It’s normal to be sad, and at times, it can even be beautiful. Emotional pain can help us open our hearts to greater compassion for others. Loss can teach us about life’s cycles and inspire us to love more deeply. Sorrow can help us learn how to let go and be in the present. Emotional pain can give us perspective and help us appreciate the bigger picture.
We don’t treat it that way most of the time, though. We see sadness as sickness. When we feel sad, we want to fix it and make it go away. This resistance to painful feelings is as natural as the feelings themselves, but it can be a problem. Trying to repress or numb sadness doesn’t work for very long. In fact, it tends to make it worse, not better, and can even lead to depression.
Depression disrupts your ability to function and affects your body as well as your mind. It can make you feel tired all the time and make it hard to think clearly. It can show up even when things are going well, and it doesn’t come and go like regular sadness tends to do. Instead, depression is persistent. It settles in like a lead weight you can’t shake off no matter how hard you try.
Another way to tell if you’re depressed is if you’re able to feel anything other than sadness—or feel anything at all. Depression makes it hard to feel pleasure or positive emotion. Sometimes, when you’re depressed, instead of feeling sad, you feel numb or blank.
Are You Sad or Depressed?
If you’re wondering whether you’re depressed, you can start by asking yourself these questions:
- Do I feel sad or numb?
- How long have I felt sad or numb?
- Do I feel tired most of the time? How tired do I feel?
- Is it hard to do things I normally do because I’m too tired or sad to do them?
- How intense is the sadness or fatigue I feel? Is it to the point I feel hopeless?
- Are my sadness, numbness, or other symptoms causing problems at work or home?
If your mood changes are severe and persistent, affect your ability to take care of yourself, and have continued even after circumstances in your life have improved, you may be experiencing a depressive episode.
To learn more about the differences between clinical depression and normal sadness, let’s meet Sandra and David. Sandra is sad, while David is depressed.
Sandra vs. David
Sandra recently split up with her long-term boyfriend. Her dog is sick. Her supervisor at work just left and she doesn’t like her new boss. She puts on a brave face with her friends, saying she was sick of her ex anyway and she’s thinking of looking for a better job.
At home, though, it’s a different story. She cries. She buries her face in her dog’s neck and prays that the news from the vet will be better than she fears.
In the last few weeks, her sadness has deepened. The vet can’t figure out what’s wrong with her dog and has ordered more tests. Work sucks. She’s started coming in fifteen minutes late and has called out a couple of times. She skips workouts and dinners with friends and goes straight home instead, where she eats ice cream in front of the TV in her PJs.
He feels like his life has sucked for a while, but he admits it’s gotten worse lately. What started as a slow ebb in his social life has become near-total social isolation. Sometimes he calls his dad, but other than that, the only people he sees are his co-workers.
As for work… He got in trouble for calling out too much last year but has called out even more this year. He consistently comes in a half-hour late, even an hour. One reason is that he struggles to get out of bed in the morning. Even when he doesn’t have insomnia, which he often does, he wakes up feeling tired.
He just got his final formal warning and knows he’ll probably be fired soon. Thinking about it just makes him feel more tired.
When Sandra gets good news back from her vet, she rebounds. She still thinks about her ex and gets sad, but she starts going out with friends again. She resumes her workouts, which boosts her mood. She adjusts a little more to her new work situation but also starts looking for a new job. She feels inspired about the new possibilities she is seeing for herself.
David, on the other hand, keeps spiraling down. Depression has turned his inner life into a desert. He doesn’t do much for fun. He hasn’t cleaned his house in weeks. The overflowing dishes in his sink are a visual reminder of the state of his life. He keeps most of his lights turned off.
He’s not sure what he’ll do if and when he actually gets fired. He can only guess he’ll do what he usually does these days—nothing. He’ll just wait to see if everything falls apart as he expects it will. Sometimes, he even thinks he’d be better off dead.
What Do I Do If I'm Depressed?
David needs help. He doesn’t realize how much his life could change if he treated his depression. Like other people who are depressed, David doesn’t see that his thoughts are being run through a filter that makes everything seem more hopeless than it is.
What we hope David will do—and what we hope you will do if you’re depressed—is reach out to a loved one, a personal doctor, or a therapist. You can treat depression with medication, therapy, or both. What kind and level of treatment you’ll need and how long you’ll need it will depend on the severity of your depression and your personal recovery needs and goals.
You can often give your treatment a boost with do-it-yourself techniques like going on walks, doing aerobic exercise, talking to loved ones, and expressing your feelings through creative projects.
Once you start to address your depression, your life can spiral upward more quickly than you ever thought it could.
Get Help Immediately If You're Thinking of Hurting Yourself
If you’re thinking about harming or killing yourself, get help now. You can:
- Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988,
- Call another national crisis hotline or warm line,
- Call a local crisis hotline in your county or state, or
- Go to the emergency room.
You might be surprised just how much caring and help you can receive from the people who work for these organizations. Things can get better. You can read our article on what to do in a suicidal crisis for more information on how to know you’re in crisis and what different levels of mental health care are like.
If you’re not in crisis, therapy is a great place to begin. A good therapist won’t try to shut you down or make you feel judged for sharing your darker thoughts with them. Not only will therapy give you a safe space to vent, it will help you gain insight into the thoughts and patterns of behavior that fuel your depression and keep it going.
To learn more about getting started with a therapist, you can read our article on “How to Choose a Therapist.” For more information on treatment options for depression, you can read our article on therapy versus medication, which includes a section on treatment options for depression.
How Do Doctors Diagnose Depression?
Doctors and mental health professionals can sometimes tell that you’re depressed by the way you think and talk or from physical symptoms that point to depression. People who are depressed often experience stomach problems, insomnia, changes in appetite, weight loss or gain, and fatigue. Your doctor may ask about your mental health if your symptoms fit this pattern.
The truth is, though, doctors don’t always know how to recognize symptoms of depression and other mental health conditions. It’s important to reach out and tell your doctor you think you might be depressed to be sure they know how you’re feeling inside.
It can be comforting to start with a personal physician, and some people don’t need further treatment beyond an anti-depressant a primary care doctor prescribes them. On the other hand, you might need to start with a mental health professional if your symptoms are severe or complex (or you might simply prefer starting with one, since mental health is their area of expertise).
Doctors and mental health professionals assess for depression by asking how much distress your symptoms cause you, how long you’ve been feeling this way, and whether your mood and other symptoms have affected your relationships, health, or other areas of your life like work or school.
We recommend consulting with your doctor or a therapist if your symptoms make you feel terrible most of the time or have a serious impact on your daily life. While depression can make life feel hopeless, it isn’t. That’s just how depression makes life look. And depression is highly treatable. You can recover fully with the right care. So, please reach out—the help you need may be only a call or click away.
Stephanie Hairston is a freelance mental health writer who spent several years in the field of adult mental health before transitioning to professional writing and editing. As a clinical social worker, she provided group and individual therapy, crisis intervention services, and psychological assessments.