Depression or Sadness: How to Know the Difference


I’ve received a lot of mental health advice over the last 20 years, and while the vast majority of said advice has been helpful, one troublesome comment keeps coming up.

“Aw, it’s OK. You’ll snap out of it; I mean, everyone gets depressed.”

Make no mistake: I know these words are well-intentioned. They are meant to lift my spirits and remind me I am OK, I will be OK and I am not alone. But every time I hear them, I cringe because they are not true.

They could not be further from the truth.

You see, depression isn’t a “bad day.” It isn’t a bad moment, a bad week, and everyone does not “get depressed” because depression is a mental illness — an illness which you cannot “shake,” you cannot “snap out of,” and you cannot wish away.

Depression is not something you can will away.

That said, many use the word “depressed” to convey extreme sadness. In fact, the phrase “I’m depressed” may actually be more be common than “I’m sad.” The good news is this shift in vernacular has led to an unconscious shift in how we feel about depression and what we think. But depression and sadness are not the same thing. Feeling depressed is not the same as having depression, and by saying things like this we make things more complicated, we make things more confusing, we take away the seriousness of the illness, we minimize the illness and we make the person who has it feel as though it is all in their head — a feeling they could, and should, be able to shake.

Below are the biggest differences between sadness and depression.

1. Sadness is a feeling; depression is an illness.

Sadness is an emotion, one of sorrow or pain, which almost always has an underlying cause or outside trigger — i.e. death, divorce, job loss, medical diagnosis, etc. Depression, however, is a serious medical illness which can be “caused by a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors.” While the symptoms of depression can be intensified by an external factor, like those named above, these events do not alwyas cause depression.

2. Sadness may take away your desire to smile but depression will take away your ability.

I hate to use the word “normal” — since who defines what is or is not normal — but sadness is a normal emotion. It is a feeling we have in response to disappointment, or in response to hearing generally unpleasant, and sometimes tragic, news. Sadness can be felt when you lose a loved one, when you lose your job, when your friends cancel plans or when your boyfriend/girlfriend breaks up with you. In short, sadness occurs when you are hurt. It comes in waves, and while sadness can linger, it is temporary.

Sadness will fade, but depression can be constant. It is comprised of a series of symptoms ranging from extreme sadness and negative thinking to emptiness, hopelessness, worthlessness and numbness. Depression can cause sleeping problems, eating problems and concentration issues, and these symptoms are present, in one form or another, every minute of every day because happy thoughts cannot cure depression. Faith, money and love cannot cure depression. Depression can only be treated and managed.

That said, it is a misconception that those who are depressed are perpetually sad and constantly crying. While these symptoms are common in the grips of a major depressive episode, for most, these feelings may not be experienced on a weekly or even monthly basis. Instead, it is the other symptoms that make up their day-to-day life.

3. Everyone experiences sadness and grief but…

When loneliness persists, sadness sticks and dismal feelings linger — when you become a shell of who you once were — you should consider something more may be at work, especially if you can’t “snap out of it.” Because there is no “snapping out of it” or “pulling yourself together” when you a struggling with depression. Even with the right medication. Even with all of the “tools.”

If you think you or a loved one think you may have depression, seek the counsel of a trained mental health professional — as this information is based solely on my experiences and should not be used to self-diagnose.

Follow this journey on Sunshine Spoils Milk or follow Kimberly Zapata on Facebook.

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Thinkstock photo via Kichigin


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