Everybody has days when they’re feeling low. Sometimes you can easily identify the cause of your sadness—the loss of a loved one, a problem with personal finances or some other specific reason for tears or sorrow.
But there are other days when our sadness has no obvious trigger. And as you sort through your feelings you may wonder if what you’re experiencing is sadness or depression. Recognizing the difference may help you get through this period and, if necessary, lead you to the kind of assistance you need to deal with these complex emotions.
“When your mood is sad, there may be some situational reason or you wake up and you’re just not feeling as happy as you did the day before. But there’s a normal range of sad feelings. When we talk of clinical depression, we’re thinking of something outside the normal range,” explains Amy Farabaugh, PhD, director of psychotherapy research at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Depression Clinical & Research Program.
Recognizing the difference between temporary feelings of sadness and a more long-term struggle with depression can make a huge difference in your quality of life. Ignoring signs of depression can allow the condition to worsen, affecting your emotional and cognitive health, relationships, job, and your physical health. People with depression are often less likely to get regular exercise, follow a healthy diet, take their medications as prescribed, get enough sleep and avoid reckless behaviors, such as excess alcohol consumption.
The consequences of mistaking sad feelings for symptoms of clinical depression are less dire. However, you don’t want to go through your day believing that you are up against a more serious emotional challenge than you really are. If there is any doubt, though, a therapist can help you understand your feelings more clearly.
Changes Over Time
One of the key distinctions between sadness and depression is the time spent feeling sad or hopeless. Dr. Farabaugh says that two weeks or longer of these symptoms may suggest depression. Sadness tends to be a temporary mood.
The other key is the severity of your symptoms. If your feelings are interfering with your daily functioning, that’s another sign that you may be depressed rather than just sad.
“You may be sad but still be functioning okay,” Dr. Farabaugh says. “It’s important to ask yourself how you’re doing.” As part of that self-check, Dr. Farabaugh recommends evaluating the following aspects of your life:
Sleep: Trouble sleeping is a common sign of depression. Likewise, sleeping more than usual can be a coping mechanism when you’re depressed. “Once in a while, it’s okay to curl up for a day and not deal with anything,” Dr. Farabaugh says. “But you probably don’t want to do that for more than a day.”
Interest: Are you getting enjoyment out of the things you used to enjoy or have you lost the capacity to have things bring you joy? “For example, if the grandkids came over and you couldn’t enjoy them the way you normally would, that could be a sign that something more serious is going on,” Dr. Farabaugh says.
Concentration: “Can you read a book or hold a conversation the way you used to do? When someone is depressed, they can’t always attend to things because the mind tends to wander,” Farabaugh says.
Energy: If you don’t have the ability to get through your work day or even get up to take a shower, it’s a possible sign of depression.
Should You See a Therapist?
Depressive symptoms can also include things like changes in appetite and becoming more easily irritated. But it can also carry more serious symptoms, such as reckless behavior and suicidal thoughts.
However, if you’re still unsure whether you’re just feeling blue or are in the grip of clinical depression, Dr. Farabaugh suggests that it can’t hurt to talk with someone at least once. “Everybody probably has a different threshold when it comes to sadness,” she says. “If you’re not sure, and it seems like it’s 50-50, I would see someone. Even if it’s 60-40 that you think you’re just sad, I’d still see someone. I’d err on the side of caution.” She adds that sadness can turn into mild depression.
If you have any history of depression, anxiety or other mood disorders, you should definitely seek some guidance if your outlook is bleak for days on end.
“At least call someone and make an appointment,” Dr. Farabaugh says. “You can always cancel if you’re feeling better.”
One other way to think about the sadness vs. depression question is to understand that sadness tends to stem from an event or a change in circumstances. It can be slow building. You may grow sadder in the years after losing a partner, for example, or if you’re in an unfulfilling relationship. But your sadness tends to be focused on those parts of your life. You can still enjoy time with friends or hobbies or other things that are rewarding.
Depression, on the other hand, can leave you feeling sad about everything. That’s not to say you can’t laugh and have moments of fun and pleasure as you deal with depression. But in general, depression often casts a shadow on all parts of your life. The way we think about or respond to things and the way we behave all can be colored by depression.
Crying, venting, and time can often provide relief from sadness. When those things don’t work, or you’re just not sure how to express your unhappy feelings (a common challenge with depression), start by talking to someone. Depression can often be easier to treat in its early stages.