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What is the difference between sadness and depression?

By: Ilona Myllniemi

6 min read

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Sadness vs. Depression
A unpleasant incident usually triggers sadness, whereas depression is an inappropriate emotional state. Is it difficult for you to know if you're sad or if you're suffering from depression? Learn how to tell the difference between sorrow and depression.

Depression is one of the most common mental health conditions, and it can be associated with a persistent, low mood and overwhelming feelings of sadness – but how do we distinguish between ordinary, temporary sadness and depression, a mental health condition that often requires professional treatment? What is the difference between sadness and depression? Understanding the key characteristics of depression and how they differ from sadness can be extremely helpful for understanding what’s going on in our lives, and being aware of the differences between sadness and depression can help us figure out when to seek help. 

Depression is more than sadness

While depression can definitely be associated with feelings of sadness, depression can also include a wide variety of other symptoms that differentiate it from ordinary sadness. Depression also might not always look like sadness at all! Some key symptoms that are present in depression include things such as…

  • feeling numb or empty
  • anhedonia: the inability to experience pleasure
  • loss of interest in activities that you previously found fun or enjoyable
  • feeling hopeless about the future, or about the prospect of ever feeling better
  • feelings of worthlessness and meaninglessness
  • irritability and anger
  • insomnia or, alternatively, sleeping too much

Now, that’s by no means a complete list of symptoms or experiences that can be associated with depression. However, it becomes clear that depression extends beyond feeling sad or unhappy. It’s also important to know that sadness can morph into depression. If you find yourself struggling with a deep sense of sadness for an extended period of time, even when no other symptoms are present, seeking professional help can be a good call.

Sadness doesn’t persist like depression does

One very important difference between sadness and depression is the duration of the experience. You might feel sad for no reason, or as a reaction to a particular event – such as loss or disappointment – but these feelings of sadness usually don’t persist for extended periods of time. Sadness can occur for a few minutes, hours, or even days at a time, depending on the situation and the severity of the situation that’s causing you to feel sad, but depression can last for much, much longer than that. The general guideline is that if a low mood persists for more than two weeks, it’s usually a good idea to seek help.

Therefore, one key difference between sadness and depression is that sadness is much more temporary, and it often comes and goes, while depression tends to stick around for a much longer amount of time. Using a mood tracker app or a journaling app where you can easily write things down as they come up can be an easy way to keep track of how long – and how often – you feel sad.

Depression is more generalised than sadness

Sadness is a normal, emotional reaction to a situation or an experience, and it’s usually relatively isolated to that particular context. You might feel sad when something reminds you of a breakup or a disappointing event, for example, but it doesn’t impact everything in your life – especially when the sadness-inducing event is not fresh in your mind anymore. 

Sadness can come in waves, but depression tends to be generalized to all areas of your life. You don’t just feel depressed in particular situations: depression is like a heavy rain cloud that follows you around, no matter what you do, no matter where you are. While positive distractions or engaging in enjoyable activities often help you push sadness away or help with overcoming it, the same thing doesn’t happen with depression. In fact, with depression, you might experience anhedonia – the inability to experience pleasure – or you might be completely uninterested in things that used to bring you joy.

Depression impacts your entire life, while sadness is usually isolated to a particular context. Sadness is also easier to overcome, and you still enjoy many of the things you used to enjoy, but the reality of living with depression is very different from that. Furthermore, sadness can fluctuate depending on what’s going on, while depression sticks around.

Depression can deteriorate your quality of life

Even though sadness can be intense, and especially when a sadness-inducing experience is fresh in our minds, it can make focusing on other things very hard! However, intense feelings of sadness often wash away relatively quickly, and getting back on track with your normal life usually happens pretty easily after the initial shock.

However, depression can make everyday tasks much, much harder for longer. Depression can make small tasks feel insurmountable and completely exhausting. If things just seem to not get better, and you’re finding it challenging to keep up with things such as eating, cleaning, taking care of your hygiene, or connecting with the people in your life, talking to a professional can help you understand what’s going on. In addition to that, using a mental health app that suits your needs can help you feel less alone with what you’re going through.

Sadness is normal and healthy

Sadness is a very normal and healthy human emotion. It’s completely okay to feel sad and experience moments of sadness without pushing them away. Feeling sad isn’t all-consuming, and you can even embrace your feelings of sadness when they arise.

difference between sadness and depression

However, a key difference between sadness and depression is that depression, on the other hand, is a diagnosable mental health condition. We all feel sad sometimes (it’s a central part of the human experience – no matter how uncomfortable sadness can be as an emotion), but we don’t all experience depression.

Depression tends to get in the way of your daily life in a way that does feel all-consuming, and it can be associated with things such as self-harm or thoughts about ending your life. If that’s the case for you, don’t hesitate to reach out to a crisis hotline as your first course of action. Your life matters and things do get better – even if it doesn’t feel like it right now.

Depression can impact how you view yourself

Depression can make your self-esteem and your perception of yourself plummet. When you’re depressed, you might blame yourself for everything or feel like you’re not good enough, and you have a hard time believing that these thoughts do not describe the way things actually are. Depression often tries to make you feel like you’re a burden or that you don’t matter, drastically impacting the way you view the people around you as well.

Depression can make you view yourself in a completely different light than you did before, and it’s often associated with feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness. Sadness, on the other hand, doesn’t usually drastically change how you view yourself – and even if you do have a brief moment of sadness-related self-deprecation, it usually goes away relatively quickly without having a major impact on your life or self-perception.

Conclusion

So, what is the difference between sadness and depression? The key differences to keep in mind are that depression tends to persist, stick around, and be more generalized to your entire life, while sadness is more temporary, context-dependent, and can come in waves. Furthermore, depression’s effects on your life can be devastating, altering how you cope with your everyday life and how you view yourself.

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Ilona Myllniemi

Ilona Myllniemi is a mental health advocate based in the UK and the founder of the social enterprise I Go to Therapy. After seeking therapy for the first time at age 17, they became passionate about destigmatizing going to therapy and educating people on mental health, therapy, and mental health disorders in a nuanced but approachable way. She hopes that eventually, mental health discussions will become as normal as talking about what you had for breakfast.

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