In the broad spectrum of human emotion, sadness may be one of the most difficult to handle. Whether in response to a specific event, discovery, or outcome, sadness can be painful and can often last for an extended period of time. However, people seem to use the word “depression” more frequently these days, often saying it interchangeably with sadness.
Sadness and Depression are not the same thing, and the inability to distinguish between the two means that many people don’t get the help they need while suffering from genuine depression, which is a treatable condition. Sadness is a normal human emotion, whereas depression is an abnormal mental illness. That distinction is very important to understand.
The Sad Story of Sadness
Human beings experience sadness for a wide range of reasons: your childhood pet dies, you don’t make it into your top university choice, your girlfriend breaks up with you, etc. The emotion of sadness can manifest in feelings of loneliness, sorrow and helplessness, but fortunately, sadness has a way of fading away over time. It is a temporary reaction to a particular situation or life change, but it isn’t a permanent or chronic feeling.
That isn’t to say that sadness isn’t painful, often in a life-changing way, but it isn’t a chronic condition that can be treated. If you’re feeling sad, you can likely pull yourself out of the “funk” by engaging in activities you enjoy, spending time with friends, and otherwise distracting yourself from whatever has upset the happy balance of your life. We’ve spent a few days in the dumps over the years, but that shouldn’t be confused with depression.
The Dangers of Depression
The reason that so many people struggle to understand the difference between these two states of mind is that sadness can be a big part of depression, but it is far from the only symptom. Depression is an illness that affects the brain chemistry by chronically lowering mood and impacting everything from energy levels to appetite. As an illness, it should be taken seriously, but many people who claim to be depressed are told by others that, “Time heals all wounds”, or “Happiness is a state of mind”, etc. These sorts of platitudes are useless to someone suffering from genuine depression, and reveal the widespread ignorance of people in terms of differentiating sadness and depression.
Most people don’t consider someone as being depressed until this severe state of lowered mood has lasted for more than two weeks, but that’s a big problem with depression – it often rises and dissipates unexpectedly. No one thing triggers a depressive episode; you could be walking along having a perfectly fine day when that “black cloud” appears above your head, and the world seems suddenly devoid of happiness and color. You may be excessively tired, lack the motivation to do the simplest tasks, and even feel physical pain more sharply. The imbalanced chemicals in your brain when suffering from depression are different than the temporary shifts we experience as a result of basic emotions.
When you are depressed, everything makes you sad or apathetic; things you typically enjoy become joyless or boring. When you are sad, there is usually one focal reason, but when you’re depressed, life itself seems sad. This seemingly endless sadness is complemented by a nasty range of symptoms that make depression even worse. In fact, there are 9 standard symptoms of depression that arise in different combinations in individuals. Most professionals consider anyone possessing or displaying 5 of these 9 symptoms as “clinically depressed”.
Symptoms of Depression
- Depressed or irritable mood
- Changes in weight and appetite
- Sleeping too much or not enough
- Loss of enjoyment/pleasure in activities, even those a person once enjoyed
- Slow-moving and restless over the course of your days
- Low energy levels
- Feelings of worthlessness and decreased self-esteem
- Inability to focus, concentrate or think creatively
- Thoughts of suicide or self-harm
That’s a pretty intense list of symptoms, and those are just the most common; every individual will experience depression in their own way. Depression can dramatically impact a person’s life in a negative way, compromising their work performance, relationships with partners and children, social skills, mental stability, physical health… the list goes on and on.
Not only is depression far more complex and pervasive than sadness, but it is also much more difficult to diagnose. When we see a person crying at a bus stop, we know they’re sad, but we can’t know if they are simply upset about one thing, or suffering from depression. It can be difficult for people to open up about the mental anguish of depression, and with people so quick to dismiss depression as “the blues” and urge depressed individuals to “get over it”, millions of cases of depression go undiagnosed. As the final point on that list of symptoms suggests, undiagnosed and untreated depression can have tragic consequences.
If you think someone you know is suffering from depression, take the time to listen to what’s going on with them, and try to get them help, if they need it. There are many proven ways to counter depression, both with cognitive behavioral therapy and medication.
There’s also a chance that your friend might just be having a bad day, and are simply feeling sadness. In that case, be a good friend anyway and take them out for a night and get their mind off their troubles!
- Psychology Today
- How Is Depression Different From Sadness? – Columbia Psychiatry (Columbia University)