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Sadness vs. Depression: What’s the Difference?

When you live with a mental illness you understand depression. You know how much depression hurts, the damage it can cause, and the fear that results from it. But it can be hard to distinguish a state of sadness from that of depression. And it be scary not knowing if you may be relapsing or, with any luck, just feeling plain sad.

Defining Sadness

What is the difference between sadness and depression?Sadness may be a simple emotion, perhaps, but not when you live with mental illness. Not when you fear your life, the road to recovery you have walked, will fall apart. It’s a feeling of powerlessness, to say the least.

Sadness is different. It is often related to circumstance. For example, the end of a relationship, stress at work or home, and even things we cannot define. Sadness is human and sadness still hurts–but not, I timidly argue, like depression.

First, let’s refer to Wikipedia in a vague attempt to define sadness.

“Sadness is a severe pain related to being sorrow, feeling alone and helpless, which results from negative outcomes. . .Sadness can be viewed as a temporary lowering of mood, whereas depression is more chronic.”

This is better than I thought it would be, though I associate the word “severe” more so with depression, I certainly cannot minimize sadness. I cannot define it just for myself; each of us experiences emotion differently.

That being said, I think the key phrase here is: “Sadness can be viewed as a temporary lowering of mood, whereas depression is more chronic.”

Alright, how is depression different?

Defining Depression

I could list 100 depression symptoms, but let’s stick to Wikipedia. Research is sort of fun (except for when I had to research philosophy in College. Not fun.)

Wikipedia provides its inquisitive readers with this information:

“Depression is a state of low mood. . .Depressed people may feel sad, anxious, empty, hopeless, worried, helpless, worthless, guilty, irritable, hurt, or restless. They may lose interest in activities that once were pleasurable, experience loss of appetite or overeating, have problems concentrating, remembering details, or making decisions, and may contemplate or attempt suicide. Insomnia, excessive sleeping, fatigue, loss of energy, or aches, pains, or digestive problems that are resistant to treatment may also be present”

My sincere apologies on this being excessively wordy. I tried to eliminate parts of it but all of them apply to a state of depression and many of them differ from that of sadness.

How Can You Tell The Difference Between Sadness and Depression?

I say farewell to Wikipedia for this bit. I think we have enough adjectives at our disposal. I’m going to narrow it down.

>Sadness is usually temporary; depression requires assistance, medication and support. It can be chronic in nature.

>Sadness is often connected to a life change, something negative, but depression can rear its ugly head whenever it wants.

>Sadness is usually without feelings of suicide; depression can be accompanied by suicidal idealization.

>Sadness affects a persons ability to take care of themselves less; depression and the impact on energy, sleep, appetite and general well being is dramatically altered.

The important thing to remember is that when you live with a mental illness, feeling sad can indicate a negative change in mood. More often than not, sadness is just sadness, but regardless of this we need to check in with family and friends and our psychiatric team to rule out relapse. That is part of self-care.

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14 Responses to Sadness vs. Depression: What’s the Difference?

  1. cindyaka says:

    Great article, it really helps to distinguish between just sadness and depression. Right now my husband is having a relapse of his depression, and is having anxiety,physical disturbances, too much sleep and little appetite. His pdoc had to take him off some meds and introduce another one. It just doesn’t seem to be working, hopefully the new med will kick in soon.

  2. Jessica says:

    Excellent article to distinguish between depression and sadness. Very often depression is accompanied by increased stress and anxiety as well, which just compounds the problem. I find that just knowing you are not alone and there is help and you do not have to needlessly suffer alone, is a huge help for anyone dealing with depression and anxiety. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Great topic and well covered. However, it’s really not accurate to say that depression “requires” medication. Medication is an option, but depression can be treated by therapy alone. Also extreme sadness (ex: due to a parent’s death or the end of a marriage) can affect one’s ability to care for oneself, but for a shorter period of time.

  4. Hi, Joanne:
    You are absolutely correct! Thank you for pointing this out.
    Sincerely,
    Natalie

  5. Allison says:

    So wait; what if friends leave me alone and I constantly feel left out because of it? Is this sadness or depression? I have depression so that’s why I’m wondering…

  6. Lauryn says:

    Allison, I feel the same way! The tiniest thing makes me feel left out! And when people include me I feel I can’t connect, or maybe some happiness but it is temporary.

  7. MARK BRANTON says:

    With depression you must act fast! Find a happy place, exercise, friendship, stop all alcohol, self harm & listen to your own recovery plan.!
    This MAY take a clinician!Get advice on uping or adapting your tabs.Try to have fun! Go out with your family or friends.
    REMISSION WILL RETURN.

  8. Linda says:

    Research from 50 years ago and today shows a DIRECT link between depression/anxiety/bipolar/schizophrenia and nutrition. I read yet another article today in Experience Life magazine that quoted doctors saying how physical health holds the clues to depression. One woman who had been treated with pharmaceutical drugs for years, with no positive results, saw her anxiety resolved when it was discovered she had a severe B12 insufficiency. My own daughter’s “depression”, which had been unsuccessfully treated with a myriad of pharmaceutical cocktails for 2 years, saw her anxiety and depression improve when she was correctly diagnosed with food allergies. I’m not telling people to go off their meds, but I would highly urge patients to find a doctor who will look for the root cause of their symptoms, not just throw meds at them. I feel like my daughter was a guinea pig, being experimented on to see what drug or combo of drugs might help her. It was a horrible 2 years of her life, and I am appalled that more doctors don’t look for physical causes for these symptoms. As I hear more and more stories and read more and more medical articles, I am beginning to believe that mental conditions aren’t the illnesses in many cases, they are just the symptoms. I am not a doctor, only a mom who has been through medication hell with her daughter and grateful I found a doctor who knows his stuff.

  9. Belinda Elisabeth Wroe says:

    I was very ill for about 5 years. I lost the ability to think rationally, and the worst part of depression was the feeling of being a burdon on everybody. Since being in recovery, I have had just one relapse. I was lucky enough to pick up on the signs and get help.
    Despite this I do honestly believe that the scars caused by depression never fade. Often I feel like I am swimming in an endless sea, and now and again I become tired and stop treading water. I have to use conscious thought to prevent me from going under.
    I use a thought process of defining the reason for my mood. I analyse what is making me have the feelings. If they are not based on life events or circumstances, then I make myself alter my thought process.
    I would describe depression as an overwhelming, stomach churning emotion, which comes about without any particular trigger, and leaves you with utter hopelessness!
    Depressed people are in a constant life threatening battle with themselves. Xx

  10. chandeth says:

    What depression caused from?
    Can it be successful self-treatment without assistance?

  11. The best time was when we loved each other without knowing we were loved by one another.

  12. Pat says:

    I’m sad and often alone, but not lonely. Throughout the years friends and family members have become “Can You /Will You” people, often looking for handouts without advice. Last February my sister spent our deceased mom’s social security check while my name was still on the account. Prior to our mom’s death, she moved in with my sister and her family to help her with self-care. To pay my mom’s bills for her, my sister had the SSI check transferred to an account she opened at the same bank and not only paid mom’s bills, but her bills with mom’s check. I couldn’t close out the account until I received mom’s death certificate. IRS tracked down any account from the same bank where my name was attached to my son’s account. Years ago my son added my name to his account to handle his affairs in case of emergency. SSI collected the money from my son’s account. This caused confusion with my son toward me. I had to borrow $1,055.00 to deposit in his account for overdrafting bills. I showed my sister the written proof fo what she’d done from the bank. She’s in denial to this day saying that she did nothing, but said, “Mom passed away in February (2014), not January 27, 2014. And if it happened I don’t have any money to give back ($1,055).” I say that I’ve forgiven this, but this incident resurfaces when family members invite me to any event. I opt out because my sister is always there, still in denial, and communicates with me like this never happened. I say that I’ve moved on. My off-peak hours are spent away from those family members and my family is small in number. I occupy my off-peak time with arts and crafts, tv programming, reading, music listening, poetrywriting, song writing, and working out, but alone. Those off-peak hours aren’t spent confined to home. I do get out when I want or need to – not often though. Depressed – NO, Sad – YES, Alone – YES ………………… but NOT LONELY

  13. Renee says:

    Thanks for this post. It really summarizes what I’ve been experiencing for the past 4 years after stopping drinking. Realizing that I’ve been depressed pretty much my entire life but used one substance or another to self-medicate because of extreme trauma experienced beginning at age 3. Living my entire life in delusion and suddenly “coming to” has been equally traumatic. I am hopeful that the fog will lift eventually. It helps to know I am not alone

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