Is It Sadness Or Am I Experiencing Depression?

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated April 19, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is having suicidal thoughts, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988. Free support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Especially when dealing with challenging circumstances or hardships, we may all have periods where we’re feeling less happy or more down than usual. So when does a case of “the blues” point to something more serious? What’s the difference between sadness and depression? Being able to recognize when difficult emotions develop into a mental illness like depression is often key to getting the right kind of help as soon as possible. Read on to learn more about how to recognize general symptoms of various types of depression, how they differ from sadness, and how to seek help.

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Are you curious about the difference between sadness and depression?

What is depression?

Depression is a mental health disorder that is characterized by markedly low moods that impact an individual’s ability to function as they normally would. Those with depression often experience a lack of energy—both physically and mentally—and tend to lose interest in activities that they previously enjoyed.

If you feel sad, it might seem difficult to distinguish it from depression while you are in the process of experiencing these emotions. However, depression tends to come with a more distinctive set of symptoms than what you may experience when you are experiencing the natural emotion of sadness.

Symptoms of depression

The warning signs and symptoms of depression, major depressive disorder, and similar illnesses are often more noticeable and impactful than what we tend to experience when we are sad. The key signs of depression include:

  • Feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, worthless mess, and/or sadness
  • Feelings of numbness or emptiness
  • Social withdrawal
  • A loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed
  • Significant changes in sleeping and/or eating patterns
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Restlessness
  • Slower speech and movements
  • Physical aches and pains that have no other explainable cause 
  • Engagement in high-risk activities 
  • Suicidal thoughts or a suicide attempt

Many of the symptoms of depression do not fit into the definition of sadness or the state of being sad—especially the more severe ones, such as high-risk activities and suicidal thoughts. Rather, sadness is just one aspect of depression that, when combined with other symptoms, can represent a clinical condition that requires treatment. That said, sadness and depression may not always be easy to differentiate, especially in the early stages. Plus, different people can experience different symptoms, and there are various forms of depression that may result in varied symptoms as well.

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Types of depression

In order to successfully distinguish sadness from depression, it may help to understand the many ways depression can be experienced. The symptoms of depression provided above are generally associated with major depressive disorder (MDD) or severe depression, but depression major is not the only form of depression. 

Besides major depressive disorder, which is often accompanied by more severe health symptoms, other common forms of depression include melancholic depression, perinatal depression, and others such as:

  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD): SAD is a form of depression that can affect a person during certain times of the year and not others—typically during the winter months. 
  • Persistent depressive disorder (PDD): Unlike major depression, which can last for months, those experiencing persistent depressive disorder may live with lower-grade, mild depression symptoms for two years or longer.
  • Bipolar disorder: While bipolar disorder is not a depressive disorder, those who experience it may experience depressive episodes—the symptoms of which tend to align with those of MDD. However, they may also experience manic episodes, which have characteristics that are opposite to those of the depressive periods.

Finally, note that depression in general can affect anyone of any age, gender, sexuality, race, or circumstance. For instance, a person who never had depression earlier in life may still develop depression as an older adult. That said, depression is not a normal sign of aging, and older adults experiencing symptoms should seek help. The same goes for anyone in any situation who is experiencing concerning mental health symptoms; treatment is available. 

Different people experience depression differently

While the above are some common ways for major depressive disorder or other variations of this illness to manifest, each person can experience a mental health condition like depression in somewhat different ways. For example, although biological and societal differences between how different genders experience mental illness are not yet well understood, some potential differences have been flagged when it comes to MDD.

For some men, aggressive behaviors and high-risk actions may be more prominent signs of depression. This can make the process of recognizing symptoms and seeking help more difficult since depression is commonly associated with sadness. For some women, clinical depression may be likelier to take a somber manifestation, with sadness and fatigue being more common. However, these are just some examples of what you may face during a depressive episode. There is no specific set of symptoms that everyone experiences.

Note that research reflects that depression (major depressive disorder in particular) often co-occurs with other mental health conditions, such as substance use disorders and anxiety disorders. Since comorbid illnesses can exacerbate each others’ symptoms, getting treatment for both can be paramount. 

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources. Support is available 24/7.

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Are you curious about the difference between sadness and depression?

Sadness or something more? How to know if I have depression

Sadness is a common emotion that’s a natural part of the human experience. When something happens in our lives that upsets us, it is only natural to experience sadness as a result. However, sadness can feel lighter than depression does. Additionally, sadness does not usually come with as many of the physical symptoms as depression does. Once you work through low feelings or let them pass, you will likely be able to move forward from a period of sadness.

A major depressive episode, on the other hand, can impact you more significantly. You likely won’t experience sadness on its own but also additional symptoms, such as fatigue, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, and/or a major shift in behavior or habits. Plus, while sadness may have one focus and trigger, depression tends to cause you to see everything in an adverse light. Put simply, sadness is an emotion that we feel when we experience something that causes us distress. Depression is a mental illness that can have a significant impact on our lives.

An example of sadness vs. depression

One way to understand the difference is to think about the way you are coping with a certain situation. For example, if you recently lost your job, this is a situation that could trigger sadness. However, while you are sad about this loss, you can likely still find joy in other things. You are probably able to work through your emotions and not let the situation interrupt your life in a big way. Sadness, like any other emotion, is something that we feel and process.

However, if you lost your job a while ago and your sadness seems to be stretching out for a considerable amount of time—along with some of the additional symptoms that suggest something other than sadness—you may be experiencing depression. For instance, you may believe that you will never be able to land another job, or you may experience other more catastrophic thoughts that are not typically associated with sadness. You may be sleeping more, eating more, and not caring about personal tasks and chores. If your sadness is impacting your life beyond just the loss that you have experienced, you are most likely experiencing depression. However, as with sadness, there are ways to potentially alleviate depression and its symptoms.

How to seek help

Whether you are experiencing sadness or depression, it’s usually best to reach out for help. You may start by talking with your close friends or family members, or by going straight to a medical or mental health professional. In particular, talking to a licensed therapist about the difficulties you’re experiencing can allow you to receive the support that you may need. Receiving care may also provide you with the coping mechanisms necessary to work through these difficult emotions. 

If you’re not feeling well enough to visit a therapist’s office for treatment, you might consider trying online therapy, which research suggests may be effective in treating depression. With BetterHelp, you can connect with a therapist via audio or video chat from the comfort of home on a schedule that works for you.

Takeaway

Sadness is a natural human emotion that virtually everyone will experience from time to time, while depression is a clinical mental health condition that often includes persistent sadness as one of its many potential symptoms. Whether you’re experiencing sadness or depression, you don’t have to face it alone. Seeking the help of a licensed therapist can be a constructive next step toward healing.
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