What Is Depression? More Than Just Sadness

Updated March 20, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Feelings of sadness are inevitable. These feelings are often temporary, whether brought on by a life circumstance — such as losing a job — or upsetting memories of past events. They may come and go throughout the lives of many and are short-lived without significantly impacting their lives. Sadness and depression are similar and often used interchangeably; however, they are two vastly different things.

Depression Is More Than Simply Being Sad

What's The Difference?

While everyone has fleeting moments of sadness, those with depression are not simply sad. Misunderstanding the differences between the two could lead many to avoid seeking treatment under the pretense that they are only sad and that their feelings will pass naturally. However, with depression, this is most often not the case.

Unlike sadness, depression is not necessarily brought on by a certain event or distressing circumstance. Depression often appears without a determinable trigger. Depression is a chronic and often debilitating mental illness that can affect all aspects of a person's life, from social interactions to work, school, home, and overall view of themselves.

Types Of Depression

Depression comes in many forms, affecting everyone a little differently. Symptoms can vary widely and may last for weeks, months, or even years.

Clinical or major depression, for example, is categorized by recurring feelings of sadness and futility. These feelings make it difficult, if not impossible, to participate in activities that otherwise would have been enjoyable. It can have an overall effect on how the individual views themself and the world around them. 

For many people with clinical depression, the world may seem bleak and hopeless, and they can experience low self-esteem, recurrent sadness, and even pain that appears to have no cause. They are also at risk for suicidal thoughts, which can be extremely dangerous if carried out. (If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 988 and is available 24/7).

Manic depression, now called bipolar disorder, is a form of depression in which the patient experiences periods of mania and melancholy. Mania can often manifest in risky behaviors, such as unsafe sex, drug use, dangerous thrill-seeking, and feeling like they could take on anything. However, these moods can swing drastically, suddenly, and without warning. This form of depression can often be described as a roller coaster ride, one where most of the track is flat, save for a few sudden rises and plunges.

Another form of depression is seasonal depression, and it is pretty much just as it sounds. Unlike the sudden, unpredictable mood changes of bipolar depression or the persistent sadness associated with clinical depression, those experiencing seasonal depression may appear to have a healthy mindset for most of the year. Each individual is different, but most become depressed upon the change of seasons. When winter (or, in rare cases, spring, summer, or fall) rolls in, they experience recurrent sadness, with concurrent sleep issues and a noticeable lack of energy.

Who Is At Risk Of Depression?

Major depression is statistically more prevalent in women than men, although an argument can be made that many more men than we realize experience depression but do not seek help, likely due to perceived stigma. It is crucial to keep in mind when discussing the topic of depression that mental illness does not discriminate. It truly comes down to genetics and a series of environmental factors.

A family history of depressive disorders or other mental illnesses can increase your risk of developing depression, and the condition can manifest in anyone at any age. Record shows that many people experience depression symptoms for the first time at age 26, although most are not diagnosed until 31.

Life changes and environmental factors can also raise one's risk for depression significantly. Those who experience trauma, such as neglect and violence, in their childhood are more likely to become depressed and those born into low-income families. Different factors play into your risk of depression. Diet, drug use, and even chronic illness can make an individual more likely to experience depression.

What Are The Symptoms Of Depression?

One of the most common and notable symptoms of depression is persistent, unrelenting sadness. These feelings can lead those experiencing them to feel helpless and alone. Individuals living with depression often lose interest in what was once their favorite activity. They may become withdrawn, feeling like a burden to those around them. Many describe feeling alone, even in rooms full of people. Again, this is common. They may even feel a sense of guilt, believing that they are dragging others down with them or affecting other people’s quality of life. It is also, unfortunately, common for these individuals to feel that life is not worth living, which can lead to dangerous suicidal ideations. (If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 988 and is available 24/7).

Aside from the emotional symptoms of depression, the illness can also bring about a number of physical symptoms as well, from a loss of appetite to unexplainable aches and pains. Sleep disturbances are also common, including either trouble sleeping or sleeping in excess. Patients battling depression often feel drained of energy and have difficulties functioning properly. Depression may cause joints to ache, stomach problems, migraines, irritability, and reckless behavior. Also, many experience self-loathing, trouble concentrating, and fluctuations in weight.

Talking To Your Doctor

If you think you may be experiencing symptoms of depression, you must contact your doctor. When booking the appointment, it is a good idea to inform the office that you may need extra time to discuss this with your practitioner so that they can schedule accordingly. Your doctor can evaluate your symptoms, and you can discuss the possible underlying cause of depression.

You can prepare for your appointment ahead of time by writing down a list of your symptoms so you can be sure not to miss anything. Try to keep track of how long you have been experiencing each symptom and how they affect your life. For example, if you have been exhausted for the past three months or sleeping over 12 hours a day, be sure to make a note of this. If this is causing difficulties at school or work, specify how.

Lastly, list the questions you'd like to ask your doctor. List any of your concerns, whether physical, mental, or social. Include any treatments you've tried in the past. It is also vital that the doctor knows of any pre-existing health conditions and any physical symptoms you believe are caused by your depression. 

When you go to your appointment, remember that depression is not an easy diagnosis. Nor is there an immediate cure-all pill. The process of treating depression can take time and may include trying different medications and therapies.

Helping Yourself

While depression can feel debilitating and leave you with little to no motivation, it is still important that you take your health into your own hands. If you are concerned you may be experiencing depression, reach out. There are many ways to do this, from online resources to crisis lines and more. There is a vast network of support out there for you. All you have to do is reach out.

If you're not ready to confide in a loved one, that's okay. There are many options for you to talk to and get support from others.

Consider Online Therapy

If you want to talk to someone but the idea of going to in-person therapy feels overwhelming, online therapy might be right for you. When you sign up, you’re matched with an available licensed, qualified, and vetted therapist who can start working with you right away. You don’t have to worry about commuting to an office or being on a waiting list, and many people feel more comfortable with online therapy because you get to attend sessions from your own home.

Research shows that online therapy is effective, too. One study showed that people participating in online treatment experienced “significant and clinically meaningful improvements in depression and anxiety scores relative to baseline that were observed post intervention at 12 weeks and sustained at program month 6.” If you want to learn more, sign up with BetterHelp to take the next step.


Everyone experiences sadness from time to time, but depression is much more than just feeling sad. If you need help dealing with symptoms of depression, talk to your doctor for a diagnosis. If you need someone to talk to or if you’re ready to start treatment, online therapy can help.

You Don’t Have To Face Depression Alone. Our Experienced Counselors Can Help.

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
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