What Is Depression? More Than Just Sadness

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti
Updated December 22, 2023by 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. Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Sadness is a natural human emotion that everyone can experience. This feeling is often temporary, whether brought on by life circumstances, upsetting memories, or a challenging situation. Sadness can come and go and may last a few minutes to a few days. Sadness and depression are similar and often used interchangeably. However, they are widely different. Understanding the difference between depression and sadness can be essential in reducing the mental health stigmas surrounding this condition. 

Depression Is More Than Simply Being Sad

What Is The Difference Between Depression And Sadness? 

Sadness is a universal human emotion. Studies show that emotions last, on average, around ten minutes. Depression is a mental illness and must be present for at least two weeks and cause severe functional difficulties to be diagnosed. For this reason, depression is not an emotion. Misunderstanding the differences between the two could lead to stigma and cause individuals to avoid seeking treatment. 

Unlike sadness, depression is not necessarily brought on by a specific event or distressing circumstance. Depression often appears without a determinable cause. This chronic and often debilitating mental illness can affect all aspects of a person's life, from social interactions to work, school, and home life. In some cases, depression leads to suicidal thoughts. 

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or urges, call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or text 988 to talk to a crisis provider over SMS. They are available 24/7 to offer support. 988 also offers an online chat for those with an internet connection.

Types Of Depression

Depression is an umbrella term for all the depressive disorders in the DSM-5. There are ten depressive disorders, including the following: 

  • Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder
  • Major depressive disorder (MDD)
  • Persistent depressive disorder (dysthymia)
  • Premenstrual dysphoric disorder
  • Substance or medication-induced depressive disorder
  • Depressive disorder due to another condition
  • Other specified depressive disorder
  • Unspecified depressive disorder
  • Post-partum depression (PPD) 
  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) 

Clinical or major depression is categorized by profound sadness and a loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities. Major depressive disorder lasts at least two weeks and is one of the most severe types of depression. People with depression may experience low self-esteem, recurrent sadness, and physical pain that appears to have no cause. They are also at risk for suicidal thoughts. 

Manic depression, now called bipolar disorder, is a mood disorder in which the individual experiences periods of depression alternating with mania or hypomania. Mania can manifest in risky behaviors, such as unsafe sex, substance use, unsafe thrill-seeking, and a sense of high self-importance. People with bipolar I disorder can experience mania. They may not experience depression, whereas people with bipolar II disorder experience periods of severe depression and hypomania, a less severe form of mania. 

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

Seasonal depression or seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is also a common form of depression caused by changing seasons. When winter (or, in rare cases, spring or summer) starts, they may experience recurrent sadness, difficulty sleeping, and other challenging symptoms.  

Who Is At Risk Of Depression?

Major depression is statistically more prevalent in women than men, although many men may not reach out for treatment due to perceived stigma. Mental illness does not discriminate based on gender or identity and can come 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, which can manifest at any age. Records show 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 childhood trauma, such as neglect and violence, are more likely to be diagnosed with depression. Different factors play into your risk of depression. Diet, substance use, and chronic illness can make an individual more likely to be diagnosed with this condition. 

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What Are The Symptoms Of Depression?

One of the most common and notable symptoms of depression is persistent, unrelenting sadness. These feelings can lead to thoughts of helplessness or worthlessness. Individuals living with depression often lose interest in their previously enjoyed hobbies and may become withdrawn, believing they are a burden to those around them. 

Some people with depression may describe feeling alone, even in rooms full of people. They may also 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 common for these individuals to believe life is not worth living, which can lead to dangerous suicidal ideations.

Aside from the emotional symptoms of depression, the illness can also bring about a number of physical symptoms as well, including but not limited to the following: 

  • Loss of appetite 
  • Unexplainable aches and pains. 
  • Sleep disturbances 
  • A lack of energy 
  • Aching joints 
  • Stomach problems
  • Migraines or headaches 
  • Weight changes 

How To Find Support For Depression 

If you are experiencing symptoms of depression, it may be beneficial to discuss them with your primary care physician. Your doctor can evaluate your symptoms, and you can discuss the possible underlying cause of depression.

Prepare for your appointment by writing down a list of your symptoms. Try to track 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 slept over 12 hours a day, note 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 can also be vital that the doctor knows of any pre-existing health conditions and any physical symptoms you believe are caused by your depression. 

Treating depression can take time and may include trying different medications and therapies. If your doctor believes you may be living with a depressive disorder, they may refer you to a psychiatrist or psychologist for further evaluation and treatment. Some people choose to take medication for their symptoms, while others prefer talk therapy or a combination approach. 

Can You Reduce Depression At Home? 

While depression is a serious mental illness and often requires professional treatment, there are a few steps you can take at home to improve your mood, including but not limited to the following: 

  • Exercising regularly 
  • Partaking in hobbies you enjoy
  • Journaling about your thoughts and feelings
  • Spending time with family and friends
  • Meditating
  • Practicing mindfulness
  • Trying calming forms of exercise like yoga or stretching
  • Listening to happy music
  • Spending time in nature 

Support Options 

If you want to talk to someone but the idea of going to in-person therapy seems overwhelming, online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp may benefit you. When you sign up, you can be matched with an available licensed, qualified, and vetted therapist who can start working with you within 48 hours. You don't have to worry about commuting to an office or being on a waiting list, and you may be more comfortable being able to attend the session from home. 

In addition, research shows that online therapy is effective. One study showed that online treatment participants experienced significant and clinically meaningful improvements in depression and anxiety scores relative to baseline observed post-intervention at 12 weeks and sustained at program month six. 

Takeaway

It can be natural and healthy to experience sadness from time to time. However, depression is more than sadness and can be a serious issue. If you're looking for support with your symptoms or want to learn more about coping with depression, consider contacting a licensed professional online or in your area for support.

Depression is treatable, and you're not alone

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