Sadness is a normal part of life. No one can be happy all the time, but many would settle for just some of the time. Feeling sad, hopeless, or otherwise bad can often be a sign of major depressive disorder, more simply called depression.
How do you know if you have depression or if you're just feeling blue, though? Learn the signs and symptoms of depression as well as how it differs from just being sad, and ultimately what you might need to do in order to improve how you feel.
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Sadness is defined as "affected with or expressive of grief or unhappiness" in the dictionary¹. It's a normal emotion we can all experience at times, usually in response to something bad or upsetting happening to us. While you probably don't need that spelled out for you, it's helpful in understanding how it differs from depression.
In contrast, depression is a mental illness affecting roughly 3.8% of the world's population, characterized by a persistent sense of sadness, loss of interest in things, and loss of happiness for most of the day over the course of two weeks or more². Think of it like sadness being the building block of depression, where a great deal of sadness becomes depression as more and more of it "builds up" in someone.
Obviously, this is a bit of a simplification, but it's a good place to start as we dive into the more technical side of things.
Depression is characterized by a persistent sense of sadness over long periods of time. This is just the tip of the iceberg, however, as depression can manifest in a number of ways beyond just sadness.
Impaired functioning - One of the hallmarks of depression is the way in which it impairs your ability to function in daily life. This can be due to sadness alone (“I feel too sad to do anything.”) or a combination of symptoms².
Feeling "empty" - Sometimes, sadness isn't the main emotion someone feels while depressed. Instead, one might feel "empty" or devoid of emotion altogether³.
Fatigue - One of the most common symptoms of depression is fatigue and an inability to become energized². "I sleep and sleep and never feel rested," is a common refrain among people with depression. This can happen even if someone is otherwise getting adequate amounts of sleep and nutrition.
Problems with diet - Eating is a problem for many people with depression. This can manifest as both a loss of or increase in appetite².
Negative thoughts - People suffering from depression often have negative thoughts about themselves, others, and/or the world at large. In some cases, this can even manifest as thoughts of self-harm or suicide³.
Loss of interest in things you used to enjoy.
Feeling agitated and restless or feeling as though your movements are really slow.
Difficulty concentrating or thinking.
Additionally, depression can come out of nowhere. Unlike regular feelings of sadness that typically have an inciting cause, depressive episodes can strike at random times without an apparent reason. While some people develop depression as a result of personal grief or tragedy, others might be biologically predisposed to developing depression over time⁵.
While depression might be "all in your head" in a literal sense, it can have consequences for your overall health. At the most basic level, experiencing depression for extended periods of time can often be devastating for your quality of life. Depression saps the joy out of living and makes it harder to take on your responsibilities and leisure activities. It can also damage your interpersonal relationships².
There's also evidence to suggest that depression can cause physical damage to your body. From a weakened immune system to digestive issues to the development of chronic conditions like heart disease and high blood pressure⁷.
By contrast, simply feeling sad will generally not have such damaging effects on the body. While being sad can cause some of the same things to happen as when you're depressed, a person will normally recover from sadness before these more serious and long-term problems arise.
In short, yes. Depression manifests differently in everyone, and the symptoms we've listed are not exhaustive. Many people who have been diagnosed with depression have some but not all of these symptoms, as well as many other symptoms not listed here. It's important not to discount the possibility you may be depressed just because you don't check every box.
The majority of this piece talks about the condition known as major depressive disorder. This is because major depressive disorder is what is most commonly known as depression. Major depression can occur as a single episode that resolves and does not reoccur or can be through the experience of recurrent episodes of depression throughout your life.
In addition, there are other mental illnesses and disorders that share symptoms with major depressive disorder.
If you have ongoing symptoms, on more days than not, for at least two years, you may also have a diagnosis of persistent depressive disorder. This presents in a similar way to major depression but has slightly different symptoms.
Bipolar disorder is another related condition and is sometimes referred to as manic depression. It's characterized by periods of depression contrasted against periods of mania (high energy, euphoria, risky behavior, racing thoughts, and more)². As you might assume, depressive episodes in people with bipolar disorder are usually similar to those with major depressive disorder.
Individuals with depression may note a seasonal pattern, meaning that the onset and remittance of the depressive episodes occur at characteristic times of the year.
In addition to the more typical symptoms of depression, someone suffering from a seasonal affective disorder in the spring or summer may experience trouble sleeping, a loss of appetite, and restlessness, while someone experiencing it during the fall and winter may feel the opposite with oversleeping, binge eating, and lethargy. The exact reasons for this are not known, with research currently juggling theories around hormonal imbalances to simply having bad associations with a particular season⁴.
For some, it is possible to manage the symptoms of depression on their own. One thing to do when you're depressed is to talk about your problems. Although many people find it difficult to open up about what makes them sad, bottling up your emotions won't help to resolve them, but reaching out to friends, family, or mental health professionals can give you a lifeline in the darkest of times⁶.
Some other things to do when you're sad would be to pick up a new hobby, try some exercise, prioritize good sleep, or meditate⁸. Simple things like this can help you to develop a more positive response to feelings of sadness and the symptoms of depression.
Trying strategies to raise your self-esteem is also a good way to battle your depression, as the negative self-talk that is often associated with depression is frequently one of the worst aspects of it.
It's good to remember that, while some can do this on their own and find success, not being able to manage your depression without help is not a sign of weakness. Being able to seek help is the path to healing for many people.
If your depression lasts for a significant amount of time, it's often a good idea to talk to your doctor. Doctors can often provide you with advice and recommendations on how to help yourself, as well as connect you to a therapist or other mental health professional. They can also prescribe medication as a means of treating your depression at a chemical level².
If you're experiencing thoughts of self-harm or suicide, and especially if you feel like you may attempt these, it's imperative you contact a doctor or crisis hotline for help.
Depression and sadness are similar but different. While the emotion of sadness is a normal part of life, depression often carries with it many more devastating symptoms. From persistent feelings of hopelessness to fatigue to thoughts of suicide, letting depression fester can be a dangerous thing to do.
If you're suffering from depression, or even if you're just a little sad, try some of the strategies outlined here to help manage your feelings. If these feelings persist, it's a good idea to get in touch with your doctor to see what solutions are available to help you learn how to stop being sad and take back your life.
"Sad" definition | Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Depression | World Health Organization
Depression | National Institute of Mental Health
Seasonal Affective Disorder | National Institute of Mental Health
Depression and the brain | Queensland Brain Institute
5 Things You Should Know About Stress | National Institute of Mental Health