Learn / Sadness vs. Depression: How to Tell the Difference
Feeling sad is normal—even healthy. It’s a natural part of the human experience. But persistent sadness can cross a line. When this emotion becomes a mental health condition, you might need professional support. The problem is, it can be hard to distinguish between sadness and depression.
There are some key differences between these 2 experiences. But either way, knowing what’s wrong is the first step toward healing. If you need to, you can seek treatment for depression. And if not, you can still take active steps to move past feeling sad.
We all feel sad from time to time; it’s a normal part of being human. Usually, that feeling has a clear external cause. For instance, sadness is often associated with grief1 or loss. There’s nothing wrong with this important emotion, and it doesn’t need to be pushed away. But—if it’s really sadness, and not depression—there’s a lot you can do to support yourself as you ride out the experience.
Most of the time, you can point to a specific reason you’re feeling sad. Maybe you failed an exam or lost a job. Upsetting as these issues are, they can inspire you. You might recommit to studying, so you’ll get better grades on future tests. Or, you might look for a new job where your skills can really shine. Taking action is empowering. And as you work to improve your life, your feelings might improve too.
There’s a link between sadness and loneliness.2 So when you’re feeling sad, spending time with people you trust can make you feel better. Your loved ones are allies for your happiness. Their support can give you a new perspective on your own feelings, or just a welcome distraction. Either way, shifting your focus away from sadness can help you move forward.3
Life doesn’t stop when you’re sad. You can go about your day, taking care of responsibilities at home, work, and school. Depression takes a greater toll.4 You might feel like everything is a chore—even hobbies and plans with friends. This condition can even have physical symptoms.
Depression can change your brain chemistry.5 And while intense, persistent sadness is a common symptom, it’s not the only one. Depression can also manifest in your body,6 with effects like insomnia, weight changes, or physical pain. This is one reason that treatment usually includes medication.7
Unlike sadness, depression rarely goes away with simple activities. It also lasts longer than a run-of-the-mill emotion. If you’ve had the symptoms of depression for longer than 2 weeks,6 it might be time to get professional support.
It’s usually easy to figure out why you’re sad. Depression is a more complex issue. It often occurs with no apparent cause. According to experts, there may be a genetic component to depression.8 But it can also be intensified by external events.
For example, trauma can cause depression.9 But trauma isn’t something you just “get over.” If you’re recovering from depression in response to traumatic events, you might benefit from trauma-informed care for both conditions. When you’re ready to seek treatment, it’s best to get professional advice about where to start.
If you think you might have depression, talk to your doctor or therapist about your symptoms. Depending on your experience, they might recommend a combination of therapy, medication, inpatient rehab, or other types of treatment. To prepare for this conversation, you can answer a few questions, and share your responses with your care team.
If you or someone you love is contemplating self-harm, call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 to get immediate support.
No matter how you answer these questions, you can always talk to a therapist about what you’re going through. A professional can offer specific advice, tailored to meet your unique needs.
You and your care team can work together to find the best way forward. And it’s okay to ask for help even before you have serious symptoms. If it turns out that you’re sad, but not depressed, you can still get meaningful support. Or, if you do have depression, your doctor can connect you to the resources you need for recovery.
Browse our list of rehab programs for depression to read reviews, see photos, and learn about pricing options.
Reviewed by Rajnandini Rathod
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