Is It Depression Or Sadness? How To Tell The Difference

by Kimberly Zapata
Originally Published: 

Every so often, when speaking about my depression, a well-intentioned friend or family member reminds me, “It’s OK. Everyone gets depressed.” While I know the phrase is meant to lift my spirits and remind me I am not alone, I cannot help but cringe. But instead of speaking up, I smile and nod, contributing to the problem—contributing to the misconception not with what I say, but with what I don’t say. What I should do is explain that not everyone does “get depressed,” because depression is a disease, and not everyone knows what depression feels like. What I should do is make an effort to better explain it, to explain myself and to point out the difference between my illness and a feeling, but instead I shut down and shut up.

Today, I am changing that. Today, I will share what I myself believe to be the biggest differences between sadness and depression, not as a medical professional, but as someone who suffers from depression.

Sadness is a feeling; depression is an illness. By definition, sadness is an emotion, a feeling of sorrow or pain, which almost always has an underlying cause or outside trigger (death, divorce, job loss, medical diagnosis, for example). Depression, however, is a “serious medical illness, which can be caused by a combination of genetic, biological, environmental and psychological factors.” While the symptoms of depression can be intensified by external factors—there’s no doubt that my depression has been intensified by a bad day, bad weather or a series of crappy events—these events do not cause depression. That’s because depression is not, as many imply, a feeling that everyone has experienced, because feeling depressed is not the same as being depressed. I know it may sound like I’m arguing semantics, but moods can be shifted and lifted and feelings can improve, but no amount of happy thoughts, faith, money or love can cure depression. Nothing can cure depression; it can only be treated and managed.

While sadness is something we all experience sometimes, depression is a constant. Sadness is a normal emotion. I was sad yesterday when I snapped at my daughter when she refused to eat her lunch, and I was sad last weekend when plans to go out to eat fell through because we didn’t have enough money. But that is normal, because sadness is a feeling we all have in response to disappointment or in response to hearing generally unpleasant, and sometimes tragic, news. Sadness can be felt when your friends cancel plans, when you lose your job, when someone you love passes away or when your boyfriend or girlfriend breaks up with you. Sadness occurs, in short, when you are hurt. It comes in waves, and while sadness can linger, it is temporary and will fade.

On the other hand, depression is constant. It is a series of symptoms ranging from extreme sadness and negative thinking to sleeping problems, eating problems and concentration issues. It zaps you of motivation and energy, numbs you (you aren’t sad, but you aren’t happy either), and it is present, in one form or another, every minute of every day. While sadness may take away your desire to smile or laugh, depression may actually take away your ability.

That said, it is a misconception that those who are depressed are perpetually sad and constantly crying. (Thanks, antidepressant commercials and crappy movie stereotypes!) While these symptoms are common when in the grips of a major depressive episode, for most, these feelings are not experienced on a weekly or even monthly basis. Instead, it is the other symptoms that make up their day-to-day life, symptoms like numbness, emptiness and lethargy.

That said, everyone experiences sadness and grief. It is something that makes us human; it makes us who we are. But when that persistent feeling remains, when loneliness persists and dismal feelings linger—when you become a shell of who you once were, when you feel the world would be better off without you—you should consider something more may be at work, especially if you can’t “snap out of it.” There is no “snapping out of it” or “pulling yourself together” when you are struggling with depression. I tried for years to “pull it together.” I also tried to kill myself. (Even with the right tools, managing depression isn’t as simple as flipping the switch on your bedroom wall.) By saying, “We’ve all been depressed,” we take away the seriousness of the disease, and we make the sufferer feel as though it is all in his or her head—a feeling they could, and should, be able to shake.

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