Feelings of sadness, grief, despair and loneliness are normal emotions that all human beings experience at some point in their lives. When these feelings last for a long time, a misdiagnosis is often made as the conditions of being sad and depressed share several common symptoms including difficulty focusing and chronic fatigue paired with sleeplessness and irregular eating routines. However, it is important to draw a clear distinction between sadness and depression in order to ensure that those with depression get the necessary help to recover. Depression is a serious condition that threatens both mental and physical health while sadness is a temporary emotion. Below are 7 ways to help you differentiate between sadness and depression.
- A loss of interest in activities that were previously enjoyed
With sadness, activities that you usually enjoy such as watching series or eating comfort food will still be a good distraction that improves your mood. Similarly, a phone call from a friend or a coffee date might help you overcome the sadness and loneliness that you are experiencing, and slowly but surely you will begin to enjoy things again. An important article from Psychology Today explains the condition of anhedonia, the complete loss of interest in activities that you once found enjoyable along with the inability to sustain feelings of pleasure derived from such activities. Anhedonia is a major red flag for depression – if you are suffering from prolonged periods of withdrawal from pleasurable activities such as food, sex, work and social interaction, be sure to seek professional help.
- Disrupted sleeping routines
Feelings of grief and unhappiness might keep you up at night for a while but as with the above example of being able to enjoy favourite activities again, one should be able to get to sleep eventually and function normally after the period of mourning, intense sadness or emotional disruption has passed. On the other hand, depression often sees severe disturbance of regular sleeping patterns to such an extent that your physical body is being harmed. This includes insomnia for several days, not being able to get out of bed in the morning or even alternating between these states for long periods of time. Fatigue, headaches and muscle aches often occur as a result of these disrupted sleeping patterns.
- Feelings of insignificance and serious self-criticism
Another indicator of clinical depression is the inability to recognize self-worth, feel accomplished and find a purpose in life. Sadness is prone to causing thoughts of worthlessness and even guilt to surface, although this will often be offset by affirmation and positive support from friends and family. Depression often leads to self-punishing thoughts of being unworthy and helpless that cannot be altered through persuasion from loved ones or even medical professionals.
- Recurrent suicidal thoughts
A tendency to have suicidal thoughts and a desire to no longer live are not symptoms of sadness. Severe depression often takes hold over feelings of worthlessness as mentioned above and escalates these to thoughts of inflicting self-harm and even death. Recurrent suicidal thoughts are a serious warning sign of clinical depression that calls for immediate intervention! Disclosing these thoughts to someone trustworthy and admitting a need for help is a sign of bravery, not weakness.
- Emotional, environmental and social triggers
Feelings of sadness and accompanying symptoms of fatigue, supressed appetite and loneliness are often triggered by hurtful, disappointing or difficult experiences. This could include emotional events such as a break-up or death, an environmental trigger such as moving to a new place or a trigger such as social anxiety. Sadness is usually the consequence of a situation that can be pinpointed to an apparent cause or several contributing factors, allowing one to work through loss or disappointment before starting to feel better. Depression is a condition that permeates thoughts, emotions, behaviours and sensitivities about everything and often cannot be traced back to one specific trigger. Severe feelings of sadness and anxiety without any specific trigger often indicate the more pressing condition of depression.
- Loss of appetite and changes in body weight
Depression is a condition that conquers a healthy appetite, often with a long-lasting and severe impact on the body. Significant weight change paired with a complete loss of appetite – even for comfort foods – is a sign of depression that should not be ignored, especially as it begins to affect energy levels and important bodily functions. Changes in body weight, both in losing and gaining weight, during periods of sadness certainly are not unusual. However, disrupted eating routines and resulting weight change will often encourage those in times of sadness to get back to a healthy routine with regular eating and exercise. This is not the case for those suffering from depression.
- Slowed movements, fatigue and loss of focus
Poor concentration and loss of focus in times of sadness mostly occur due to a preoccupation with other thoughts, especially those connected with the cause of sadness such as the triggers mentioned above. Depression affects concentration through a lack of thoughts, slow thinking and an inability to make decisions of all magnitudes – even seemingly unimportant decisions that require minimal thought. Depression is a culprit of hampering your ability to think and move while sadness will mostly affect your desire to function as normal – and only on a temporary basis.
In conclusion, sadness and depression are mistakenly used as interchangeable terms for feelings of despair, loneliness and general unhappiness. It is important to assess the above differences and realise that depression is a serious illness that needs to be treated appropriately, while sadness is an emotional period that will pass with time. If the above symptoms of depression resonate with you, seek professional help immediately – depression is an undertreated condition that requires serious attention.
Marcus has a degree in psychology, a masters degree in health psychology and has worked within the NHS as well as private organisations. Marcus started psysci a psychology and science blog in order to disseminate research into bitesize, meaningful and helpful resources.