Learn / Sadness vs. Depression: How to Tell the Difference

Sadness vs. Depression: How to Tell the Difference

Grace Ogren
 December 12th, 2022|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Dr. Malasri Chaudhery-Malgeri, Ph.D.

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.

Working Through Sadness

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.

Make a Change

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.

Get Social Support

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

Defining Clinical Depression

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.

Symptoms of Depression

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.

Root Causes of Depression

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.

When Should You Get Help?

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.

  • How long have you had symptoms? By definition, depression lasts for at least 2 weeks.1 Sadness usually resolves more quickly.
  • Is it hard for you to keep up with your responsibilities? When your emotions get in the way of daily activities, it’s often a sign of mental health issues.
  • Can you point to a cause? Sadness usually happens for a reason. If you feel sad even when things go well, you might need treatment for depression.
  • Are you considering self-harm? This is a very serious symptom, and requires immediate care.

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.

Finding Your Path Toward Wellness

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

  1. Lokko, Hermioni N., and Theodore A. Stern. “Sadness: Diagnosis, Evaluation, and Treatment.” The Primary Care Companion for CNS Disorders, vol. 16, no. 6, Nov. 2014, p. 10.4088/PCC.14f01709. PubMed Central, https://doi.org/10.4088/PCC.14f01709. [] []
  2. Yanguas, Javier, et al. “The Complexity of Loneliness.” Acta Bio Medica : Atenei Parmensis, vol. 89, no. 2, 2018, pp. 302–14. PubMed Central, https://doi.org/10.23750/abm.v89i2.7404. []
  3. “Probing the Depression-Rumination Cycle.” Https://Www.Apa.Org, https://www.apa.org/monitor/nov05/cycle. Accessed 12 Dec. 2022. []
  4. Duggal, Harpreet S. “Self-Management of Depression: Beyond the Medical Model.” The Permanente Journal, vol. 23, May 2019, pp. 18–295. PubMed Central, https://doi.org/10.7812/TPP/18-295. []
  5. Syvälahti, E. K. “Biological Aspects of Depression.” Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica. Supplementum, vol. 377, 1994, pp. 11–15. PubMed, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1600-0447.1994.tb05795.x. []
  6. “Depression.” National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/depression. Accessed 12 Dec. 2022. [] []
  7. Depression: How Effective Are Antidepressants? Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG), 2020. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK361016/. []
  8. “What Causes Depression?” Harvard Health, 9 June 2009, https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/what-causes-depression.
  9. VA.Gov | Veterans Affairs. https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/related/depression_trauma.asp. Accessed 12 Dec. 2022. []

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