Depression vs. Sadness: What’s the Difference?

Depression vs. Sadness - 900px

Everyone has feelings of sadness from time to time. It’s a normal reaction to occurrences in life and can even be helpful in guiding our decision making. Sadness can help us process, but it is a passing emotion.

This is where depression differs, clinical depression is a serious illness, but it’s more common than you think. However, it can be hard to know if you’re “just” sad or if you’re suffering from a more serious depressive episode.

Let’s take a look at depression vs. sadness, the symptoms, and what you can do if you think you might suffer from clinical depression.

What Is Clinical Depression?

The word “depressed” is often colloquially used without thought to what it actually means or how it can devalue the clinical definition.

You might hear someone say “I’m so depressed!” after a breakup or a series of difficult life events. But without understanding the definition of depression, using the term “depression” to describe sadness undermines the severity of the condition.

Depression can range from a temporary episode of deep sadness lasting days or weeks to something more intense and severe. Clinical depression is far more than a feeling of deep sadness or mild depression. You might hear it called “major depressive disorder” or “major depression.”

Symptoms of Clinical Depression

It is a diagnosed illness based on criteria for major depressive disorder. These symptoms can include:

  • Regular feelings of guilt and/or worthlessness
  • Consistent loss of energy and fatigue or loss of energy
  • Not sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Lack of concentration
  • Significant and rapid weight gain or loss
  • Inability to make simple decisions
  • Lack of interest in people or activities you typically enjoy
  • Repeated thoughts of suicide and death
  • Feeling physical pain without explanation
  • General feelings of restlessness
  • Angry outbursts over insignificant things

Most people feel a few of these symptoms from time to time. But when determining if it’s sadness vs. depression, consider the severity of the symptoms over time. If you feel some or most of these symptoms consistently over a long period of time, you might suffer from depression.

In the severest form of clinical depression, you or someone you know will experience noticeable problems in relationships and day-to-day activities. Work, school, friendships, social activities, and other aspects of daily life will suffer.

Depression sufferers lose jobs, leave people who love and care about them, and retreat from social interactions.

Clinical Depression vs. Sadness

Now that we know some of the symptoms, how do we determine if someone suffers from clinical depression vs. sadness?

It’s important to observe behavior and take notice of one or more symptoms. If someone’s having a bad day, you’ll see them bounce back to their “normal” self on their own or after spending a little time with them.

With clinical depression, the bigger concern is the severity of the issues and an inability to bounce back without help.

When looking for signs of depression vs. sadness, here are some things to watch for and consider for yourself and others.

1. Length of Time

Length of Time - Signs of DepressionConsider this as another depressed definition: a person experiencing five or more of the symptoms above for a period of at least two weeks.

If you’re feeling deep sadness, not eating, feeling worthless, not showing up to work, and not sleeping for several weeks or month, consider that you might suffer from depression.

Was there a trigger2. Was There a Trigger?

One crucial distinction between sadness vs. depression is a triggering event.

Someone experiencing sadness was likely triggered by something: a breakup, some bad news, a job situation, or anything that can cause hurt. However, sadness is temporary. When the event has passed, or the person has worked through the event, a sad person will move on and feel better.

With a depressive episode or ongoing depression, there is a lack of a trigger.

You wake up one day feeling deeply sad, and you can’t explain why. Your behavior changes from your “normal” self to someone experiencing signs of depression without a major life event to set it off.

Loss of Interest - Signs of Depression3. Loss of Interaction and Interest

One of the most significant indicators of depression is losing interest in things you love. This includes retreating from important people in your life for extended periods of time.

This condition, known as anhedonia includes symptoms like:

  • Dodging calls or interaction with close friends
  • Withdrawing from social activities
  • Having fewer emotional expressions (verbal and nonverbal)
  • Negative feelings about yourself and others
  • Showing fake or “expected” emotions
  • Lack of interest in physical intimacy
  • Frequent sickness or physical problems

If you notice someone you love experiencing these symptoms, make an effort to reach out. They could be suffering from more than a lack of interest in people and life activities.

Signs of Depression - Negative Thinking4. Negative Thinking

There’s the occasional joking around and self-deprecating humor. Everyone does this from time to time. Sometimes laughing at ourselves is a good form of therapy.

But if it’s a consistent part of most conversations and seems more serious than lighthearted, it could be a symptom of clinical depression.

You might hear things like:

  • “I don’t deserve that.”
  • “I shouldn’t be here.”
  • “I don’t want to be here anymore.”
  • “I’m such an idiot.”
  • “I’m so stupid.”
  • “I can’t get anything right.”

Or you might hear more severe things like:

  • “I just want to sleep forever.”
  • “I wish I were dead.”
  • “It should have been me.”
  • “It doesn’t matter if I’m here.”
  • “Nobody cares.”

These are critical thoughts that can lead to harm. Seek help if you experience these kinds of thoughts.

And listen for things like this from those around you. If you hear these statements consistently from someone, it could be a sign of deep depression.

Signs of Depression - Self-harm5. Thoughts of Self-Harm

If you think or hear any of the critical thoughts noted above, thoughts of self-harm could be in the mix too.

Thinking about harming yourself can lead to actually doing something harmful.

Whether it’s a self-calming activity like cutting or something more serious like thinking of suicide, these thoughts need immediate attention.

In the depths of an episode of clinical depression, it often feels like there’s no way out but to do something extreme.

Don’t give yourself or a friend time to follow-through on thoughts of self-harm. Find help right away.

Alcohol Abuse - Signs of Depression6. Alcohol or Drug Abuse

When suffering from depression, sometimes all you want to do is change your mood. It’s common for depressed individuals to turn to drugs or alcohol to “feel better” or numb the pain they feel.

Take notice if a friend or loved one starts behavior that seems out of character with drinking binges or using drugs.

There is a link between depression and drug addiction. They are signs and symptoms of each other.

Because they are often intertwined, it’s important to treat both the depression and the addiction to heal and continue with a healthier life.

What Contributes to Depression?

We’ve taken a look at the symptoms of depression. But how does it happen? Who is at risk?

Who Does Depression Target?

While it impacts a small percentage of the population, depression is more common than you might think. In 2016, almost 16.2 million adults in the U.S. reported at least one episode of major depressive. That number doesn’t include teens or children.

The most reported age group for depression is adults ages 18-25. These are young adults debilitated by a serious illness at a time when they are trying to figure out who they are and life itself.

It’s important to provide help for depression sufferers at any stage of life. But we see it more commonly in the younger population with so much life left to live and enjoy. People with a history of depression in the family are also at high risk to suffer from major depression.

Certain segments of the population also seem more prone to depression than others. Reports of depression are higher with women than with men. But it’s important for other demographics to recognize what they are feeling and get help if needed.

How Does it Happen?

Depression can begin in several ways. Sometimes it’s a sudden life event or major trigger that causes clinical depression to surface.

Remember, with triggers and general sadness, a person will move on with traditional coping mechanisms. A good cry, a few days in bed, a good friend, and some ice cream helps you deal with a difficult time.

When an event triggers clinical depression, the person seems never to recover. Maybe it’s the loss of a loved one that causes you to spiral downward into drugs or alcohol abuse, losing sleep, and feeling worthless for weeks and months.

If it’s not a triggering event, depression feels like it’s always been there or happens gradually over time. Maybe you used to be happier, but now you or your friends notice you seem like a sad person all the time.

Even though clinical depression is a disease, there’s no one way to “get” depression. You might not be able to avoid it at all. But there is hope. When you’ve been accurately diagnosed with major depressive disorder, treatments are available from caring professionals who want to help make your life better.

How Is It Treated?

Treatments for depression vary based on the individual. There is no “one treatment fits all” for this very personal disease.

However, we must understand that depression is a disease. It’s not something you just “get over” after a good cry.

For some, depression is a nuisance that holds them back in many areas of life. For others with the most severe clinical depression, it’s a debilitating problem that needs extreme treatment.


First, seek help from a doctor who can diagnose what you are experiencing.

Unfortunately, there is no blood test or x-ray that clearly indicates a diagnosis of depression. Because depression is a combination of symptoms over time, it is difficult to diagnose. But don’t let difficult symptoms or finding a diagnosis discourage you from getting help.

Talking to a psychiatrist or counselor is a great first step. Find trained professionals who listen, observe, and evaluate specific criteria to determine a diagnosis and plan for treatment.

Treatment Options

Once you’ve had a diagnosis, including the level of severity for your depression, work with your doctor on a treatment plan.

With mild cases of depression, sometimes therapy and a mild anti-depressant prescribed by your doctor are all it takes to improve your condition significantly. But if you receive a diagnosis of severe clinical depression, be open to more intense treatments as recommended by your doctor.

These treatments often include:

  • Medication
  • In-patient therapy at a caring facility equipped for your needs
  • Out-patient therapy, including talk therapy
  • Neuro-Rehabilitative Services

If your depression is in combination with a drug or alcohol addiction, you might benefit best from a residential treatment program.

This type of treatment is ideal for dealing with both depression and addiction. We remove you from life stressors and situations to help reset your brain, emotions, and coping mechanisms in a safe, healthy environment.

There’s No Shame When Experiencing Depression vs. Sadness

Severe depression is hard to share, even with trusted friends. Not knowing if it’s depression vs. sadness is scary. There’s a fear that it’s unacceptable to feel what you feel and deal with it the way you do.

While it’s better to deal with depression in healthy ways, it’s important to understand that unhealthy behaviors are a cry for help. Take these behaviors and symptoms seriously. Find treatment in a safe place with professionals.

Don’t stay quiet. Whether you recognize the symptoms in yourself or someone else, it is okay.

FHE Health is a safe facility dedicated to improving the lives of those who suffer from depression, mental illness, and addiction. We are one of the safest calls you can make to get help for yourself or a loved one.

Contact us right away for help, or for more information. We are available 24/7 and ready to listen and help.

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