Depression or Sadness: How to Know the Difference

Every so often, when speaking about my depression, a well-intentioned friend or family member reminds me that “it’s okay; 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. What I should do is explain that not everyone does “get depressed” because depression is a disease, and not everyone knows what that 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 believe* to be the biggest differences between sadness and 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 (i.e. death, divorce, job loss, medical diagnosis, etc.). 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 an external factor, like those named above, these events do not cause depression. Depression is not, as many imply, a feeling which everyone has experience because feeling depressed is not the same as being depressed. I know it may sound like semantics but moods can be shifted and lifted, 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: I hate to use the word normal — since who defines what is or is not normal — but sadness is a normal emotion. It is a feeling we have in response disappointment or in response to hearing generally unpleasant, and sometimes tragic, news, like the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, or in the face financial hardship. Sadness can be felt when your friends cancel plans or when your boyfriend/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 (i.e. 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. While these symptoms are common 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, symptom like numbness, emptiness, and lethargy.

Other important points: Everyone experiences sadness and grief. It is something which makes us human, and 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 — 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 a struggling with depression. (Even with the right tools it 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 their head — a feeling they could, and should, be able to shake.

So please, help me #stopthestigma by learning to empathize instead of compartmentalize and by sharing this important message.

*Please note that I am not a medical professional. This explanation is meant solely to share my own experiences and should not be used to self-diagnose.


7 thoughts on “Depression or Sadness: How to Know the Difference

  • July 13, 2015 at 9:49 am

    I was thinking along these lines sometime last week. Most people are not aware you just can’t ‘snap out of depression’ at the click of a button, it is not instant, even with medical help!! It takes time, and lots of support.

    Thank you for putting this out there Kim 🙂

    • July 13, 2015 at 2:03 pm

      Thanks PPD Island!

  • July 13, 2015 at 10:47 am

    Such a great post, Kimberly! I’d never thought about how saying “we all get depressed” takes from the seriousness of the disease. Such an imortant message to put out there.

    • July 13, 2015 at 2:03 pm

      Thanks Tara. My intention isn’t to make others feel terrible, especially with well-intentioned remarks like that, it is simply to bring to light what a difference wording can really make.

  • July 20, 2015 at 9:23 am

    Thank you for explaining that there is a difference. I agree depression is very different, but a lot of people use the word depression as a catchall.

  • January 16, 2016 at 5:23 pm

    Spot on, as usual.
    I often think that you are writing from inside my head. Thank you for your blog and your energy in writing it. X

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