Differences Between Sadness and Clinical Depression

Sad woman sitting on bed
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We all feel sad sometimes, but that doesn't necessarily mean that we're actually experiencing clinical depression. In fact, sadness is a normal emotion that can make life more interesting, and it's a part of life. Much art and poetry are inspired by sadness and melancholy, for example, and sadness almost always accompanies the loss of a loved one.

Sadness also helps us appreciate happiness. When our mood eventually changes from sadness towards happiness, the sense of contrast adds to the enjoyment of the mood.

However, a shift in the opposite direction is also possible—sadness can turn into depression. Being able to tell the difference between normal sadness and depression might encourage you to take action and seek resources for an improved mood.

How to Tell When Sadness Turns Into Depression

Be aware of the signs of sadness turning into depression and get help if you notice these symptoms significantly impacting your life for two weeks or longer. Symptoms include:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or "empty" mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness and/or pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and/or helplessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities that were once enjoyed, including sex
  • Decreased energy, fatigue, and/or being "slowed down"
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, and/or making decisions
  • Insomnia, early-morning awakening, and/or oversleeping
  • Loss of appetite and/or weight loss, or overeating and/or weight gain
  • Thoughts of death or suicide and/or suicide attempts
  • Restlessness and/or irritability
  • Persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment, such as headaches, digestive disorders, and chronic pain

If you experience these, you may feel inclined to just "tough it out" and wait until it passes. However, the earlier you recognize these signs, the sooner you can seek help and change your situation.

How to Cope With Normal Sadness

Here are some ways to experience normal sadness in a healthy way and to allow this emotion to enrich your life:

  • Allow yourself to be sad. Denying such feelings may force them underground, where they can do more damage with time. Cry if you feel like it. Notice if you feel relief after the tears stop.
  • If you are feeling sad, plan a day to wallow. Plan a day or evening just to be alone, listen to melancholy music, and observe your thoughts and feelings. Planning time to be unhappy can actually feel good and can help you ultimately move into a more happy mood.
  • Think and/or write about the context of the sad feelings. Are you sad because of a loss or an unhappy event? It's usually not as simple as discovering the cause of the sadness, but understanding why you're sad and exploring those feelings can help you feel better.
  • Take a walk. Sometimes some fresh air and a little quiet time can change your perspective.
  • Call a close friend or family member. Sometimes venting your feelings can help you process them.
  • Be kind to yourself. This may include a hot bubble bath, indulging in a nap, or splurging for some really good chocolate.
  • Let yourself laugh. Fire up a favorite comedy and binge watch it for a while, or find a funny YouTube video.
  • Consider starting a gratitude journal. Focusing on the positive, even if you can only think of one thing to be grateful for per day, helps you to shift away from the negative, sad feelings.
  • Remember that sadness can result from a change that you didn't expect, or it can signal the need for a change in your life. Change is usually stressful, but it is necessary for growth. If you're sad because you need to change something, think about the steps you can change to make your life more joyful.

A Word From Verywell

Know that you are not alone if you are experiencing some (or multiple) of the symptoms above.

If you've been experiencing them for longer than a few weeks, consider reaching out to your doctor to determine the cause and what you can do about it. Sometimes depression is not because of what is going on around you. It could be a medical condition, like hypothyroidism, for example, that can be causing symptoms of depression.

Once your doctor rules out any potential medical causes, he or she will be able to provide other options for your depression or refer you to a psychiatrist or therapist who can help you. Depression is usually treated using medications called antidepressants or through talk therapy. Usually, the best treatment plans include both.

Some popular medication choices for depression include:

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Paxil (paroxetine), Prozac (fluoxetine), and Zoloft (sertraline)
  • Serotonin and norepinephrine reputake inhibitors (SNRIs) like Cymbalta (duloxetine), Effexor (venlafaxine), and Pristiq (desvenlafaxine).

Your doctor will discuss with you which is best.

Cognitive therapy is a popular type of psychotherapy for depression. It teaches people to take their negative patterns of thinking and replace them with more positive ones. This is helpful because our thoughts and what we say to ourselves actually determines our mood and motivation. If we frequently say negative things we're creating a mental environment relevant to depression. Positive thinking, on the other hand, triggers positive emotions. And while controlling all aspects of depression isn't possible, this is one aspect we do have some power over.

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