Depression vs Sadness — How to Know When You Need Help

The difference is often more subtle than you might think
Medically Reviewed by
Dr Hamilton
A man in glasses looks down, puzzling over the difference between sadness and depression
Source: Shutterstock

Sadness touches all of us — nobody is immune. But how do you know when it’s depression, a diagnosable mood disorder, vs. sadness? When is sadness more than ‘normal,’ reaching a level that requires intervention?

This is a tough question, of course, because everyone is different. We all have different experiences with sad feelings and different states of ‘normal’ mental health when we’re not sad. The range of human emotion is broad and diverse. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is the standard by which psychology professionals diagnose patients, and it lists nine criteria for a diagnosis of depression. These are:

  • Feeling depressed all day, all or most days
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in your usual activities
  • Eating too much or too little, causing weight changes
  • Intense fatigue
  • Antsiness, agitation, or irritability
  • Irrational or over-the-top feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Trouble concentrating or making decisions
  • Thoughts or plans of suicide, or dwelling on thoughts of death

No one symptom defines depression — it’s up to the provider to decide whether a patient meets enough of the criteria to merit a diagnosis. 

If your sadness lasts too long, it may be time to get help

A woman looks off to the side, wondering if her sadness is actually depression
Source: Shutterstock

Some common signs of depression

The problem with the DSM’s diagnostic criteria is that so many of those symptoms are totally normal and all-too-common in today’s world. Of course, suicidal thoughts are a glaring sign of a larger problem, but how many of us have trouble concentrating or feel exhausted just as a result of totally normal stressors?

And then there’s that first one: feeling depressed. So the definition of clinical depression includes feeling depressed? That’s not super helpful.

If you’re not sure what that really means, depressed, you’re not alone. And the thing is: it can mean different things for different people. But for the sake of giving you concrete information that might actually be useful, here are some of the more common ways depression might show up for you:

  • Your normal level of sadness goes on for longer than normal or doesn’t pass when the external cause (such as a relationship issue or professional disappointment) is resolved
  • You feel deeply hopeless, unable to imagine a time when you’ll feel better
  • Your body and mind are more sluggish than normal, for longer than a few days — and rest doesn’t seem to help
  • You’re unable to see your accomplishments or positive traits — all you can see are the negative elements of your personality, and you feel utterly worthless for days on end
  • You no longer experience bright spots in dark days, and people or activities that once brought you joy no longer do so 
  • Your sadness is beginning to affect your daily life, making work or social occasions more difficult to attend or manage 

Of course, there are also various types of depression, including postpartum depression (which occurs after giving birth), major depressive disorder, episodic or periodic depression, and situational depression, all of which carry slightly different diagnostic symptoms. Depression affects people of all ages, in all stages of life, and the different circumstances of each person’s life may shift the diagnosis and treatment plan.

Overall, though, the main difference between depression and sadness is the extent, either in terms of depth of feeling or of time spent mired in the emotion. If your sadness feels deeper, and harder to pull yourself out of, than usual that can be an indication of depression. Likewise, continuous sadness that lasts more than two weeks — even if it’s linked to an external trigger for depression, like the loss of someone close to you — is worth seeking help to overcome.

While feeling sad is a natural part of life, and the darkness does serve to brighten the light, extended periods of sadness or depression can make life much harder. Plus, the longer you go without getting help, the longer it often takes to regain your joy. 

The bottom line is that you deserve to feel better, and you can feel better, whether you’re experiencing depression or sadness. At Youper, we’re dedicated to helping people improve their moods — and therefore their lives — through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT has been proven to be the most effective therapy for anxiety and depression, and our care model extends the power of CBT into our patients’ daily lives through a unique combination of weekly provider sessions and on-demand, 24/7 support from our therapy chat.

We believe you can feel better, and we want to help you get there.

Get started finding your happier self today, with Youper.

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