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
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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. 

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

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. Therapists created Youper to make mental healthcare accessible to everyone. Youper is a mental health chatbot that guides you through interactive CBT Therapy exercises to help you calm anxiety, improve your relationships, be more productive, and improve your mood. Youper is available on your own time and schedule wherever and whenever needed.

Get started feeling better today, with Youper.

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