The difference between being sad and being depressed

Here’s one that came up yesterday when I was just having a conversation yesterday: How can you tell this difference between being sad and having a diagnosable depression problem?

I mean, everyone gets sad at some point, duh.  Life has moments of pain.  But, what is the difference?  Because it is a crucial one – and it can be difficult to tell for people who are in recovery from depression or who have other mental health issues.

Now, in the course of writing this entry, not to my surprise, I discovered that there is a loooooooooot of other content on this topic.

An ABC news article on the subject summarizes it nicely:

Depression causes problems with regard to a person’s functioning. And the symptoms of depression typically last at least two weeks or longer. Sadness is one the of the symptoms of depression, but with depression you have more than just sadness.

You have other symptoms as well, and the diagnosis requires that you have not only sadness for two weeks or longer, but also some of these other associated symptoms that I was talking about earlier such as lost of interest, and inability to sleep at night, trouble with your weight and your appetite, as well as feeling guilty, having trouble concentrating, and having suicidal thoughts.

That’s a pretty succinct summary.


Okay, I’ll bring in my own personal experience here, and note that it isn’t quite as black and white as this.

First, the above symptoms aren’t quite as clearcut as noted above.  Some hypotheticals:

  • I couldn’t sleep for a couple of nights in a row – is it just the coffee, or something more?
  • I haven’t enjoyed my video games for a week or so – do I need a new game, or am I starting to get depressed?
  • My weight has been off – is it the ice cream, or something worse?

More often than not, these symptoms don’t approach with the force of a tidal wave.  They start slow, and then get worse and worse.  In times when I’ve relapsed, I’ve looked back and thought, “Wow, that got bad…and I didn’t notice it before.”  It’s sort of like the frog and boiling water metaphor.  You feel fine one day, then turn around the next week, realize you have been really struggling, and didn’t even realize that you were in a bad place.

Early detection for depression – well, for anything, certainly – is absolutely critical.  Which is why this is an important question to be answered.  Am I sad, or is it something more?  Do I need to make an appointment with my therapist?  Adjust my medication?  What do I need to do right now to stop this from being getting worse?

I’d also say that this question is better answerable from an outside source.  At times where I have skidded into a depressive phase, more often than not, it’s been my wife who has noticed it and given me a gentle prodding or two about seeming off.  Others – family or friends – are often much better at telling when we are suffering than we are ourselves.

Here’s my point: Telling the difference between sadness and depression isn’t always easy.  It isn’t a flow-chart like exercise that lends itself to a simple interpretation.  It’s a complicated question – more complicated than it would appear, certainly – and can be even more complicated to answer.

As always, I welcome your thoughts and advice.  Any experiences with answering this question that you’d like to share?  Let us know in the comments below!

2 thoughts on “The difference between being sad and being depressed

  1. So many great points in this, Mike! You are right when you say it does not come on like a tidal wave. Symptoms which you thought were just exhaustion or stress do build over time. Often we miss the build up and excuse the symptoms of being a by product of something else going on in our lives. Another example is losses and events which we thought we had taken care of, grieved over and worked on resurface and we come to the realization that we have been repressing the feelings…:”stuffing” them away in the deeper parts of ourselves. Only in hindsight we can see the pattern and then when the depression hits big time we recognize what has happened.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’d say depression creeps up on you so that you often don’t notice, but once someone points it out or you come across something on it, you thing ‘oh, this fits exactly.’ Even then you often decide that ‘it’s not bad enough’ to be depression. I draw cartoons about it, take a look if you like, there are some on my blog you might relate to.


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