The Difference Between Being Sad & Depressed

As someone who has a lifelong period of depression, I think the above question is one that I ponder on a somewhat regular basis – certainly more often than I wish I did. It’s sad, but it’s necessary, and it’s something I have to consider.

If you’ve stumbled across this blog entry, you may be asking yourself the same question. What, exactly, is the difference between being sad and actually being depressed?

First, the standard disclaimer: I’m not a doctor, therapist or anyone with any real training. Just a guy with a lifetime of experience at dealing with these issues and their related public policy implications.

That being said, this is an important question. It can determine a lot of next steps: Do I need to see a therapist? How seriously should I be taking my mood? Do I need to adjust my medication?

Some broad thoughts:

Length of time

Of all the factors below, I think I’d argue that this is the key difference. Depression – when it’s clinical – is something that lasts for more than just a few minutes or days. It lasts for weeks and it is relatively relenting. Indeed, some of the things listed below really aren’t the biggest problem if they are brief or intermittent. But, if the symptoms last for two weeks or more, you start to cross the threshold into something being clinically wrong.

The reason behind your mood

The reason behind your mood is a key issue. If there’s a clearcut reason (stress at work, sick family member, that sort of thing), of course, you are going to be down. Indeed, the DSM-V diagnosis for depression has a specific exception for bereavement. However, if the depression or mood feels disproportionate to the situation, or you can’t quite pinpoint what’s making you so sad, there may be something deeper going on.

Functionality

Everyone gets sad. But how the sadness affects your ability to function, and over an extended period of time, is the real key here. If you are sad, can you function? Can you still go to work? Are you too impaired or altered to be able to do your regular responsibilities?

Physical symptoms

Generally speaking, sadness doesn’t come with physical symptoms. Depression, however, often does. You lose appetite. You get an upset stomach or a major headache. You get sick. If this is something that’s happening to you, and you feel the sickness with a degree of intensity, well, there may be something more serious going on.

As you can probably see from the nuance I use above…there’s no easy answer here. I wish there was. But that’s the bitch about mood disorders. There’s no blood test. There’s no magic diagnosis. Yes, there are screenings, and therapists who can help you find your way (thank God), but there is often more nuance in this question than is preferable.

As always, I welcome and appreciate your comments. Anything to add? Where’d I go wrong? Let us know in the comments below.

 

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