• David Steuer

Depression vs. Sadness: How to Tell the Difference

Updated: Mar 28, 2019



Millions of people around the world experience depression at one point or another in their lives.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) note that depression is one of the most common mental health illnesses in the United States.

Sadness is an integral part of depression, but it is not the same thing. It is important to know and understand the differences because confusing them can lead to inappropriate treatment.

  1. What is sadness?

  2. What is depression?

  3. Treatment for depression

What is sadness?

Sadness may be linked to a specific trigger.

Sadness is a normal human emotion that everyone experiences at some time. A number of events can leave people feeling sad or unhappy, such as the loss or absence of a loved one, divorce, loss of job or income, financial trouble, issues at home, or social anxiety.


Failing an exam, not getting a job, or other disappointing events can also trigger sadness.

However, a person who is sad can usually find some relief from crying, venting, or talking out frustrations. This is because sadness is more likely to be linked to a specific trigger.

Sadness usually passes with time. If it does not pass, or if the person becomes unable to function normally, this could be a sign of depression. If symptoms worsen or last longer than 2 weeks, the person should talk to their doctor.

What is depression?

Depression is a mental disorder that affects every part of a person's feelings and perception. It affects behaviors and attitudes and can affect people of any gender or age.

In 2015, around 16.1 million people aged 18 years or above in the U.S. had experienced at least one major depressive episode in the last year. This represented 6.7 percent of all American adults.

Symptoms include feelings of discouragement, sadness, hopelessness, a lack of motivation, and a loss of interest in activities that are normally enjoyable. In severe cases, the person may think about or attempt suicide.

The person may no longer feel like spending time with family or friends. They may stop pursuing their hobbies and feel unable to go to work or school.

Daily habits may change unexpectedly and without reason. A person with depression may find it difficult to continue doing the things they normally enjoy.

If these feelings of doubt last more than 2 weeks, a healthcare professional may diagnose the person with major depressive disorder (MDD).

Signs and symptoms of MDD include:

  • Daily depressed mood with noticeable signs of hopelessness, sadness, and loss of interest

  • Daily loss of interest in normal activities for an extended amount of time

  • Significant weight loss or gain without trying - there may be a 5 percent change in body weight

  • Insomnia, sleeplessness, or increased amounts of sleep that affect normal schedules

  • Tiredness and low energy

  • Feelings of worthlessness, excessiveness, or guilt on a daily basis

  • Inability to concentrate or make decisions

  • Recurrent thoughts of death, suicidal thoughts, or suicide attempts or plans

A person who experiences any five of these symptoms for more than 2 weeks is considered to have a more serious problem than sadness.

For a diagnosis of MDD, the doctor should link the symptoms only to depression and not to another medical diagnosis, such as substance abuse or disability.

Unlike sadness, depression can leave a person struggling to express their feelings. If the person tries to release the stress, the overpowering feelings and negative thoughts can prevent them from building themselves up again.


Treatment for depression

Depression may be treated with medication or psychotherapy.

If a person has symptoms of depression for longer than 2 weeks, they should seek professional help. A physician can help to determine the level of help needed by the individual.

Following diagnosis, possible treatments include medication, counseling, and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Medications

Medications include a type of antidepressantknown as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These work by increasing levels of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a chemical messenger that helps to affect mood and social behavior. Examples of SSRIs include citalopram, escitalopram, fluoxetine, and sertraline.

According to the Mayo Clinic, these drugs can ease the symptoms of depression, although they do carry a risk of adverse side effects.

For example, when people first use antidepressants, there is a risk that their symptoms will worsen before getting better. Family members should monitor the patient closely and seek medical attention if they are concerned.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have expressed concern that some SSRIs can cause serious side effects in younger people and birth defects if taken during pregnancy.


As a result of this, the drugs carry a black box warning, which is an important notice on the leaflet outlining the possible dangers of the drugs.

When prescribing such drugs, physicians must carefully balance the pros and cons of use.

Psychotherapy and counseling

Psychotherapy involves talking to a trained professional. This can help to uncover the issues underlying the condition.

It may be used on its own or along with antidepressants. A therapist can help to identify problem areas, teach coping mechanisms, and educate a patient about their condition.

A person with severe depression may be admitted to the hospital if they are in immediate danger or if they are unable to take care of themselves.

Outpatient facilities can help with long-term care.


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This content is strictly the opinion of Dr. David Steuer and is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of medical advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Steuer nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement or lifestyle program.

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