People sometimes believe that the difference between sadness and depression is one of degree — as if people who are just feeling sad measure a one on the "feelings that are hard to deal with" scale, while depressed people hover around somewhere between a seven and a 10. But the reality is much more complex; the differences between sadness and depression aren't so much a matter of "seriousness" of feeling as they are a combination of issues relating to duration, symptoms and bodily impact. Sadness is part of the normal spectrum of human emotion, and it's important to feel free to experience it at appropriate times (like when David Bowie died, for instance, or when you get dumped). Depression is a different beast entirely: it is a mental illness that doesn't follow any "normal" emotional rules.
One of the most important distinctions between sadness and full-blown depression is the broadness of its effects on the body and mind. For a full diagnostic description of the characteristics of depression, we should check out its definition in the DSM-IV, the text used as the basis for diagnosis of conditions around the world. Among medical professionals, depression is called Major Depressive Disorder, and it comes with a combination of nine different symptoms, ranging from weight loss to fatigue. To qualify, you must have experienced as least five of them, and must experience them every day for a sustained period of time. We'll get into the nitty-gritty in this list, but one thing to take away from this is that depression is a far more of an overarching experience than sadness.
So if you're wondering if you're depressed or just a bit bummed, here are six questions to ask yourself.
1. Can You Still Enjoy Things You Like?
Sadness: Being seriously bummed can be terrible, but even if you're sad, you're still able to enjoy things like pie, Gilmore Girls marathons or other stuff you loved in the period before your sadness hit. It may take a bit of persuasion, but you do get into it in the end.
Depression: One of the most important aspects of depression is the experience of anhedonia, or a lack of interest or enjoyment in things and activities you once got a lot of pleasure from. If you absolutely loved kickball/writing/graffitiing haunted buildings at night, and now you can't seem to get through the fog of sadness to feel excited about them again (in fact, they likely seem pointless), you're probably experiencing depression.
2. Are Your Emotions About A Specific Event Or Thing?
Sadness: This is an interesting one, because there's not a distinct line — you may just feel sad for reasons you can't put your finger on. However, often sadness is specific in its cause: the death of a relative, an upheaval or change, homesickness, a friend's illness, you name it.
Depression: Let's be clear here: depressive episodes can still be triggered by specific events. (Scientific American did an entire report in 2013 on studies examining what precisely these triggers are, and how they work in the depressive brain.) But the depressed person is uniquely primed to react badly to a negative event, and after it occurs, they often experience a deeper, more general feeling of depression and misery that lasts beyond "normal" boundaries. Plus, depression can turn up for no apparent reason at all.
3. Are You Maintaining Normal Eating And Sleeping Routines?
Sadness: You may be badly upset after a break-up or when experiencing the blues in general, but on the whole, you're still able to maintain your desire to eat breakfast, work out if you want, or get to sleep roughly as planned.
Depression: This is one of the DSM-IV definitions. Depression is often associated with serious disruption of normal eating patterns, sleeping patterns, or both. You may become an insomniac, or sleep all day and not want to get out of bed. Eating disruptions are often a manifestation of the "everything is pointless" thinking of depression; what's the point of making a healthy dinner, or indeed eating at all?
4. Do You Experience Variations In Your Low Mood?
Sadness: The blues are not a life sentence (even though many classic jazz songs may tell us otherwise). And there's room in them for alleviation; you have periods where you don't feel sad at all, like while you're doing something distracting, for instance.
Depression: In moderate depression, low mood is fairly consistent throughout the day, though you may get bright spots sometimes. In severe depression, the depressive episode is constant, daily and seemingly unrelenting.
5. Do You Experience Self-Punishing Or Extremely Self-Critical Thoughts?
Sadness: While you might feel responsible and a bit sucky for something bad you did, you often don't experience any permanent sense of worthlessness or guilt.
Depression: Depression has its own special host of accompanying thought patterns, some of which are particularly strange. One of its most distinctive features is that your thoughts often become incredibly self-punishing; it's difficult to see yourself as anything except rotten, bad, worthless and to blame for everything. Seeking help for depression is always important, but it is especially pressing if you're dealing with this symptom.
6. Have You Had Self-Harming Thoughts?
Sadness: Suicidal ideation is not typically associated with normal levels of non-depressive sadness.
Depression: Severe depressives may sometimes take the self-punishing thoughts mentioned in the previous item to higher levels — as described in the DSM, those struggling with severe depression may have "[t]houghts of death or suicide, or [have a] suicide plan."If you have experienced any suicidal or self-harming thoughts, seek help from a helpline, a friend or family member you trust, or a mental health professional immediately. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline any time at 1-800-273-8255 (1-800-273-TALK); you can find phone and chat support at the American Society for Suicide Prevention website; and you can find resources to help keep yourself safe right now at websites like The HopeLine. You shouldn't feel like you have to deal with any of these symptoms alone, but if you're struggling with thoughts of hurting yourself, know that there are many people who will listen to your feelings without judgment and just want to help you.
As the Help Guide Suicide Help page says: "Remember that while it may seem as if these suicidal thoughts and feelings will never end, this is never a permanent condition. You WILL feel better again."
Professional help is a great first step for dealing with depression — but know that you don't need to fit the professional criteria for depression in order to see a therapist, or even just talk to someone about how you're feeling; there's no need to suffer through your sadness on your own just because you don't feel that you're clinically depressed. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America has a list of online resources for depression that anyone can use, and know that mental health professionals won't turn you away just because you don't have specific symptoms.
If you are feeling suicidal or just need to talk to someone, call the free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
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