The Difference Between Depression & Disappointment

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Emotions are a tricky thing to quantify: When you say you're feeling "depressed," for example, some people think that means you're having a sad day, while others worry you're experiencing a chronic mental illness. Because the words we use to describe our emotions vary so greatly in meaning from one person to the next, it can become difficult to evaluate our own experiences. For example, have you ever wondered if you're experiencing depression or disappointment? While disappointments certainly feel gut-wrenching, psychologists agree that there are some definite differences between experiencing disappointment and depression.

You might be wondering: why does the difference between disappoint and depression matter? In terms of treatment and approach, it's important to know from a medical standpoint what you're experiencing and where the root is. For example, if you have a chemical imbalance that's heavily contributing to your depression, that calls for a much different approach than if you're reeling from a big let-down because you got passed over for a promotion at work. Of course, this is not to say that one experience is "worse" or more "valid" than another. However, better understanding and identifying your emotions allows you to get at the heart of the problem and select the most effective treatment option. Here are four ways to distinguish disappointment and depression:

1. Disappointment Hinges On The Intangibles

You know that feeling when you're really into your crush and you've built up an entire imaginary future with them? Or when you submit an application for a job you really, really want and then plan a new apartment based around that awesome salary you're sure you'll rake in? While sometimes dreams like these pan out, they often end in disappointment, especially when stakes are high or the competitive is fierce. In this situations, it's normal to feel a great deal of sadness and frustration when things don't work out.

However, as Margaret Wehrenberg points out at Psychology Today, this experience is one of disappointment, not depression. Disappointment exists in the area of your brain and heart that is in love with the abstract, intangible aspects of life: How things could work out with a potential partner, or how much your life could change with a new job. Though it's disappointing when these things don't work out, they're based in hope, not reality, and their loss isn't a subtraction from your day to day reality.

2. Depression Connects To Grief Or Loss

In contrast, depression rears its ugly head when you lose something or someone close to you or otherwise significant in your life. When a loved one dies, or a serious relationship ends, it's normal for people to experience depression: A loss of motivation, lack of self-esteem, and apathy towards life are common symptoms for people who are suffering from a deep loss. Unlike disappointments, the loss experienced associated with depression generally deals with a loss that's causing an active change in your life: For instance, a missing loved one or partner, or a traumatic event that you're having difficulty processing.The key here is that your loss isn't that of an idea or a dream, but of an actual person (or thing, such as a job or home) which existed in your life.

3. Depression Tends to Bypass Disappointment

If you're reading this and realizing you can't remember the last time you felt disappointed, but often experience depression, you're not alone: Michael Vincent Miller at CNN argues that many people bypass disappointment all together and jump right into depression. This boils down to the idea that with depression, people's minds can go into "one track" mode, thinking that there is no relief in sight, that no effort is worth it because the inevitable despair is coming, and so on. Unlike people who experience disappointment and are more likely to try to solve problems or come up with alternate routes to getting what they want, when depression hits, people tend to shut down and become fatalistic in their thinking.

4. Depression Discourages You From Participation

This is a big one: Experts believe that a key difference between determining whether you're depressed or disappointed is whether or not your participation dwindles. For example, if you're someone who is experiencing a great deal of disappointment, you're more likely to stay stagnant in the "middle of the story" and speculate on what went wrong, what they wish they had done differently, what outcome they still desire, and more. These people often hang onto the idea of "what might have been" (perhaps for too long) but ultimately still have hope and are focused on taking action and keeping their agency. For people who are experiencing depression, the more common response is to wallow in the end result: things didn't work out (or won't), so there is no point in trying.

It can be hard to determine for yourself what's happening in your head, so I think it's always good to get your feelings out into the world: Write in a journal, call a friend, or make an appointment with a mental health professional. Remember, you're the one who lives with your head and heart day-in and day-out, so it's important to prioritize your happiness and health, and sometimes that means getting to the root of your sadness and figuring out where to go from there.

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