Everyone feels sad to varying degrees throughout the week, and even throughout the day. This is the normal waxing and waning of human emotion as life — and all its ups and downs — goes on. But if you've been feeling down in the dumps, how can you know if your sadness is normal, or if it's something else?
Well, this is a time when comparing regular ol' sadness to depression can come in handy. "Sadness is a feeling and depression is an illness," counselor Julienne B. Derichs, LCPC, tells Bustle. True depression really impacts your life, your energy levels, and your ability to function. And, it tends to stick around. "If someone is experiencing these symptoms nearly every day for over two weeks, they are strongly encouraged to seek out counseling and treatment for depression."
Normal sadness, on the other hand, will come about as a reaction to something upsetting, it'll stick around for a few hours or a day, and then it'll go away. A normal bout of sadness can happen after a hard day, or a breakup, or when something truly tragic happens. But depression? Well, that's a whole different story. Read on for a few signs your sadness is totally normal, as well as signs it might actually be depression.
1. Something External Triggered Your Sadness
When life throws you a curveball — like a bad breakup, or even just an awful day at work — you'll likely feel horrible as a result. And that's OK. "It's normal to experience sadness when you're dealing with a situation that has caused you some disappointment," psychotherapist and mental health expert Marline Francois, LCSW tells Bustle. These external forces have messed with your life, and now you feel crappy. Totally normal.
Depression, on the other hand, can come about on its own, seemingly without any external cause. That's why, in many instances, if you can pinpoint why you're feeling blue, it's likely a normal reaction to an upsetting situation — not depression.
2. You're Handling It Well
If you're sad in a normal and healthy way, you'll be able to see it for what it is, and maintain a healthy perspective. But if it's depression, your emotions will likely go off the proverbial deep end. "Sadness may cause a shift in your mood, but depression will cause some psychological distress," says Francois. "Sadness is just one symptom of depression, but depression will impact your emotional well-being."
3. You're Still Able To Function Normally
Again, if it's just sadness (and not full-blown depression) you'll still be able to function normally. "Sadness does not get in the way of taking care of the tasks and duties of life," Derichs says. "Depression gets in the way of normal day-to-day activities and commonly brings with it changes in sleep, appetite, energy level, and mood."
4. You Still Want To Go Out With Friends
When normal sadness strikes, you'll likely still want to see friends and family, despite feeling a bit down in the dumps, because you know seeing them will cheer you up. But if it's depression? Forget about it. As Derichs tells me, depression often causes people to isolate themselves.
5. The Feeling Was Trigged By An Anniversary
The anniversary of a sad or traumatic event can bum you out — sometimes pretty intensely — on the day. And that's perfectly normal. "This could be birthdays, or holidays, or times of the year when we are consciously and unconsciously reminded of an event in our past that we feel sad about," Derichs says. "Sadness is usually short lived... a few moments to a few days... but then are able to let the feelings pass and move on."
6. Your Sadness Goes Away On Its Own
While it's good to have healthy coping mechanisms for a bad day — like meeting up with friends, calling your mom, or going to the gym — Derichs tells me sadness can go away on its own, even if you don't do anything about it. Depression, on the other hand, won't.
7. You're Able To Think About Other Things
Since it's normal to feel sad occasionally, go ahead and feel those feelings. Take note, though, if you aren't able to think about anything else. "We need to start to ask ourselves if normal sadness is becoming depression ... [when] it starts to interfere and impair our lives," psychologist Dr. Nikki Martinez tells Bustle. "Are we distracted by, and consumed by thoughts of sadness and people and events that are making us feel that way? Are we isolating? Is this impacting our work, or are we missing work due to our emotions?" If the answer is yes, it may be worth seeing a therapist.
8. You're Still Taking Care Of Yourself
Sometimes, you just gotta crawl into bed, forgo a shower, and cry while eating an unhealthy (but totally delicious) comfort-food-laden dinner. If you're sadness is normal, this'll do the trick, and you'll likely feel a bit better the following day. But if you're dealing with depression, this unhealthy cycle will only get worse.
As clinical psychologist Dr. Joshua Klapow says, "Feelings of lack of interest or pleasure in anything, feelings of fatigue and general slowing in our actions (psychomotor retardation), sleep problems, concentration problems, changes in our appetite, feelings of hopelessness, and thoughts of life not being worth living. This is depression."
9. Your Mood Is Generally Pretty Neutral
If your mood is generally neutral — you're hardly ever over-the-top happy or ridiculously sad — that's a good a thing. "Much like a pendulum, you should expect these moods to flow back-and-forth and mostly hover around that middle point close to neutral or 'normal,'" Dr. Michele Barton, director of clinical health at Psychology Life Well, tells Bustle. "If your pendulum spends too much time on either side, it's a good idea to take a closer look because that is not healthy and usually a sign of a larger issue."
10. Your Sadness Makes Sense
It's possible to retain a healthy dose of perspective when you're sad, but not so much when you're depressed. So take note if you find yourself "overreacting" to things. "Typically, a healthy response of sadness should be proportionate to the event," says counselor Autumn Collier, LCSW. "So lying in bed all day and crying is an extreme response to a failed geometry test, but could be viewed as a normal response to learning an immediate family member has passed." If you're lying in bed crying hysterically over a geometry test, it may be time to seek help.
11. No One Can Really Tell
Some people hide their feelings well, so this tip doesn't apply to everyone. But if your sadness has gone beyond normal, friends and family will likely be able to tell. As Collier tells me, they might notice you falling behind in work or at school, losing weight, or staying home when you used to go out. And that's not a great sign.
If your sadness seems to be normal, then it's perfectly OK to ride out the feeling until it goes away on its own. But if that doesn't happen within a day or two, don't be afraid to reach out for help. As Barton says, "The more quickly you seek intervention the less damage [your sadness] will have on your psyche, and you can recover to normal functioning much more quickly."
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