4 Ways To Tell The Difference Between Sadness & Depression

by JR Thorpe
Hannah Burton/Bustle

Temporary sadness happens to all of us, whether in response to events like a break-up, or simply because life isn't happy all the time. However, it's important to know the signals that indicate that a person's pervasive sadness, lack of enjoyment of things they used to enjoy, and inability to get out of bed might be developing into depression. The difference between temporary sadness and depression is subtle, and it's important to know when one has turned into the other. Many depressed people experience misunderstandings about how depression differs from ordinary, temporary low mood, and that can stand in the way of getting treatment quickly and finding the right help. The costs of failing to understand the signals can be high, and it's vital that we learn to spot them.

The boundaries between depression and more ordinary low mood are more flexible and open to interpretation than you might imagine, but it turns out that there are definitive indications that a mood disorder may be the underlying cause. It's important to note that we're not talking about grief here, which is a separate category to both "normal" sadness and depression itself. Bustle asked three experts to weigh in on how to distinguish depression from the sadness that happens to everybody, and the answers are more complicated, and more hopeful, than you might expect.


There Are A Lot Of Similarities

Part of the issue that complicates distinguishing temporary sadness and long-term depression, experts tell Bustle, is that the symptoms are often pretty similar, and that defining the boundaries can be very tricky.

"Mental health workers have debated for a long time over how to distinguish between temporary, situational grief/sadness and clinical depression," counsellor Brennan C. Mallonee tells Bustle. "It was actually an argument that came up in the development of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual). Many people thought that the definition of Major Depressive Disorder was too broad and would pathologize normal sadness and grief." She explains that the current DSM, and all clinicians trained in the U.S., have to take a lot of time to make sure that a depression diagnosis is valid and can't be explained by ordinary low mood.


Time Matters

The most distinct distinguishing factor between temporary feelings of sadness and more serious depressive conditions, experts agree, is time. Counselor Renae Marler tells Bustle, "The main differentiating component is the length of time the client has experienced the symptoms." Anything longer than a fortnight, she says, indicates that a professional needs to be consulted. "Any person experiencing sadness and an irritable mood, accompanied by cognitive (thought) changes that have been significantly impacting the person's ability to function for longer than two weeks should seek professional help," Marler tells Bustle. We can all encounter low moods, but sustaining them for over half a month is concerning.


Depressive Symptoms Tend To Be Extensive & Intensive

The specific kinds of symptoms that point to depression are both extensive and intensive: that is, there's often many of them, and they show up without any relief or respite. And symptoms can be different from media portrayals. "People often know about fatigue and feelings of sadness or more than usual periods of crying because that is how TV depicts depression," counselor Jen Schermerhorn tells Bustle, "but other, lesser known symptoms include: difficulty making decisions, too much sleeping or not enough sleeping, waking up from 11 hours of sleep and still feeling exhausted, feeling hopeless or blaming yourself a lot. I often hear clients describe depression as a feeling of 'flatness' or 'numbness.'" To be diagnosed with depression, several of these factors need to be in place alongside sadness and low mood, for an extended period of time.

Another distinguishing factor, Mallonee tells Bustle, is the intensity of the symptoms. If they're incredibly intense in their experience — if you are "unable to imagine ever feeling OK again, or having thoughts of suicide" — then it's a good indication that serious depression may be developing. People with temporary sadness usually feel a bit of respite occasionally, and are still able to enjoy things they love sometimes and feel things getting better. For people with depression, that relief of symptoms often isn't present.


Sadness Is Common, But So Is Depression

If you're afraid of the stigma of having a mental health issue and it's stopping you from getting help, Mallonee says, don't be. "For many people, depression is an expression of pain and distress rather than something inherently 'wrong' with them," she tells Bustle. "Having a period of depression does not mean you are "mentally ill" per se — according to the National Institutes of Mental Health, 16.2 million adults in the U.S. have experienced a major depressive episode, which means it's extremely common." Depression can indeed happen to you, and worries about being "abnormal" shouldn't stop you from getting help.

The bottom line? Regardless of what's happening to you, if you're feeling low, it's safe and sensible to reach out to somebody professional to get help, whether it's a helpline, a local counseling service or a therapist. No sadness is too small.