Mental Health

Experts Explain How To Tell If Your Sadness Is Actually A Sign Of Depression

#2: You don’t feel able to handle it.

A woman with her hands over her face wants to know if her sadness is actually depression.
Photographer, Basak Gurbuz Derman/Moment/Getty Images
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Everyone feels sad to varying degrees throughout the week, and even throughout the day. This is standard 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 a sign of depression or not?

"Sadness is a feeling and depression is an illness," counselor Julienne B. Derichs, LCPC, tells Bustle. Sadness is generally temporary and limited in scope; depression impacts your life, your energy levels, and your ability to function and 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."

Regular 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 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 isn’t something to be concerned about, as well as signs it might actually be depression.

1. It's Not Triggered By Something External

When life throws you a curveball — like a fight with a friend, 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. No biggie.

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 standard reaction to an upsetting situation — not depression.

2. You Don't Feel Able To Handle It

If you're experiencing regular sadness, you'll be able to see it for what it is. But if it's depression, your emotions may feel overwhelming. "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 Having Trouble Getting Work Done

If it's sadness (and not full-blown depression) you'll still be able to take care of daily business. "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're Avoiding Friends

When natural 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. Derichs says depression often causes people to isolate themselves. And it’s a double-edged sword: a study in The Lancet in 2020 found that isolation can actually increase your risk of depression.

5. The Feeling Isn't Tied To Any Particular Day

The anniversary of a sad or traumatic event can bum you out — sometimes pretty intensely — on the day. And that's perfectly OK. "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 Doesn't Go Away On Its Own

While it's good to have coping mechanisms for a bad day — like meeting up with friends, calling your mom, or going to the gym — Derichs says sadness can go away on its own, even if you don't do anything about it. Depression, on the other hand, won't. According to the American Psychiatric Association, feelings of sadness or low mood that last over two weeks are a possible sign of depression.

7. You're Unable To Focus On Anything Else

Since it's typical to feel sad occasionally, go ahead and feel those feelings. Take note, though, if you aren't able to think about anything else. A study published in 2020 in Progress in Neuro-Pharmacology & Biological Psychiatry found that people with depression tend to ruminate, or think about their depression over and over, because their brain’s attention networks are affected by their illness.

"We need to start to ask ourselves if normal sadness is becoming depression ... [when] it starts to interfere and impair our lives," psychologist Nikki Martinez Ph.D. 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. Your Typical Coping Mechanisms Aren't Working

Sometimes, you just gotta crawl into bed, forgo a shower, and cry while eating your top comfort food. If you’re sad, this'll be enough to make you feel a bit better the following day. But if you're dealing with depression, this cycle can get worse.

As clinical psychologist Joshua Klapow Ph.D. 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." A 2018 study of major depressive disorder published in BMC Psychiatry found that people with severe depression often face challenges when it comes to daily activities like hygiene or just getting out of bed.

9. Your Mood Goes Up & Down

If your mood is generally neutral — you're hardly ever over-the-top happy or ridiculously sad — that's a good 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," psychologist Michele Barton Ph.D. 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 Doesn't Feel Logical

It's possible to retain a 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."

11. There Are Outward Signs

Some people hide their feelings well, so this tip doesn't apply to everyone. But if your sadness has gone beyond its usual intensity, 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.

It's perfectly OK to ride out sadness 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."

If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.

Experts:

Michele Barton Ph.D.

Autumn Collier LCSW

Julienne B. Derichs LCPC

Marline Francois LCSW

Joshua Klapow Ph.D.

Nikki Martinez Ph.D.

Studies cited:

Santini, Z. I., Jose, P. E., York Cornwell, E., Koyanagi, A., Nielsen, L., Hinrichsen, C., Meilstrup, C., Madsen, K. R., & Koushede, V. (2020). Social disconnectedness, perceived isolation, and symptoms of depression and anxiety among older Americans (NSHAP): a longitudinal mediation analysis. The Lancet. Public health, 5(1), e62–e70. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2468-2667(19)30230-0

Olivan-Blázquez, B., Montero-Marin, J., García-Toro, M. et al. Facilitators and barriers to modifying dietary and hygiene behaviours as adjuvant treatment in patients with depression in primary care: a qualitative study. BMC Psychiatry 18, 205 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-018-1779-7

Zhang, R., Kranz, G. S., Zou, W., Deng, Y., Huang, X., Lin, K., & Lee, T. (2020). Rumination network dysfunction in major depression: A brain connectome study. Progress in neuro-psychopharmacology & biological psychiatry, 98, 109819. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pnpbp.2019.109819

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