How to Tell the Difference Between Being Down and Being Depressed

Posted September 23, 2021

MHS talking about depression

A recent study shows that only 14% of Americans say they are happy. This startling statistic reflects many systemic problems affecting people, but does it mean that 86% of Americans are depressed? Some might say so, but this isn’t necessarily true. Though the majority of people might not identify as happy, there is a difference between being sad and being depressed. The former is a feeling that may pass, while the latter is a clinical diagnosis that often necessitates treatment. If you’re not sure how to tell which is which, these eight criteria can help you understand the many differences between sadness and depression.

Duration of Your Feelings

The first key to consider when differentiating between sadness and depression is how long you’ve been experiencing these feelings. Sadness is a feeling that can last an hour, a day, or a week, whereas depression is a long-term experience. Many people have been experiencing depressive symptoms for as long as they remember, even dating back to childhood. If you are feeling sad — even if it’s a persistent sadness — ask yourself whether it’s part of a long-lasting pattern. If so, it may be indicative of depression, but if not, your feelings are likely to pass.

Context of How You Feel

It’s important to consider, too, whether there is a specific context surrounding your feelings. Have you recently lost a job, experienced a major life change, or said goodbye to a loved one? Events like these can naturally cause a person to feel sad. In fact, it may be concerning if you didn’t react with sadness. Specific events that might be triggers indicate that your feelings are temporary. Contrastingly, if there is no clear reason for your feelings of sadness, you might be experiencing depression. Depression can strike at any time, regardless of how well your life seems to be going.

Ability to Care for Yourself

If you’re sad, you might be more inclined to stay at home, relax, and avoid friends. This is to be expected, but sometimes sadness has an insidious effect that seeps out to other behaviors and gradually changes the way you act — to the point that you struggle to care for yourself. If you find yourself unmotivated to engage in basic self-care such as showering, brushing teeth, and changing clothes, this is a significant indicator of depression. There are plenty of strategies to implement in order to overcome these struggles, but you have to identify their source first — and it may be depression.

Intensity of Your Feelings

Sadness comes and goes. It’s a normal part of life that everybody experiences at some point. Depression, on the other hand, is a far more intense experience that can be life-threatening if left untreated. If you’re trying to discern whether you’re depressed or merely sad, consider how intense your feelings are. Do you feel as though all hope is lost? Do you wonder whether there is any point to life? Perhaps you have even thought about harming yourself — in which case, you should call 911 or contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. Any of these feelings are a strong indication that you are experiencing severe depression, not just sadness.

Occurrence of Physical Symptoms

Mental symptoms aren’t the only affliction that can accompany sadness or depression. You should also assess whether you have experienced any physical symptoms along with your feelings. If you are sad, you might not have any such symptoms to report beyond tiredness. If you are depressed, though, it is not uncommon to experience major physical symptoms such as pains, aches, migraines, and other physical ailments that only exacerbate your struggles. If any of these symptoms coincide with feelings of despair, you might be dealing with depression.

Maintenance of Social Connections

When you’re not feeling your best, leaning on your support system is important. You need to stay in touch with loved ones and reach out when you need help. This might seem like a no-brainer for some people, but if you are depressed, maintaining social connections can be a major struggle. In fact, you might feel inclined to isolate yourself and ignore calls and texts from people you love. If you don’t feel like talking to anybody — much less spending time with anybody — this is a telltale sign that you are depressed.

Interest in Usual Activities

When you’re sad, the things you love become even more meaningful. Your hobby isn’t just a hobby — it’s a way to cheer yourself up! This is true unless you find that you’ve suddenly lost interest in the things that would usually excite you. If you are uninterested in your favorite hobbies, food, or entertainment, you might be experiencing more than sadness. You might be experiencing depression along with anhedonia — the inability to gain pleasure from usual sources. When your favorite things can’t cheer you up, you might need further intervention.

General Thought Patterns

Many people are still able to remain optimistic even when they are sad. If you know that brighter days are ahead, and you strive to maintain a positive attitude in spite of your mood, this is a good sign that your feelings of sadness may soon pass. On the other hand, if you find that you frequently have thoughts of hopelessness and cynicism, this is likely indicative of a bigger problem. Thought patterns that err on the negative side or even veer towards self-harm are a sign that you’re depressed and in need of treatment.

Help is Available When You’re Struggling

When you’re feeling down, it might seem like things will never get better — especially if you’re dealing with depression. Fortunately, this isn’t the case. There is help available, and you don’t have to continue struggling in silence. MHS serves clients throughout Minnesota struggling with depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other mental health issues. We offer dialectical behavior therapy, an integrated dual disorder program, and chemical health interventions. Call (952) 835-2002 or request an appointment online. Our staff of trained and licensed mental health professionals is dedicated to helping you be well.

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