Understanding Sadness and Depressive Feelings

What is sadness?

Sadness is a universal emotion we all experience in reaction to situations that cause us emotional pain. This could be a breakup, failing an exam, an argument with a friend, or a major life transition like moving away from home. While sadness can feel isolating, it’s important to remember that everyone at some point in their life has experienced it — and probably a fair amount.

People tend to think of sadness as a negative emotion, but sadness is actually our body’s way of motivating  us to seek help or comfort. While feelings of sadness are universal, personal and cultural differences can affect what brings on those feelings (i.e., what causes the sadness), the way we experience it, and the ways in which other people might notice our sadness.

What’s the difference between sadness and depression?

The main difference is that sadness is universal; depression is not. With sadness, we might feel down for a day or two, or even more if there’s been a deep loss or unexpected event, but we’re still able to enjoy simple things like our favorite playlists, TV shows, foods, or spending time with friends and family. With depression, we may feel sad or helpless about everything, even if we can’t identify a specific event or cause. Even activities that we once enjoyed are no longer interesting or enjoyable. And there are different kinds of depression from mild to clinical. Here are some other differentiators:

Length of time

Feelings of sadness can come and go and are generally temporary, but clinical depression (known more formally as Major Depressive Disorder) is a medical condition that involves persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness that continue for more than two weeks.

Cause

Sadness is usually brought on by a specific causal event or trigger. And while depression can be linked to a specific external trigger, that isn’t always the case.

Impact on daily life

Sadness can certainly affect how we go about our daily life, but its impact isn’t quite as severe.

Depression goes further, significantly interfering with, and even impairing, our ability to function in everyday life. And depression often comes with a host of other negative feelings, thoughts, behaviors, and physical problems. Learn more about clinical depression. And if you’re unsure if what you feel is depression or sadness, take this confidential screener.

How to recognize if someone you love is feeling sad or showing signs of depression?

It’s natural to want to help our loved ones be happy. In order to recognize if they might be struggling, the first step is to look for changes in their feelings, thoughts, behaviors and overall physical health:

  • Are they showing signs of sadness, hopelessness, moodiness, irritability, or loss of interest in things they normally enjoy?
  • Do they have difficulty with concentration, decision-making or memory, exhibit thoughts of self-harm, worthlessness or failure?
  • Are they withdrawing from social activities, school, work and other life activities, increasing substance use, talking about self-harm, or struggling to get out of bed in the morning?
  • Is there a decrease in their energy, like feeling tired all the time? Do they express body aches and pains, show signs of weight loss/gain, have digestive issues, are sleeping more or less than usual, or have sexual problems?

Keep in mind that while the signs of depression can be highly visible, that’s not always true, particularly when shame and secrecy drives someone to conceal their depression. Depression will be experienced and be visible differently for different people. Symptoms present in one person with depression won’t necessarily be present in another. And two people with depression might have the same symptom, but the severity of the symptom may vary between them.

Please use the above signs as a guide, but don’t try to diagnose a loved one. This is always something that should be done by a licensed clinician. Of course, if you or someone you love needs immediate help text START to 741-741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

How to cope with sadness or mild depression

Finding ways to cope with feeling sad or suffering from mild depression will also vary from person to person, but here are a few things that have been known to help:

  • Allowing yourself to take time to simply feel your feelings
  • Practicing mindfulness techniques
  • Talking to a friend or loved one
  • Moving your body
  • Doing things that you enjoy
  • Crying
  • Educating yourself about mental health and wellness with these JED resources
  • Giving it time
  • Talking to a professional

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If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text START to 741-741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for a free, confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7.

Find more ways to get help & feel better in our RESOURCE CENTER.

If this is an emergency, please call 911 immediately.

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