Sad or depressed – what is the difference?

Is there a difference between feeling sad and depressed?
Is there a difference between feeling sad and depressed?

We all go through times in our lives where we feel sad. Perhaps after losing a pet, failing a subject at school or missing a loved one’s birthday. However, there is a fundamental difference between feeling sad and suffering from depression.

Guy Winch, a psychologist and author, writes in an article on Psychology Today that sadness is a normal human emotion. He says, “We’ve all experienced it and we all will again. Sadness is usually triggered by a difficult, hurtful, challenging, or disappointing event, experience, or situation. In other words, we tend to feel sad about something. This also means that when that something changes, when our emotional hurt fades, when we’ve adjusted or gotten over the loss or disappointment, our sadness remits.” 

Marwa Azab, an adjunct professor of psychology at California State University, Long Beach, says sadness is “a healthy response to any kind of loss, disappointing outcome, or hurtful comment”.

Depression, however, is an abnormal emotional state. It is a mental illness that affects the way we think, feel and behave. Winch explains, “When we’re depressed we feel sad about everything. Depression does not necessarily require a difficult event or situation, a loss, or a change of circumstance as a trigger. In fact, it often occurs in the absence of any such triggers. People’s lives on paper might be totally fine – they would even admit this is true – and yet they still feel horrible.”

When you are depressed it affects every part of your life – things you once enjoyed are no longer enjoyable, it saps your energy and motivation, it makes you impatient, irritable, angry and feel like a failure.

Asking these questions* can also help you figure out whether you are depressed or just sad:

Have your eating and sleeping routines changed?

Perhaps you’re feeling sad after a particularly tough break-up or the death of a pet but you’re still able to stick to routines when it comes to eating and sleeping. If you are depressed, your normal sleeping and eating patterns are disrupted. You may find that you sleep more or less than usual, and your appetite is affected too – either you are eating more than normal do or you have no appetite. 

Do you still enjoy doing the things you like?

When you’re feeling sad, you’ll still be able to do the things you’ve always enjoyed doing – such as going out with friends or continuing with hobbies. When you feel depressed, you experience anhedonia, which is the inability to feel pleasure. CyberShrink previously told Health24 that anhedonia is when "whatever you usually enjoy doesn’t work anymore – hobbies, sex, sport, eating, pets, anything really. It’s also probably the underlying factor of ‘boredom’ – you feel bored because nothing gives you fun or enjoyment.”

Are you experiencing self-punishing or extremely negative thoughts?

Although you might feel responsible for a break up or a mistake you made at work, you won’t experience a permanent sense of guilt, worthlessness or feeling like a failure. Depression, however, manifests with constant thoughts or feelings of guilt or worthlessness. You feel like a failure and blame yourself for everything that has gone wrong.

*Disclaimer: This is not a diagnostic tool and if you suspect you might be depressed, it is important to consult your doctor. 

Symptoms of depression

According to the DSM-V, five to nine symptoms need to prevail during a two-week period. These symptoms can cause personal distress, and changes in how you function socially and professionally. 

  • Appetite changes – either weight loss (when you're not trying to lose it) or weight gain
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Fatigue or loss of energy 
  • Slowing or speeding up of physical activity
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Feelings of excessive or inappropriate guilt
  • Difficulty concentrating or being indecisive
  • Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide

At least one symptom needs to be:

  • A depressed mood
  • A loss of interest or pleasure in something you previously enjoyed

If you are concerned that you are experiencing depression rather than a bout of sadness, make an appointment to see your doctor so that you can discuss your concerns. Fortunately depression can be managed with therapy and medication. Left unmanaged, depression can lead to suicide.

If you need help, contact SADAG. You can speak to a counsellor between 08:00 and 20:00 Monday to Sunday on 011 234 4837. For a suicidal emergency call 0800 567 567. The 24-hour contact is 0800 12 13 14. Alternatively, you can SMS 31393 and SADAG will call you back.

Image credit: iStock 

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