A psychologist explores the difference between sadness and depression.

Conquering Cognitions

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I feel sad sometimes.

I felt sad yesterday when I said goodbye to a friend moving out of state. When the holidays are over and the kids return to their lives, I’m sad for a bit. It hurts my heart when I see an animal on the side of the road who has been hit by a car.

I am incredibly fortunate that my sadness has never morphed into depression. I know many who are not as lucky.

Depression can be a powerful, life-consuming force that depletes your energy, steals your desires, and hurts your relationships.

It can feel uncomfortable to be sad — depression is brutal.

Necessary, but Not Sufficient

I frequently hear people confusing sadness with depression. I see it on social media and overhear it in conversations.

When a sports team loses a game and a fan shares it on social media with #depression, I cringe. You are not depressed when your team loses; you are #sad.

Sadness is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for depression.

Showing up for a job is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for occupational success. You also need to have the right skills to fulfill the job requirements.

Buying a lottery ticket is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for winning the lottery. You also need a tremendous amount of luck.

Sadness can be a symptom of depression, or it can be a stand-alone emotion. It is a normal part of the human experience and a natural response to certain life events. Depression, on the other hand, is a serious health concern.

Everyone feels sad sometimes; not everyone suffers from depression.

Sadness versus Depression

It is necessary to differentiate sadness from depression for several reasons.

Something must be wrong

When you mislabel sadness as depression, you may think you are experiencing an emotion outside the norm. Life is complicated, and you will feel a range of emotions including anger, sadness, fear, and joy.

Although some of these emotions are more uncomfortable than others, they serve a purpose. They tell us something we need to hear.

According to Joseph Forgas’ research, a psychology professor at the University of New South Wales, sadness can be beneficial in the right circumstances. When we are sad, we judge social situations more clearly, are more attentive to details, and persevere on tasks longer than happy people.

Although sadness is not an emotion many of us seek, it does have a purpose at times. Sadness is a part of life; depression is not.

I know how you feel

Additionally, labeling sadness as depression can be invalidating to those who are diagnosed with the illness. Depression is a clinical diagnosis, not a self-diagnosis.

Individuals who struggle with a depressed mood can not snap out of it after watching an episode of The Big Bang Theory. It is significantly more serious and debilitating than occasional sadness.

Depression versus Sadness

It is also damaging to mislabel your depression as sadness.

Why does self-care help everyone but me?

When someone is sad, meeting a friend for coffee can be helpful because social support improves our mood.

Depression may not respond as easily or quickly to these same self-care measures.

If you interpret your depression as sadness, you may feel frustrated that going for a walk or calling a friend doesn’t help you feel better when it seems to benefit everyone else. With any condition, the treatment varies depending on the severity of the injury or illness.

When I have a headache, I take a painkiller.

When I broke my collarbone, I received a pain killer, but I also had an X-ray, an orthopedic consult, and had to wear an arm sling.

When we are sad, self-care such as exercise, time with friends, and mindfulness can help us feel better. When we are depressed, self-care is very important, but also professional help.

Depression, like a broken bone, requires more comprehensive care.

We may postpone seeking professional help which only prolongs our suffering when we mislabel depression as sadness.

Final Thoughts

It is important to talk about depression, so I’m pleased that it is more openly discussed these days. However, I often see the word depression used in the wrong context, or worse yet, flippantly. It is not an emotion; depression is a health condition diagnosed by a medical professional.

Sadness and depression are not interchangeable terms. The first is a symptom, and the latter is an illness.

If you feel sad, give yourself time to rest, reflect, and recover. If you are struggling with prolonged or debilitating sadness, please reach out to a healthcare provider for an evaluation.

Your sadness might be depression.

This article is for educational purposes only, not as a substitute for therapy or other medical treatment. I am a psychologist, but I am not your psychologist. You can find a therapist in your local area here.

This article was originally published on Medium.

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Clinical psychologist turned writer | PsyD | Extensive experience treating anxiety, depression, and trauma | Outdoor enthusiast | Museum lover | People helper | Healthy cognitions can conquer most anything

Colorado Springs, CO
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