Am I Depressed or Sad?

Published on: 15 May 2018
Clinically Reviewed by Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C
Woman sitting on ground with head in lap

Updated on 3/28/2022

Sadness is a natural emotion. Despite what some people may think or assume, it’s actually normal, and even healthy, to experience sad feelings periodically. Sadness is also a common symptom of depression. Most people who are depressed will experience extreme sadness. However, just because you feel sad, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re depressed. The truth is, you can be sad without being depressed.  

Whether you’re just sad or you truly have clinical depression, there are methods you can use to improve your mental well-being. If you’re wondering: am I depressed or sad, the first step is to know the signs and learn how to get diagnosed with depression. Then, you can use strategies like talk therapy, various self-help techniques, or think about medications that can help you manage your depression. 

Keep reading to explore the key differences between depression and sadness. We’re giving helpful advice about dealing with both.

What is the Difference Between Depression & Sadness?

Depression is a recognized and diagnosable mental health condition that affects more than 16 million adults in the United States. Since sadness is one of the most prominent symptoms of depression, the two can be confused. However, sadness is a temporary condition whereas depression can last for months or even years if left untreated.

Having a low mood can affect your entire life, but it can be challenging to determine whether what you’re feeling is depression or if you’re simply feeling a bit sad. What’s the difference between depression vs sadness? Let’s look at each in-depth to gain a better understanding.

What is sadness?

According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), sadness is best described as an emotional state of unhappiness. It’s a natural emotion that can range in severity and intensity, from generally mild to very extreme. Sad feelings most often stem from loss, typically of something you consider to be high value. Sadness due to loss could be the result of a relationship ending, a loved one dying, or any other major life change. The biggest thing to note about sadness in comparison to depression is that sadness is a temporary emotion that will pass. 

What is depression?

By contrast, the APA defines depression as a negative state that can range from a sense of discontent or unhappiness to an intense feeling of despondency, pessimism, and sadness that’s so extreme it interferes with your ability to function daily. A major and noteworthy defining aspect of severe depression is that, when not effectively treated and managed, it’s a long-term mental health condition.

There are also several different types of depression, including persistent depressive disorder, seasonal affective disorder, gestational depression, and major depressive disorder.

“Depression differs from sadness in duration and level. A person can feel sad if they miss the train or if their favorite team lost, but the feeling will pass. Depression is a more severe and sometimes permanent state. It’s a mental health issue that can last from two weeks to several years and requires work and effort to reduce its symptoms.”

Talkspace therapist Cynthia V. Catchings, LCSW-S, LCSWC, CFTP

Distinguishing the two

While sadness is a healthy, normal emotion that everyone experiences occasionally in life, we can now see that depression is different. It’s a diagnosable mental health condition that’s often marked by feelings of sadness.

Sadness is typically associated with specific triggers like losing a loved one, moving, or ending a relationship. Depression, on the other hand, often has no identifiable cause. Most people who are depressed experience sadness as one of their symptoms, but they don’t have to be depressed to feel blue.

Remember that when looking at depression vs sadness, feeling sad is a normal, natural emotion that we all have at one time or another. Though it’s not much fun while we’re going through it, it’s something everyone experiences as they deal with the ups and downs of life. Handling drama, grief, and loss, in general, will often spark feelings of sadness, but we eventually find a way to move forward as we heal and work towards a brighter plan. In general, sadness can be good.

How to Know if it’s Sadness or Depression

Depression and sadness can have overlapping symptoms. This is in part what can make it incredibly difficult to differentiate between the two. Looking at their symptoms separately might make it a bit easier.

“One way to know if it’s depression or sadness is to keep track of your symptoms. Most likely, if you have felt sad and fatigued for over two weeks, every day, you might be dealing with depression, not just sadness.”

Talkspace therapist Cynthia V. Catchings, LCSW-S, LCSWC, CFTP

Symptoms of sadness

  • Crying
  • Overeating or undereating
  • Sleeping or feeling tired
  • Increasing use of alcohol or illicit drugs
  • Feeling unmotivated to do anything

Symptoms of depression

Sadness is a common symptom of depression, but it’s definitely not the only one. Depression can affect you physiologically, psychologically, and physically. Depression symptoms can include:

  • Feeling sad all the time or feeling overwhelmed
  • Being irritable
  • Crying uncontrollably 
  • Lack of energy
  • Inability to focus
  • Not caring about appearance or self-care
  • Change in appetite
  • Moving or talking slowly
  • Changed sleeping habits
  • Feeling guilty or worthless
  • Feeling “empty”
  • Having a hopeless outlook
  • Jitteriness or difficulty being still
  • Losing interest in things previously enjoyed

People with depression may also experience pain of unknown origin, headaches, and digestive problems like upset stomach and nausea. Sometimes, untreated depression leads to suicidal thoughts or self-harm. Depression can last a long time and rarely resolves on its own. 

“Although it’s not easy to know if we feel down, it’s not difficult either. Most clients with depression share that they feel sad. However, the main difference is that they also have lost all interest in activities they enjoyed before, do not care about their personal hygiene anymore, sleep much more or less than before, and can even experience suicidal ideation.”

Talkspace therapist Cynthia V. Catchings, LCSW-S, LCSWC, CFTP

How to Cope With Sadness or Depression

Depression is very treatable — in fact, up to 90% of people find treatment effective. If you have depressive symptoms and are wondering how to treat depression and feel better, several treatment options are available. 

Two main approaches that are helpful for most people are psychotherapy and medication. There are also a number of self-help techniques you can try to manage your mood or depression. 

Therapy

Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, allows you to sit down in a safe atmosphere and speak with a healthcare professional (therapist) who understands the differences between sadness and depression. Your therapist can help you understand what’s triggering your feelings, so together you can work to develop effective coping mechanisms to alleviate your symptoms.

Medication

If you’re diagnosed with depression, your doctor or psychiatrist may prescribe medication at the beginning of your treatment. Some depression medication, like antidepressants, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), might help you, but keep in mind that medication may be a short-term solution and often works best when combined with therapy. 

Self-care

There are also various self-care strategies you can use to lessen the frequency and severity of your sadness and other depression symptoms. Some things you can try at home include:

  • Making personal well-being and self-care a priority
  • Getting out of the house
  • Socializing
  • Journaling 
  • Meditating 
  • Exercising daily (most effective if you can break a sweat, but even just going for a walk is beneficial)
  • Being mindful of your diet — eating mostly single- or minimal-ingredient, water-rich foods
  • Telling yourself it’s okay to feel sad and that your feelings are legitimate
  • Being cognizant of your emotions and tracking how they’re affecting your life

Starting any form of treatment is important in treating depression. Either in-person, in a group setting, or online therapy can help you develop the skills you need to recognize or anticipate your emotions and address them as they develop in real-time. This way, you can proactively intervene and remain in control.

When to Seek Help

If you’ve been wondering: Am I depressed or sad? It might be time to get help. 

“There’s no perfect time to seek help. We have to find help when we’re ready and have realized that it’s necessary. In some instances, it’s even recommended to talk to a mental health professional even if you’re not feeling depressed. Preventative therapy works wonderfully; it gives you the tools to deal with negative feelings, including depression, so in case it appears, you’re ready to tackle it.”

Talkspace therapist Cynthia V. Catchings, LCSW-S, LCSWC, CFTP

If your feelings of sadness persist to the point where they begin interfering with daily life activities, it could indicate the development of depression. 

To ensure that you’re getting the treatment you need, it can be very helpful to have an unbiased, open conversation with a healthcare professional. This can help determine any underlying conditions that might be triggering your symptoms of sadness or depression. It can also ensure you’ll be directed to the right type of mental health professional for further evaluation if needed.

Whether or not you’re diagnosed with depression, or if you’re just sad, it’s good to know that you’re not in the fight alone. Talking to a therapist or joining a support group can help teach you new ways to cope with your feelings.

“For those experiencing depression, it’s vital to seek help immediately if you’re not able to complete your daily activities or if you may lose your job or house. Most importantly, seek help if you’re hurting yourself or if you have suicidal thoughts.”

Talkspace therapist Cynthia V. Catchings, LCSW-S, LCSWC, CFTP

Talkspace is an online therapy platform that makes finding the therapy and help you need easier than ever. Our approach to therapy is convenient, affordable, and best of all, effective. Getting therapy from the convenience of your own home has never been simpler. You don’t have to live with sadness or depression any longer. Take that first step toward healing today. 

Sources:

1. APA Dictionary of Psychology. Dictionary.apa.org. https://dictionary.apa.org/sadness. Accessed February 21, 2022.

2. APA Dictionary of Psychology. Dictionary.apa.org. https://dictionary.apa.org/depression. Accessed February 21, 2022.

3. Torres, M.D., MBA, DFAPA F. What Is Depression?. Psychiatry.org. https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/depression/what-is-depression. Published 2020. Accessed February 21, 2022.

4. Major Depression. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/major-depression. Published 2022. Accessed February 21, 2022.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

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