Am I Depressed or Am I Just Sad?

Sadness is an emotion that all humans experience. Even animals can become sad and lethargic when they lose something meaningful in their lives. It’s a natural feeling, and it is unpleasant to experience for a reason. Just as the unpleasant feeling of loneliness is supposed to drive us toward making interpersonal connections, sadness, in a perfect world, is supposed to compel us toward the betterment of our lives. 

But when circumstances beyond our control bring sadness into our daily life, it might feel like there is nothing we can do. For instance, we can’t do anything to change or fix the loss of a loved one. The natural grieving process must occur, hopefully with the support of friends and family. By moving past grief and staying connected to those who love us, we can recover. 

Even though sadness is something we all have to deal with, it’s not pleasant while we’re in the midst of it. It can be hard to remember what happiness felt like, or to enjoy everyday things the way we used to. It’s essential to recognize sadness as natural when it comes from an unfortunate event in our lives. There’s no reason to fear sorrow or to feel guilty about experiencing it. 

Why Am I Sad?

If you’ve been feeling sad lately, ask yourself why. If you’ve just lost a family member or friend, or you’re missing people in your lives because you or they just moved away, then sadness is normal and natural. Disappointment from losing a job, not getting the job you wanted, or failing to gain recognition at work will also naturally result in sadness. 

It is perfectly normal to feel sad after having a fight, losing a friendship, ending a relationship, or any other kind of emotional misfortune. Feeling sad doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you.

Sadness is a natural reaction to disappointment or loss. Everyone feels different levels of sadness and cope in differing ways. Withdrawal, tears, or burying oneself in busywork are all ways that people deal with sadness. Sadness is a process, and going through the stages of it should eventually lead to a lifting of your mood as normal life resumes. Depression, however, is a more serious condition than intermittent sadness. 

Sadness or Depression?

People often use the words “sad” and “depressed” interchangeably. But while sadness is a symptom of depression, they are not one and the same. Depression is defined as a deep, lingering, and persistent feeling of sadness, lethargy, and/or fatigue. It may be triggered by a tragic event in your life, or may come seemingly out of nowhere. 

Some researchers theorize that depression may be related to a primal defense mechanism–a way to shut down your body and conserve energy in times of survival stress. Not only does depression put your brain into an analytical state, but it also saves physical energy and redirects it toward rumination. By getting your brain into a meditative state, your brain tries to give you the means to improve what is making you feel sad.  

On top of that, when food is scarce, you are more likely to survive if you hunker down and outlast the environmental stressor, rather than scream, cry, or run around pounding on random objects. Energy conservation is nearly irrelevant in our current age of caloric abundance, but it would have been vital to the survival of early humans. So it might help you to know that your body isn’t betraying you, but is more likely doing its best to make sure you survive your current environmental stressors. 

Image of a man sitting in a thinking position with his hands on his chin. A caption reads: Depression goes beyond sadness to a condition that can interfere with your everyday life.

How Do I Know if I Have Depression?

Only a medical professional can deliver an official diagnosis, but you can monitor your own mental state for warning signs that you may need to seek treatment. Depression goes beyond sadness to a condition that can interfere with your everyday life. 

Symptoms of depression can include:

  • Sadness
  • Feeling discouraged
  • Lacking motivation
  • Hopelessness
  • No longer taking an interest in activities that you once enjoyed

If your sadness persists for days at a time, or doesn’t lift even when you do things that used to make you happy, these could be signs of depression. Severe cases may lead people with depression to contemplate or even attempt suicide. It’s important to talk to your doctor about these symptoms, and seek help from a qualified therapist before these symptoms worsen. 

Major Depressive Disorder (MDD)

If your depressive episode lasts for more than two weeks, you should seek help from a mental health professional. A healthcare professional may diagnose you with MDD if you have any five of these symptoms lasting longer than two weeks.  

  • Being unable to concentrate or make everyday decisions
  • A depressive mood lasting most of the day nearly every day, with overt signs and feeling of sadness and/or hopelessness
  • Loss of interest in everyday activities for extended periods
  • Significant, unintended weight loss or weight gain
  • Sleeplessness, insomnia, or increased time spent sleeping that starts to affect your regular schedule
  • Fatigue, tiredness, and/or low energy
  • Feeling worthless or experiencing excessive guilt every day
  • Repeating thoughts of death, suicidal thoughts or ideation, or planning/attempting suicide

A medical diagnosis relies on these symptoms being linked to depression, and not to another cause (like substance abuse) or underlying disease condition. Manic depression is another form that requires clinical diagnosis and professional treatment. 

Risk factors for depression include having a family history, chronic illness, thyroid insufficiency, mental illness, substance abuse, and, according to the American Psychiatric Association, can also include your individual biochemistry, your genetics, environmental factors, and even your personality.  Some people are more easily disposed toward sadness, or may feel it more deeply than others when faced with the same setback. Certain health conditions, like heart disease, can make someone more likely to develop depression and worsen recovery outcomes after a cardiovascular event. 

Treating depressed individuals can take many forms. Therapy, prescription medication, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) are all viable treatment options. 

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Among these types of depressive signs and symptoms, there is also a condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder. If your mood is relatively normal throughout the year, but worsens or becomes depressed in the winter, this may be a sign that you suffer from SAD. 

SAD is becoming more common, especially in teenagers and older adults. There is some evidence that seasonal affective disorder may be linked to vitamin D levels in the body. Vitamin D helps the body regulate mood hormones, and becomes scarcer when the days are shorter, and the sun’s angle is less intense. Light therapy can help reduce or alleviate the symptoms of SAD, though why this occurs isn’t yet fully understood. 

What Can I Do to Address Sadness?

Whether you are suffering from everyday sadness or from the symptoms of depression, there are strategies you can use to help mitigate your symptoms. Aside from medication and therapy, you can take other actions to help you cope with the occurrence of sadness and depression in your life.  Clinical depression should be distinguished from sadness by a professional and treated if it is diagnosed as severe. 

  • Try to form connections with others and make new friends
  • Spend time with pets, or adopt one of your own
  • Start exercising regularly. Physical activity can boost mood and help people cope with sadness. 
  • Try to improve your diet. Reduce your intake of sugar, alcohol, and carbohydrates. Raising your blood sugar too quickly means that it will crash again later, which can negatively affect your mood. There’s also some evidence that increasing your intake of omega-3 (as opposed to omega-6) fatty acids, can help stabilize mood. 
  • Connect with people. Forming social bonds will boost your sense of self-worth and make you feel like part of a community. Humans are social creatures, and none of us can do it alone. 

If you need help, reach out to a medical professional, therapist, or mental health expert for treatment. Never make medical conclusions on your own.