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Do you find yourself feeling down most days? Unmotivated to complete tasks or participate in things you used to enjoy? Do you reminisce on days when you were happier and things were easier? If these questions resonate with you, you may have also wondered: am I sad or am I depressed? Is there a difference?

It’s a tricky situation to address, as sadness and depression almost seem to be synonymous words and oftentimes feel similar. However, there are some important distinctions that can help you determine when sadness becomes depression, and when that depression calls for professional help.

Clinical differences between sadness and depression

Depression is a clinical disorder, diagnosed by a mental health professional. Most people at some point in their lives will feel depressed without actually having depression. Having feelings of depression does not mean someone should self-diagnose as experiencing depression. Only a qualified medical or mental health professional can give a formal and accurate diagnosis. The best way to distinguish between sadness and depression, therefore, is to have a qualified professional help you navigate your thoughts and feelings.

This article is not meant as a tool to self-diagnose. However, educating yourself on the difference between clinical depression and sadness will help you to understand the process of a diagnosis, treatment options and useful conversation topics with your provider, especially if you’re not sure where your feelings rank.

A clinical depression diagnosis differs from sadness in many aspects. Depression impairs daily living, occurs for long periods of time and often requires medication. Sadness typically fluctuates with periods of contentment, does not require immediate treatment and is not a medical or psychological condition. Perhaps the best way to understand the difference is to look at the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V), which outlines the criteria for depression.

The basics of depression

Depression is often referred to in professional spheres as Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), or Clinical Depression. In order to be diagnosed with depression, a person must present with some or all of the following symptoms occurring everyday, persistently: 

  • Depressed mood
  • Lack of pleasure in activities
  • Major changes in appetite
  • Mental slowness
  • Observable physical lethargy
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Suicidal ideation

If an individual suffers with MDD, these symptoms will cause significant distress or prevent that person from normal performance in daily tasks. This could mean inability to hold a job, inability to practice personal hygiene or inability to maintain personal relationships. These symptoms must be continuously present for at least two weeks for a diagnosis to be given. Additionally, there are usually physical symptoms present (migraines, stomachaches, etc).

While some of these symptoms may be experienced with sadness, depression indicates that the symptoms are more permanent and not tied to an event or experience. Both are treatable, but depression designates more intensive intervention.

What to do for depression

The first thing to do for depression is to assess the severity of your situation. If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255. If you have a plan or means to end your life, reach out immediately. The helpline offers 24/7 support and intervention, and can connect you with local agencies that can jump-start your mental health treatment. If you have had thoughts of suicide before but are not currently experiencing them, save the number in your phone and prioritize setting up a therapy appointment as soon as possible.

Getting a clinical diagnosis is the next big step you can take for mitigating your depression. Most mental health facilities have staff that can give a formal diagnosis. With an accurate diagnosis comes more accurate treatment. Once you have completed this step, your provider will give you a treatment plan catered to your individual needs, one that likely includes therapy and potentially medication.

What to do for sadness

Just because sadness doesn’t require a clinical diagnosis, doesn’t mean it’s not important to address. Periodic bouts of sadness are part of the human experience, but if sadness becomes more and more frequent, it could lead to feelings of depression. Managing your sadness is an excellent preventative measure in protecting your mental health.

Here are some priorities to keep in mind if you feel that your sadness is negatively impacting quality of life:

  • Remember to eat healthy. What we put into our bodies affects mental performance;  remember to eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, protein and healthy fats. Drink lots of water throughout the day. Limit foods that could be contributing to feelings associated with sadness, such as fatigue, guilt, shame, regret, etc. 
  • Exercise, exercise, exercise. Balance healthy eating with healthy movement. Working out or spending time outdoors can help boost endorphins and oxytocin in your brain, greatly improving mood.
  • Spend time with people you enjoy. Building community and spending time with family are shown to yield positive dividends on mental health. Invest in relationships that make you feel good about yourself and encourage wholesome habits and joyful memories.
  • Attack something that is a source of sadness. If your finances are getting you down, sign up for a budgeting class or pay off an extra chunk of debt with your next paycheck. If work is stressing you out, apply to different jobs and treat yourself to a comforting meal.

Whether your symptoms seem to match depression or sadness, there are concrete action steps you can take to help alleviate those troublesome emotions and work towards a fulfilling life. There is no criteria for starting therapy, and you will never need to have a certain severity of depression or sadness to justify getting yourself the help you need. Always err on the side of supporting your own mental health, and get in touch with a mental health provider like Pyramid Family Behavioral Healthcare today. You can call (678) 274-4936 today to quickly receive help managing thoughts and feelings.

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