How to Tell the Difference Between Depression and Short-Term Sadness

Differences Depression vs short-term sadness

Many people mistakenly assume that “depression” simply means a period of intense sadness. However, there is a distinct difference between clinical depression, a diagnosable medical condition, and short-term sadness. The symptoms of depression vary from person to person, but the reality is that feelings of sadness are only a small part of the effects of this condition.

Understanding True Depression

A person with clinical depression or a depressive disorder generally has trouble managing very basic tasks due to feelings of worthlessness, anxiety about the possibility of failure, and general lethargy. So what is clinical depression exactly? It is a long-term mental health disorder, typically a chronic one that has drastic effects on a person’s physical, mental, social, and emotional health. It can interfere with daily tasks, make work feel impossible, and may limit a person’s opportunities for social interaction. Many people mistakenly attribute periods of sadness as signs of depression.

Symptoms Of Clinical Depression

Differences Depression vs short-term sadness - fightaddictionnowSymptoms of clinical depression can persist for years and increase in severity over time without proper treatment. Some of the most common symptoms reported include:

  • Persistent feelings of intense sadness
  • Poor self-image and low self-esteem
  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Agitation
  • Difficulty with sleeping
  • Eating problems — over-eating or having very little appetite most days
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Deep feelings of guilt without a tangible reason for those feelings to exist
  • Persistent feelings of worthlessness
  • Suicidal thoughts or wishing for death.
  • Persistent feeling of being a burden to others, or that others would be better off if the depressed person wasn’t around
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed hobbies or activities
  • Social disengagement, cancelling plans, or avoiding social interaction
  • Suicide attempts

Many people experience sadness of everyday life events or traumatic experiences and may suffer with some of these symptoms for a while, but this is not indicative of clinical depression.

Seasonal Depression

Some people suffer from a seasonal depression disorder that causes adverse symptoms at certain times of the year. For example, many people with seasonal depression report that the winter months cause them the most trouble. They may feel daunted at the upcoming stress of holiday parties, family gatherings, gift-giving, or holiday travel. Shorter days also mean less sun exposure, and vitamin D deficiency can easily contribute to seasonal depression symptoms.

Occasional Bouts Of Sadness

Sadness can arise from countless possible situations. The loss of a job, the death of a loved one, an injury, an argument with a spouse, and countless other possibilities may create occasional fits of sadness. This does not mean the person experiencing these feelings has clinical depression. Overcoming typical sadness simply takes time and self-care; the process is different for everyone. A person with actual depression cannot simply distract him or herself away from symptoms and hope they go away over time. Clinical depression occurs from a natural chemical imbalance in the brain that requires medication or intense therapy to manage.

Sadness vs. Depression

The average person has coping mechanisms for dealing with sadness. A person may try to distract him or herself with hobbies, social activity, sex, good food, or a number of other possibilities. For a person with clinical depression, most of these ideas aren’t even an option. It’s common for people with clinical depression to struggle to find the motivation to even complete basic tasks. Making a cup of coffee in the morning can feel like an insurmountable challenge. A person struggling with temporary sadness will still be able to find motivation to carry on with daily life.

This is part of the reason why substance abuse is such a major risk for people with clinical depression. Without appropriate treatment, a person with depression will invariably turn toward self-medication with alcohol or illicit drugs to overcome their negative feelings or simply to be able to function day to day.

Are You Depressed Or Just Sad For Now?

Clinical depression treatments generally involve psychotherapy and medication. Many antidepressant medications carry a significant risk of abuse, however. Additionally, some people may not want to use medication as they believe it simply creates “artificial happiness” and does nothing to address their root issues. However, proper application of antidepressants may help a person overcome the symptoms keeping them from honest self-reflection and may provide enough motivation to make serious changes in his or her outlook on life.

Finding Support And Avoiding Substance Abuse

People suffering from depression often feel as though they cannot voice their concerns to others because it simply makes them feel worse than they already feel. Coming out to friends and family about depression can trigger even greater feelings of failure and worthlessness, but this is a necessary step on the road to recovery. Additionally, talking about the symptoms of clinical depression can help people avoid substance abuse. One of the major driving factors behind addiction is isolation; a person who feels as though he or she has no one to turn to for support will cope however he or she can, most often involving drug use.

Join The Conversation And Find The Support You Need

Fight Addiction Now is a community of people who have experienced substance abuse firsthand. Many of our members have dealt with mental illnesses like depression and know how these conditions influence addiction treatment. Our community includes substance abuse treatment professionals and researchers, survivors, and the friends and family members who have seen addiction firsthand.

Reaching out for help is an incredibly difficult but crucial step in finding relief. Take our online quiz to see if you have any of the symptoms of clinical depression and think of ways you could contribute to the discussions in the Fight Addiction Now community.

3 thoughts on “How to Tell the Difference Between Depression and Short-Term Sadness

  1. Jay Jorgenson

    My friend has had a tough life and I think he needs help. I like how you explain someone with depression struggles to find the motivation to even complete basic tasks. You did a great job explaining the difference between depression and being sad. I’ll try to convince him to get help to get through this stage.

  2. Callum Palmer

    I’m sure that one of my good friends is suffering from depression. It would be good for them to try and get some help. They are experiencing a lot of the symptoms that you listed here and I do think it would be best for them to get that help sooner than later.

  3. Leila

    Many people have not a definite understanding of depression. When they feel sad they connote it as depression. But, if you are trying to figure out what depression looks like. It’s not a joke.


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