The question: ‘do I have depression or am I sad?’, is a common one. It can be difficult to work out whether we’re experiencing sadness – a human emotion, or depression – a medical condition. Asking ‘Dr Google’ can leave us feeling even more confused, especially as sadness is something those with depression do experience. The terms ‘blues’ and ‘depressed’ are sometimes bandied about in a flippant way too, which just adds to the confusion we may feel.
How are they defined?
The Macmillian dictionary defines being sad as feeling unhappy – usually due to a specific trigger.
Depression is as a medical condition where a person is so unwell that they cannot live a ‘normal’ life.
The Diagnositic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th Edition (DSM-V), defines the difference between depression and sadness as:
…periods of sadness are inherent aspects of the human experience. These periods should not be diagnosed as a major depressive episode unless criteria are met for severity…, duration…, and clinically significant distress or impairment.
Sadness often responds to a specific event. It’s a valid human emotion which fades. That’s not to say that sadness isn’t painful nor that we don’t deserve support if we’re sad – it is, and we do.
Depression is an illness. It affects everything. It can be triggered by an event, but it doesn’t need a specific trigger. The symptoms often creep up on us.
We can be sad and still enjoy our favourite TV show. We can be sad and still have a laugh with our friends on a night out. We can still taste and enjoy our favourite food.
Depression is all-encompassing. Yes, we might still be able to laugh as a joke, and lots of people with depression will continue to smile. But, we often struggle to feel enjoyment. It’s not a sadness, more a nothingness. Everything feels flat or heightened, there’s no seemingly middle ground.
Suicide and Self-harm thoughts
When we are sad, we might have fleeting thoughts about ending it all because we want the pain of sadness to go away. But they are unlikely to be persistent, or interfere with our life too much.
Depression may cause us to have persistent, all-consuming self-harm and/or suicide thoughts. We might engage in harmful behaviours. Some of us will think about, plan, and even attempt suicide.
Experiencing sadness can lead to self-critical thoughts. We may be angry at ourselves for doing something we now regret. We may get frustrated with ourselves. But it’s unlikely to be completely all-consuming, and it will hopefully fade.
Depressive thoughts can be self-hateful. We may criticise every single part of our personality, and every single thing we do. It’s often all-consuming, and endless. Our self-confidence is often at rock bottom.
Variations in mood
When we’re sad, that’s often not our only emotion. We could also feel angry. We’re likely to be able to experience happiness. Our mood will dip up and down according to what we’re up to, and who we’re with.
With depression, it’s often much more intense. We feel everything or nothing at all, a numbness. We struggle to experience ‘normal’ emotions in the same way. Whatever we do, whoever we’re with, whatever we feel, it’s always clouded with a tinge of depression.
Maintaining Sleep and Food Patterns
When we’re sad or upset, we might lose our appetite for a bit. But, on the whole our eating patterns won’t change too much. We might have the odd sleepless night or long lie-in. But in general, our sleeping patterns are unlikely to change too much.
With depression, our food and drink intake could change dramatically. We might eat a lot less or a lot more. Often, we won’t not have the energy to make food or go to the shops. This could result in us living off whatever easy food we can get our hands on – consequently having a very poor diet.
Our sleeping patterns are likely to change, too. It could go either way. We could experience insomnia. Or we find we need much more sleep than our ‘norm’ – twelve or more hours a night, plus naps during the day.
Ability to do life
With sadness, we could struggle to go to work/go out/see friends and family for a while. We might not have the same level of focus or motivation as we usually have. But, it passes, and in time we bounce back to our usual selves.
Depression can significantly impact our ability to do basic tasks. We might struggle with work and have to cut down our hours. We might not be able to work at all. We could struggle to leave the house, or find seeing friends and family to be too overwhelming. Depression is part of every single aspect of our lives.
When to get help
If we are experiencing sadness, we would typically chat it through with our friends and family. Most people understand sadness because we’ve all experienced it at some point in our lives.
If we’ve been experiencing symptoms of depression, for over two weeks and it’s impacting our lives, then it’s worth booking a GP appointment. The symptoms may well pass on their own but it’s better to get a second opinion, earlier rather than later, because our GP will be able to advise on whether we need more help and support.
Whatever our circumstances, we always deserve help and support.
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