How do I know if I'm depressed or just sad?

by Sarah Graham
Monday 17 November 2014
406 14212

You're probably used to hearing people say "I'm so depressed" in response to their favourite football team losing a match, or when they're under pressure at work. It's a common throwaway line, which in reality usually means "I'm upset" or "I'm stressed" or "I'm worn out".

However, many people do feel confused and concerned about the line between feeling sad and having depression. You may have been dismissing your emotions as "I'm just sad", or perhaps you've been wondering whether your symptoms actually indicate a mental health problem, rather than an everyday emotion.

If you think you may be suffering from a clinical mental health condition, such as depression, there are some signs to look out for. We asked RSCPP-listed Accredited and Registered Counsellor and Psychotherapist Karole Thomas to explain more:

 

What is the difference between sadness and depression?

Sadness can perhaps be best described as experiencing emotional pain relating to sorrow and feelings of loneliness and helplessness. In life we all experience stresses and challenges. We experience loss and change. On a daily basis we experience situations that can make our moods go up and down. Sadness or unhappiness is often a normal and appropriate response to a difficult situation. There are many events and stressors in life that make us feel these emotions as we cope with setbacks or loss. Experiencing sadness is not the same as experiencing depression although feeling sad can be one of the symptoms of depression.

Generally speaking sadness is temporary or shorter term in nature and is not usually a cause for worry. It is often connected to life changes (positive and negative) and can sometimes result in a person taking less care of themselves for a while. It will not normally involve feelings of suicide. It becomes a cause for concern when these feelings don't go away.

Depression is an illness and unlike sadness there may not be any apparent cause. You and those around you may mistake it for feeling sad or unhappy, and may expect you to ‘get over it' or ‘cheer up'. However, although everyone experiences life's ups and downs, not everyone goes on to develop depression. Depression is characterised by very negative thinking about yourself, others and the world and it becomes difficult for you to see anything in a positive light.

If you have depression, you will have a consistently low mood and/or a loss of interest in things that normally matter to you. If you experience these symptoms on most days, over a period of at least two weeks, then you may be suffering from depression. It can have a significant impact on your ability to function in the day to day, including interpersonal relationships, ability to work and deal with social situations. Sometimes the low mood may cause you so much emotional distress that you may consider suicide.

 

How can I tell if I have depression?

The symptoms of depression include the following emotions, physical symptoms, thoughts and behaviours: 

Emotions:

  • Feeling sad, guilty, upset, numb, despairing
  • Loss of interest/enjoyment in things
  • Crying a lot or being unable to cry when something sad happens
  • Feeling alone even in company
  • Feeling angry/irritable about the slightest thing
  • Markedly diminished ability to get pleasure from life 

Physical/bodily signs:

  • Tiredness
  • Restlessness
  • Sleep problems (too much, too little, early morning wakening)
  • Feeling worse at a particular time of day (usually worse in the morning but improved by evening)
  • Changes in weight
  • Persistent aches and pains

Thoughts

  • Loss of confidence in self
  • Expecting the worst (glass half empty)/gloomy thoughts
  • Thinking everything feels hopeless
  • Thinking you hate yourself
  • Poor memory and concentration

Behaviours

  • Difficulty in making decisions
  • Can't face or be bothered with everyday tasks
  • Put things off
  • Stop doing the things you used to enjoy 

These symptoms of depression are much more intense than those experienced as a regular ‘sad' response to life's ups and downs. At the extremes, people may have thoughts about not wanting to live anymore and have plans about how they would take their own life (suicidal ideation).

There are different types of depression, including:

  • Major depression, where you show the above symptoms
  • Chronic depression (dysthymia) is a milder form of depression but still causes significant difficulty in the day to day
  • Atypical depression does not have the typical symptoms of depression and can include weight gain, sleeping too much, and feeling anxious
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) where a drop in mood coincides with the time of year (usually autumn and winter)
  • Post Natal Depression occurs in women who have given birth and struggle to cope and is related to hormonal changes
     

What other mental health conditions could sadness be a symptom of?

Besides depression, a number of other mental health disorders have symptoms similar to 'sadness':

  • Bipolar Disorder is a condition which involves cycling of moods between extremes of depression and 'mania', or an extreme high
  • Personality Disorders are conditions which affect emotions and relationships with others, where aspects of the disorder can cause depression
  • Abnormal Grief Reaction is an atypical response to loss and bereavement

 

What causes depression?

Depression can also arise from physical illness or other experiences including:

  • Serious, chronic or debilitating illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, stroke or HIV
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Hormonal change
  • Dementia
  • Any type of abuse (physical, sexual or emotional)
  • Alcohol/substance misuse
  • Major life events including moving home, divorce, changing or losing a job, retirement etc.
  • Social isolation

For more information, see our article on life events that can cause depression.


Finding support


You can find out more about symptoms and causes of Depression, including how to find a therapist. If this route is not appropriate for you, your GP can assess you and direct you towards support.

Find a Therapist working with Depression

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Updated 24 November 2014