Sadness and depression: When do you really cross the line?
Nowadays the word ‘depression’ has been so fully absorbed into our daily language that it is often incorrectly used to describe normal sadness.
Sometimes it may occur that intense sadness makes us wonder whether it is a normal and transitory feeling or there is more about what is perceived as sorrow, such as real depression. In this instance, it is important to be aware of it and in case the boundary is crossed, seek appropriate help as depression is an actual disease which should be dealt with as soon as possible.
Let’s have a look then at the differences between sadness and depression.
Sadness is an emotion that we often experience in our everyday life and that is usually categorised as a ‘negative’ and ‘unwanted’ feeling. Sadness is generally caused by missing out on our aims or goals which seem no longer achievable. Depending on how important the goal is and its specific meaning to us, we may experience a more or less intense feeling of sadness. For example, the intensity of the sense of sadness will be very different if applied to an unsuccessful application for a temporary and maybe not-so-wanted job as opposed to the instance of not getting our dream-life position.
Usually sadness is linked to specific events or thoughts, is time-limited and doesn’t prevent us from experiencing positive feelings if happy and joyous events occur. Furthermore, it doesn't have a significant influence on our biological rhythms and daily functioning.
On the contrary, depression brings consistent and identifiable changes and symptoms in our habits and lasts for longer. First of all, a wake-up call related to a depressive episode occurs if the symptoms and low mood persist for at least a period of two weeks, in which they manifest most of the time and most of the days.
The core symptoms are severely low mood and lack of interest in the activities that used to stir up a positive response within ourselves, such as a sense of interest and engagement. When depressed, we are no longer interested in and motivated to undertake activities or hobbies as they no longer bring us any sense of pleasure. We may also feel like we have no energy for them at all. We may not care at all about going out, hanging out with friends, spending time with our partner (engaging in sexual activity as well), going to work, playing our favourite sport, etc. It may even occur that we neglect self-caring tasks. Low mood and a lack of interest will make us perceive the world as emotionally dull and grey, as though colours no longer exist.
As mentioned above, depression brings changes in our biological rhythms as well.
Different types of change in sleep habits, appetite and motor activity are reported. As a matter of fact, sleep problems or a tendency to sleep in can be observed as well as significantly increased or reduced appetite (and therefore weight gain or weight loss) and retardation or agitation related to motor activity.
Cognitively speaking, we may suffer from concentration problems, have trouble making decisions and often feel guilty, unworthy and hopeless about the future. In particular, the future may be perceived as an infinite extension of a worthless today. Several cognitive biases tend to maintain this hopelessness-related point of view.
As you can see, depression manifests in different ways with different symptoms, but the common denominator is a significant change in the functioning of the person, intense, strong and long-lasting symptoms and a significant impact on everyday life.
If you have the feeling that your low mood may not be linked to momentary sadness, keep an eye on it and if you recognise yourself in the aforementioned symptoms, consult a specialist. A psychotherapist, and in mild or severe cases a psychiatrist, can help you understand and tackle the issue.
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About Ilaria Tedeschi
Ilaria Tedeschi is a cognitive behavioural psychotherapist in Marylebone, London, with several years of experience working with depressive, anxiety, sleep and relational problems.