Sadness is a symptom of depression but often not the only one. Whether you’re living with depression, sadness, or grief, there are coping strategies and medical treatments to help.
When you experience a low mood, it can affect every part of your life. It can be challenging trying to determine whether what you’re feeling is sadness or something more. Grief after the recent loss of a loved one can make it even more complicated.
While there’s no clear difference between sadness and depression, it’s known that depression causes a greater number of symptoms than sadness. Depression symptoms can also last longer and often don’t ease without treatment.
Whether you’re living with depression or sadness, there are ways you can improve your well-being, including self-help strategies, medications, and psychotherapy.
So, what’s the difference between sadness and depression? Looking at the definitions can help.
Sadness can feel overwhelming and make day-to-day functioning difficult. But as challenging as it may be, sadness is a common and natural part of the human experience.
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines sadness as a state of unhappiness that usually comes on after loss. There are many kinds of loss, including the ending of a relationship, the passing of a loved one, or the ending of a job.
Depression can include feelings of sadness. But experiencing depression also means having many more symptoms — all of which can affect you physically, emotionally, and mentally.
While sadness is an emotion, depression is a mental health condition with a clinical diagnosis.
If you’re sad, you may also be experiencing grief. The APA recently recognized prolonged grief disorder (PGD) as a specific condition that may affect people living through the recent loss of a loved one.
There are some common symptoms of both depression and sadness. Because of this overlap, it can be hard to define the two.
Knowing the answer to the question “Am I depressed or just sad?“ might involve speaking with someone you trust or a mental health professional. But these lists may also offer a guide that can help you think about your own experiences.
Symptoms of sadness may come and go. When you’re sad, you may experience:
- bouts of crying
- oversleeping or trouble sleeping
- lack of appetite or eating more than usual
- increase in alcohol consumption
- loss of interest in enjoyable activities
Symptoms of depression can include many of the same ones as sadness. But depression normally persists and includes more changes. The symptoms of depression can include:
- feeling sad or empty
- having a pessimistic or hopeless outlook
- feeling guilty or worthless
- loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy
- lack of energy
- trouble sitting still
- moving or talking more slowly
- sleep changes
- appetite changes
- trouble concentrating
- thoughts of self-harm or suicide
- pains, aches, headaches, or digestive problems with no other cause
There are many different types of depression, such as major depressive disorder and persistent depressive disorder.
Depressive symptoms may also arise under certain circumstances, such as the changing of seasons (seasonal affective disorder) or during or after pregnancy (postpartum depression). Sometimes depression is one part of another mental health condition, such as bipolar disorder.
To get the right treatment, it can help to have an open conversation about your experiences with a healthcare professional. They can help determine if an underlying condition may be the cause of your symptoms. They may also be able to refer you to a mental health professional for further evaluation.
Sadness isn‘t a clinical diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5), but there are specific diagnostic criteria for depression.
To receive a diagnosis, you must experience at least five of the following symptoms for most of the day, almost every day, in a single 2-week period:
- depressed mood
- loss of interest in activities
- significant weight loss or change in appetite
- sleeping too much or too little
- inability to sit still or moving slowly
- fatigue or low energy
- feeling worthless and guilty
- lack of concentration or inability to make decisions
Another symptom is recurring thoughts of death or suicide, although these may not happen every day.
At least one of the five must be depressed mood or loss of interest. They must interfere with your life and not be explained by a different medical condition.
Prolonged grief disorder
If you have prolonged grief disorder, you’ve likely experienced the loss of a loved one within the past year. You may experience some symptoms most of the day, nearly every day, for at least 1 month.
Symptoms can include:
- a sense of disbelief about the loss
- feeling like a part of oneself has died
- avoidance of reminders of the death
- trouble getting back into one’s life routines
- intense emotions such as bitterness and sorrow
- emotional numbness
- intense loneliness
- feeling that life is futile or meaningless
Children and adolescents may also experience this condition. If they do, diagnosis may occur if the death happened within the previous 6 months.
Whether you’re experiencing a form of depression, grief, or sadness, there is help.
If you’re experiencing symptoms of depression, treatment options can include medication, such as antidepressants, psychotherapy (talk therapy), or a combination of both.
Depression is highly treatable, with up to 80% to 90% of people responding well to treatment.
If you have severe depression, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) — brief electrical stimulation of the brain — might be recommended.
If you’re living with sadness or depression, there are self-care strategies you can try to help improve your symptoms, including:
- acknowledging your feelings and knowing it’s OK to feel sad
- prioritizing your well-being
- staying mindful of your emotions and how your activities affect them
- eating a balanced diet
- exercising and trying to stay active
- keeping up your personal connections
Whether you’re experiencing grief, depression, or sadness, you can find help.
If you’re not sure where to start, you can try our find a therapist tool to find the right resource for you.
Mental Health America’s (MHA) tool for finding resources in your area might also be helpful. They also have a collection of DIY tools that can help you cope.
Regardless of your diagnosis, it can help to know that you’re not alone. Trying a support group might be helpful to hear the similar experiences of others and find new ways to cope.