Everyone has a bad day now and again—a painful argument with a spouse, the loss of a beloved pet, getting passed over for a promotion, and other everyday disappointments—can make us feel awful.  Sadness is a normal emotion that should fade away over time but when that melancholy isn’t temporary, the danger of depression may be on the horizon.

 Sadness is a normal human emotion that everyone feels from time to time,” says Johnny Williamson, MD, medical director at Timberline Knolls, a residential treatment facility in Lemont, Illinois. “It is often associated with a difficult life event such as a loss of a loved one, a breakup or other hurtful event that results in an untoward outcome. When a person feels sad, sadness is often the dominant emotion. But there can be periods of levity and less severe mood. Sadness can also sometimes be relieved by venting, crying, exercising or other methods of releasing emotion.”

Sadness varies in intensity and duration, according to Dr. Williamson, but a defining feature is that it is a temporary feeling. “Eventually, it fades and ultimately resolves. If sadness continues to intensify, does not eventually fade or lasts for a prolonged period, you should seek support from a mental health professional because depression is a possibility,” he adds. 

What’s the Difference Between Sadness and Depression?

When sadness is persistent and refuses to leave, that’s when depression starts to reel its ugly head.  “Unlike sadness, depression is not universal,” says Todd Hutton, MD, medical director at Southern California TMS (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation) Center.  “Impacting more than 16 million adults in the US, depression is a serious medical illness that interferes with how a person thinks, feels and acts, and can cause persistent sadness. Those with depression often have hopelessness and an inability to experience pleasure paired with physical symptoms, such as changes in sleep, energy, appetite and ability to concentrate.”

Depression is a diagnosable emotional health condition that may include feelings of sadness, but also includes other symptoms that are present at the same time, explains Julie G. Kays, MS, LCPC, NCC, manager and clinical counselor at The Counseling Center at Stella Maris in Timonium, Maryland.  “These symptoms may include diminished interest or pleasure in activities, changes in sleeping and eating patterns, agitation, fatigue, inability to concentrate, feelings of worthlessness or guilt and recurring thoughts of death,” she says.

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Depression may be triggered by external circumstances or may be due to physiological pre-disposition.  The term “depressed” is often misused and self-reported as a feeling unto itself, as in, “I feel depressed.” Clinical depression, however, can only be diagnosed by a mental health professional that can assess symptoms and recommend appropriate treatment. 

Symptoms of Depression

Dr. Williamson reports that there are certain cardinal features of depression, which include:

  • Feeling depressed throughout the day on most or all days
  • A lack of interest and enjoyment in activities you used to find pleasurable
  • Having difficulty sleeping, or even sleeping too much
  • Trouble eating, including eating too much, or even too little, which can result in unwanted weight gain or loss
  • A feeling of restlessness, irritability or agitation throughout the day
  • Extreme fatigue and loss of energy
  • Unwanted or exaggerated feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • The inability to concentrate or to even make rational decisions
  • Thoughts of suicide, or thinking quite often about death and dying 

Treatment Differences

Sadness can weigh you down while you’re experiencing it, and it is important to pay attention to how you’re feeling. Dr. Hutton believes you can balance your mental health by maintaining a positive outlook, surrounding yourself with a strong support network, eating healthy and exercising, though time is often the best way to overcome sadness.

“If you or someone you love is experiencing symptoms of depression, encourage them to get screened and talk with their doctor,” he says. “It is okay to ask for help and to work with your doctor to customize an effective treatment plan that can help you lead a happier, healthier life. A common treatment for depression includes the combination of antidepressant medicine and psychotherapy or ‘talk therapy.’ However, a startling 5.5 million depression sufferers in the US do not benefit from antidepressants.”

Antidepressants do not work instantly and usually require a period of adjustment. For treatment-resistant depression one of the newer treatment options is a series of ketamine infusions. If a person’s depression is severe and a healthcare team deems the patient to be a danger to himself, the patient may be admitted to a hospital where they can be observed and treated. Outpatient facilities and clinics are other options.

We all experience those moments in life where the reality presented is less than our expectations, whether it is not receiving the position, the relationship, or the experience we felt would make us feel happy. “As we steel ourselves against the inevitable realities of life and try, and try again, we discover that sadness begins to wane and we successfully recover our sense of wellbeing, discovering that sadness is not only a normal emotional state, but that it is transitory,” says Tracy Uloma Cooper, PhD, CEO and founder of the Uloma Foundation, and author of Inspired to Greatness:  A Feminine Approach to Healing the World.  “When we look at the significant differences between sadness and depression, the critical factors we observe are the severity and duration of the symptoms. Are the symptoms you are feeling chronic, constant, pervasive, and disruptive to your life?”

It is possible to overcome sadness and depression, once we understand how our brains work. “We are dealing with two distinct, emotionally-charged experiences,” explains Edy Nathan, MA, LCSWR, a New York  City-based licensed grief therapist and author of It’s Grief: The Dance of Self-Discovery through Trauma and Loss (As I Am Press, 2018). “What we know is that when people change their thought processes, and challenge the way their brains speak to them, they have a good chance to undermine the power that sadness and depression have over them. Once you have met sadness and depression, they will be around from time to time.”

Last Updated: Jun 19, 2019