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Am I Depressed or "Just Sad"? How to Tell the Difference and Get Help

Jun 06, 2022

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Am I Depressed or "Just Sad"? How to Tell the Difference and Get Help

Maybe you’re experiencing a recent loss, a change in your family, or a work stressor. Perhaps you’re feeling less excited about life but unsure why. It’s normal to experience low points. But you may be wondering, “am I depressed or just sad?” Here’s how to know the difference, so you can make the best decisions for your mental wellness.

It’s normal to have periods where we feel down. Life isn’t always easy. But there’s a big difference between feeling “just sad” and being clinically depressed. People who struggle with depression may feel like they’re being pulled underwater. Being sad is more like getting knocked down by a wave – it hurts, but you can get up again. 

Yet when your emotions are at the wheel, it can be hard to see the difference. 

If you’re wondering whether you have depression, it may be easy to “gaslight” yourself. Despite symptoms of sadness and loss of motivation, you probably tell yourself other people have it worse. You may push down negative emotions to get through the day. It can get easy to write off your feelings because you don’t know how to deal with them. 

At Karma Docs, we feel that you should have the tools to make the right decisions for your mental health. After all, we’re not looking to just treat patients with depression, we want to help people experience true mental wellness. That means being free from mental illness and having the tools to feel profound happiness about your life.

One of those tools is the power of self-evaluation. It’s the ability to be curious about your emotions, even when they’re unpleasant. You have to step back and ask yourself what you’re feeling. It may sound strange, but it’s a way to learn about yourself. 

When you’re in the depths of depression or sadness, it can be hard to get clarity. How can you get clear about what you’re experiencing to evaluate your own symptoms? 

Here are a few questions to ask yourself when negative emotions take over. 

Questions to ask yourself when you’re feeling sad or depressed

A few simple questions can tell you a lot about your symptoms. It’s easy to let our feelings overwhelm us, but understanding them can help you step back. If you’re wondering, “am I depressed or just sad?” these questions can help you learn the answer.

  1. What emotions am I feeling?
  2. How long have I felt this way?
  3. Is there a specific reason I’m feeling this way?
  4. How have my emotions impacted my life?

This is not a comprehensive screening guide, but the answers to these questions are revealing. They can help you see the difference between experiencing a brief period of sadness and depression. If you’re looking for an in-depth depression screening, use this guide or contact us for professional diagnosing help. 

Now that you’ve thought about the nature of your feelings, you can use your answers to decide whether to seek professional help. Let’s talk about how to know the difference between depression and being “just sad.” 

What’s the difference between depression and sadness? 

There are several key differences between a spell of sadness and clinical depression. Let’s apply your answers from the questions above to contrast the two experiences. 

1. “What emotions am I feeling?” 

Feelings of sadness are a core symptom of clinical depression.[1] But it’s also normal to feel sad, and this isn’t the only emotion linked to depression. When sadness escalates into more harmful emotions and thoughts, it can become depression. 

Here are some specific emotions that indicate clinical depression: [2]

  • Feeling worthless
  • Excessive guilt
  • Feeling hopeless about the future
  • Recurring thoughts of death

These feelings are difficult to fight, but not impossible. We want you to know that you aren't worthless. You're not on this path alone – you don't have to be. 

2. “How long have I felt this way?” 

We’ve all felt sad for a few days. But when negative feelings stretch on, our quality of life is diminished. This is a key differentiator between being “just sad” and depressed. If you’ve been feeling consistently hopeless for two or more weeks, your symptoms may be linked to depression.[3] 

Another key differentiator is that depression can feel relentless. While sadness may come and go, people with clinical depression may feel down for most of the day, every day. [3]

3. “Is there a specific reason I’m feeling this way?”

Maybe you’re reeling from losing a loved one, or you’ve gone through significant changes recently. It’s perfectly normal to grieve for the life you once had and to be sad when a period of your life is over. Processing loss takes time. If you’ve only recently gone through a life change, give yourself permission to be sad and process your feelings. 

If you experienced a loss months or years ago and are still battling deep sadness, this could be a sign of depression. Grief can become depression if it’s unresolved or makes life impossible to enjoy.[3] 

On the other hand, depression may have no obvious cause. Just because you can’t point to a reason for your sadness doesn’t mean it’s invalid. Feeling overwhelmingly sad without a specific reason may point to depression.[3] 

4. “How have my emotions impacted my life?”

There’s a big difference between how sadness and depression impact our lives. Sadness may make life harder for a while, but depression can make it unbearable. Depression can significantly alter a person’s ability to show up for themselves and their loved ones. 

If you’re sad, you may stay in bed for a day. But if you have clinical depression, you may feel like you can’t leave your bed for a week. Here are a few differentiating factors that distinguish clinical depression from sadness [3]:

  • Problems with keeping jobs or relationships
  • Losing interest in hobbies and interests
  • Significant weight loss or gain
  • Changes in appetite
  • Forgetfulness or feeling like your thoughts are slowing
  • Feeling consistently tired 
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Sleeping much more or much less than usual
  • Thinking of suicide or self-harm

While sadness and clinical depression have some overlap, they aren’t the same. Depression lasts much longer and creates severe feelings that affect your daily life and every relationship. 

What are the major signs of depression? 

If you’re trying to evaluate a friend or family member for depression, try to speak with them about their feelings first. Mental health can be challenging to talk about with the ones we love. But having these tough conversations can bring families closer if we’re brave enough to broach the subject. 

If you’re worried about one of your loved ones, look for these outward signs of clinical depression:

  • Losing or gaining weight
  • Eating less or more than they used to
  • Consistently sad or irritable mood
  • Being less involved in the things they used to enjoy
  • Having problems with sleep

If you've noticed one of these signs in your loved one, consider speaking with them about your worries. Help them find their way to proper guidance for their depression. 

How long do you have to be sad for it to be classified as depression?

Only two weeks.[3] Many people think you have to show depressive symptoms for a long time before seeking help. This misconception leads people to delay care when they need it. Untreated depression can cause more emotional strain, and it’s harmful to your body too.[4] If you think you or your loved one may be clinically depressed, don’t wait to get the symptoms evaluated. 

What should I do if I’m depressed?

If you or a family member is suffering from depression, help is out there. Innovations in screening and treatment have made life better for millions of people. 

If you’re not sure if you’re depressed or just sad, you might be fearful about asking for help. People may feel uncomfortable speaking with a primary care physician about their mental health.[5] They worry about getting prescribed medications or being labeled by society. If you have these concerns, you’re not alone. 

There’s no shame in seeking guidance through tough times in life. At Karma Doctors, we create personalized treatment plans for patients suffering from depression, anxiety, PTSD, and more. We guide you through your journey to a healthy mindset, so you can enjoy your life. Connect with us to learn the next steps to feeling better in the midst of depression.

If you need to speak with someone urgently, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is available 24/7 through their national helpline. This call line is confidential and free for individuals and families experiencing problems with substance abuse and mental health. Access the helpline by calling 1-800-662-4357.

This journey is a challenging one, you don’t have to go through it alone.

Resources:

  1. Mouchet-Mages, S., & Baylé, F. J. (2008). Sadness as an integral part of depression. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 10(3), 321–327. https://doi.org/10.31887/DCNS.2008.10.3/smmages
  2. Bains N, Abdijadid S. Major Depressive Disorder. [Updated 2021 Apr 20]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK559078/
  3. Tolentino, J. C., & Schmidt, S. L. (2018). DSM-5 Criteria and Depression Severity: Implications for Clinical Practice. Frontiers in psychiatry, 9, 450. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00450
  4. Ghio, L., Gotelli, S., Cervetti, A., Respino, M., Natta, W., Marcenaro, M., Serafini, G., Vaggi, M., Amore, M., & Belvederi Murri, M. (2015). Duration of untreated depression influences clinical outcomes and disability. Journal of Affective Disorders, 175, 224–228. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2015.01.014
  5. Bell, R. A., Franks, P., Duberstein, P. R., Epstein, R. M., Feldman, M. D., Fernandez y Garcia, E., & Kravitz, R. L. (2011). Suffering in silence: reasons for not disclosing depression in primary care. Annals of family medicine, 9(5), 439–446. https://doi.org/10.1370/afm.1277