For some people, it’s instinctive to express everyday frustrations by saying things like, “I’m so depressed – it’s only Monday!” or “this weather is so depressing.” Some use these phrases misguidedly to emphasize sadness or dissatisfaction over relatively minor inconveniences. However, for the 16 million American adults suffering from Major Depressive Disorder and others who have experienced true depression, these words can carry hurtful implications. To avoid minimizing depression’s status as a severe mental illness, it’s essential to understand that sadness and depression are two vastly different experiences.
Sadness Versus Depression
Like happiness or fear, sadness is a normal, human emotion. Often, it is a natural reaction to a painful event, such as the loss of a job or a loved one. People may also experience sadness when looking back on happy memories and contemplating changes in their lives. Sometimes, a person may feel upset without even knowing why, but these somber feelings tend to be temporary.
Another characteristic of sadness is that it can encourage positive growth. It motivates people to establish coping mechanisms and work through life’s challenges to find better days ahead. Moments of heartache may similarly teach people to appreciate life’s lighter moments, helping them find perspective.
While sadness is not destructive in itself, a gloomy mood shouldn’t persist for extended periods of time. Struggling with negative thoughts or emotions on a regular basis can be an indicator of a more serious problem. One of the reasons sadness is often confused with depression is because it can be a symptom of depression, a clinically diagnosable mental health condition. Many become depressed when they constantly feel blue, or, on the other side of the spectrum, when they bottle up their emotions and do not allow themselves to express their sadness.
Depression is a psychiatric disorder that can deeply impact a person’s quality of life and shouldn’t be taken lightly. It often develops when people feel numb or overwhelmed by negative emotions. Unlike sadness, which can fuel a person’s desire to improve their situation, depression is draining.
Depression does not necessarily have to be triggered by a specific event, although a stressful experience, such as a natural disaster or a death in the family, can lead a person to develop depression. As with addiction, some people are more prone to depression than others, depending on personal and environmental risk factors as well as a family history of mental illness.
When someone is depressed, their feelings of sadness are amplified and may continue for multiple days. Aside from persistent sadness, other red flags of depression may include:
- Lack of energy
- Trouble concentrating
- Lack of interest in activities previously enjoyed
- Decreased sex drive
- Irregular sleeping patterns (i.e. insomnia or oversleeping)
- Increased or decreased appetite
- Sudden weight gain or weight loss
- Persistent feelings of guilt, despair, or worthlessness
- Self-harm or suicidal thoughts
When a person feels blue and experiences these additional symptoms for more than two weeks, they may be struggling with depression and should pursue professional help. But for many, choosing to attend treatment can be easier said than done.
Barriers to Mental Health Treatment
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 35 percent of American adults who experienced a major depressive episode in 2017 did not receive any form of treatment. There are several reasons people with depression may hesitate to enroll in therapy, including:
Stigma. People who suffer from depression and co-occurring disorders such as anxiety and addiction may feel that they aren’t strong if they admit that they need help. In reality, choosing to challenge and replace harmful thought patterns and behaviors with positive ones can be the most empowering decision of a person’s life.
Hopelessness. Because a major symptom of depression is low self-esteem, those struggling with it often have little confidence in their ability to overcome adversity. Unable to picture the figurative light at the end of the tunnel, many choose to avoid treatment altogether. Aside from questioning themselves or the effectiveness of treatment in general, they may additionally struggle to muster up the physical or mental energy to actively participate in their recovery.
Lack of recognition. Some people with depression don’t realize that anything is wrong. They may recognize that they are frequently unhappy but perceive these feelings to be normal. By listening to the input of clinicians and others in recovery, many begin to acknowledge the tremendous toll that depression has taken on their lives. By becoming more self-aware, people suffering from depression can better understand their personal triggers and how to best manage their symptoms.
Treatment Options for Depression
Antidepressants are a common form of treatment for depression, but they are not the only option. Before taking medication to manage their symptoms, people should consult with a primary care doctor to see whether antidepressants are the right option for them. Attending therapy while using antidepressants can be even more beneficial, as a clinician can help establish positive coping strategies and offer techniques for emotional regulation.
Therapeutic activities such as meditation, yoga, and acupuncture can be useful accompaniments to medication or therapy in the treatment of depression. Meditation and yoga are wellness practices that demonstrate how to sit with discomfort, cultivate patience, and release negative emotions in a healthy way. Likewise, acupuncture provides relief from depressive symptoms by releasing endorphins – the body’s natural painkillers – to balance the mind, body, and spirit. Finally, people struggling with depression can protect and sustain their well-being by staying away from triggers – such as drugs and alcohol – that can exacerbate depression.
In order to recognize the signs of depression and develop compassion for those dealing with mental health disorders, understanding the difference between feeling sad and feeling depressed is crucial. When a person feels sad, their emotional pain may feel like a burden in the moment, but it does not usually disturb their quality of life or sense of self-worth. A depressed person can appear outwardly happy but may struggle to see themselves or the world in a positive light. This can impair their interpersonal relationships, their energy and motivation levels, and their ability to deal with challenges. For these reasons, overcoming depression can seem like an insurmountable feat, but recovery is possible. Through traditional and complementary forms of treatment, people can gradually step out from under the grey cloud that has followed them and start regaining control of their emotional well-being.
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