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How to Know the Difference Between Depression and Sadness

How to Know the Difference Between Depression and Sadness

My heart sank as I heard my friend’s response after revealing how I had been feeling recently. “Oh, come on now, your life is going great. You just have ‘the blues,’ it will pass.” I shrugged my shoulders and sipped some tea, wondering what to say next. The problem was that it didn’t pass, my symptoms were remaining the same, and each passing day was a struggle to get through.

When a person is depressed, their symptoms could manifest in different ways. Some symptoms of depression could include:

  • Fatigue, even feeling like getting out of bed can be challenging, let alone working.
  • Negative thinking, even when life is seemingly going well for the person. Lack of hope for the future, even if others see hope in the person’s life.
  • Isolating behavior can occur, a person who is normally social may choose to stay home most of the time.
  • Losing interest in activities that are usually fun for the person.
  • Dark thoughts can occur, even suicidal thoughts if the depression is severe.

These are a few examples of symptoms of clinical depression. For a more comprehensive list of symptoms, you can check out this website.

One of the main ways to tell whether you’re experiencing clinical depression or just have “the blues” is to see if your low mood is attached to a circumstance. For example, when one of my ex-boyfriends suddenly broke off the relationship a few years ago, I felt terrible. I may have even said I felt “depressed” by the whole situation. However, two months later my mood was fine. This incidence of feeling terrible was related to that situation, and I would classify that as having “the blues.” Had my low mood continued for six months, with no improvement, I would probably have gone to see my doctor.

One important thing to remember is that situational “blues” can trigger clinical depression in some people. For example, if a person loses a loved one suddenly and still feels extremely sad every day two years later, then they may be suffering from clinical depression, and should ask their doctor about it.

Back to my conversation over tea with my friend. My life had been going great. I was engaged to a wonderful man, I loved my job, I had many friends and family who were supportive of me. So, why did I feel so terrible?

It was hard to get out of bed in the morning. I didn’t feel like being around people as much as I usually did. I felt teary at times for no reason. My friend who I had expressed my feelings to was perplexed by my negative outlook, when everything in life was going well. Clinical depression often has to do with a chemical imbalance in the brain, and nothing at all to do with circumstances in life. I took this opportunity to educate my friend about depression and how a person can be depressed even though their life is great.

Here are a few suggestions if you’re feeling down and don’t know if you’re depressed or have “the blues”:

If you’re feeling down, what should you do?

Examine your life to see if there’s a cause for your low mood. Had you experienced a loss recently? Did someone close to you pass away? Did you lose your job? Were you not accepted into a school you were hoping to go to? Did your girlfriend break up with you? Did you have to put your cat down? Many different types of circumstances can make you feel blue, so try to see if there’s something causing the low mood.

If it’s not linked to a certain circumstance, then what?

If it’s not linked to a situation, and the symptoms have continued for a few months with no improvement, then it would be wise to see your doctor. I take anti-depressants to improve my mood. They have worked very well in my case. However, everyone is different. Some people react well to medication, some people don’t. Some individuals need medication to function well in life, some people just need some counseling sessions to work on coping strategies. Clinical depression is a very individual thing—there isn’t one way of treating depression, it is unique to each person.

If you are diagnosed with clinical depression, should you disclose it to friends or let them think you just have “the blues?”

That depends on your comfort level. There still is stigma around mental health challenges. One way to lessen stigma is by telling your friends you live with depression yourself. However, this can be a big step for some people. If you’re in a vulnerable place, and you’re not sure how a friend will respond to your disclosure, then you may choose not to. You may choose to tell them once you’re feeling better, because then you could better handle a negative reaction to your announcement. In my experience, most people have been receptive and empathetic to the news that I struggle with depression. This includes friends, family and employers. Sometimes it’s helpful to let people you interact with regularly know that you’re struggling a bit, so they can be sensitive to your situation.

What if you don’t want the mental illness label?

That’s a tough thing. For people that don’t want to be labeled as “depressed,” what should they do? It’s totally up to the person. They could continue to struggle alone and not talk to anyone, like many people choose to do. They could talk to their doctor, and have any treatment or mental illness label kept confidential. I was quiet about my mental illness for the majority of my life. It was only three years ago that I started telling people that I knew.

So, for 15 years I kept it mostly a secret (telling only family and a few friends). Then I started telling more people, and now it’s something I feel comfortable sharing about on a wider level. Was this always an easy process? No. However, now that I’m used to it, I find value in sharing my mental health story with others. Hopefully my struggles can help educate others or even give people hope.

I would encourage those of you who struggle with your mood to take a closer look at what’s going on. I would ask those who don’t struggle with mental illness to keep an open mind, and listen to people’s stories before judging the situation for yourself. Depression is complicated. It affects everyone differently. If someone discloses to you that they have depression, please be considerate of their feelings and be empathetic. I am happy to tell you that my friend who I had tea with was very receptive to me educating her about depression. She didn’t know a lot of what I explained to her, and thanked me for informing her about clinical depression.

If you’re feeling quite down, please know that there is hope at the end of the tunnel. There are friends willing to listen, professionals ready to help—all you have to do is make the first step to broach the topic. I know people who are living proof of having hope amidst struggle, and have battled through depression. I am one of them, and you could be the next.

Editor’s note: This is republished from an article written in 2017. 

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