Depression vs. Sadness - What's the Difference?

October 04, 2017

We hear people use the phrase, "I'm so depressed," or "that's depressing." In a culture where the term depression is thrown around as a synonym for sadness the line can be blurred about the differences between sadness and the actual medical condition of depression.

Think Cause and Effect for Sadness

If something positive happens, like getting a promotion at work or hosting a successful party, someone will likely react with emotions of happiness and excitement. Alternatively, when something does NOT go well at work or the party someone is hosting goes poorly, he or she will likely react with emotions of sadness or disappointment. As time passes, these very high and very low emotions will typically fade.

Think Sustained Unexplained Emotions for Depression

Depression, on the other hand, may have no clear cause or can start as general feelings that linger indefinitely or balloon up and consume a person's life. While sadness is considered a common symptom, depression can also be masked by anger, irritability or agitation. In fact, these symptoms can even be more dominant than sadness in depression. Depression can also start with a clear cause, but the emotions don't dissipate over time or worsen.

Experiencing a range of emotions - including, but not limited to happiness and sadness - is normal human nature. But when experiencing sad, mopey feelings that "don't get any better after two weeks, it might be time to seek professional help," said Jamie Snyder, MD, a CHI Health psychiatrist.

Why You Can't 'Snap Out of It'

Depression is more than sadness — it's a medical disease. It might be a knee-jerk reaction to tell someone who is acting mopey to "snap out of it" or "just get over it." But it can actually be physically impossible to change those actions.

When someone is depressed it means their brain is not producing enough serotonin and therefore it's challenging for the brain to do "normal" things.

"Think about it like this: Just like you cannot will a type 1 diabetic to naturally produce more insulin, you cannot ask a depressed person to produce more serotonin," said Dr. Snyder.

One approach to treating depression is prescription medicines called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These can help correct someone's serotonin levels and thus lift the effects of depression. Lifestyle changes and therapy can also help.

Remember, depression is a disease and the way a person acts is a symptom of this disease. Being sad and withdrawn is a symptom. Performing poorly at work is a symptom. Being withdrawn from friends, family and coworkers is a symptom. If someone you know might be depressed, keep this framework in mind as you begin a conversation about how they're feeling and what can be done to make things better.