Depression vs. sadness: Understanding the difference

Depression vs. sadness: Understanding the difference

Ahmed Raza

Many people use the words depression and sadness interchangeably. However, the meanings are tremendously different. Sadness is an emotion, while depression is a clinical diagnosis. This article will discuss how sadness differs from depression.

What is the difference between depression and sadness?

Everybody experiences the normal human emotion of sadness at one point or another, as it usually has a specific trigger like upsetting life events. Depression is an overpowering and overwhelming mental health disorder that drastically impacts everyday life.

What is sadness?

Sometimes the loss of a job, a difficult break-up, or the death of a loved one can cause significant feelings of sadness and grief. These are a normal response to a tragic event. Some who are experiencing these emotions may describe their experience as ‘depression.’

Sadness versus depression

However, it’s crucial to understand that being sad is not the same as clinical depression. Grief is natural and may share similar features to depression, such as intense sadness and isolation from daily activities. In sorrow, the pain comes on like waves mixed with positive memories. While sadness maintains one’s sense of self-worth, depression often causes feelings of worthlessness. Luckily, sadness will fade with time.

Sometimes grief and depression occur at the same time. In these cases, the grief is more long-term and may require treatment. Understanding the difference between sadness and depression supports people to get the help or treatment that they need.

When to seek help

If the feelings of sadness last longer than two weeks or interfere with your ability to function, you may be experiencing depression. Make an appointment to speak with a health care provider. However, those who are experiencing suicidal thoughts should call emergency services at once.

What is depression?

Depression is more common than you may think. Almost one in twenty (4.7%) have a clinical diagnosis of depression, and the Anxiety and Depression Association of America states that 264 million adults worldwide live with this diagnosis.
Depression, also known as major depressive disorder, affects how you feel, think, and act. It can interfere with your ability to function at work and home. Depression causes a loss of interest in formerly enjoyable activities.


To have depression, you must experience symptoms for two weeks, and it must be a change from your typical behavior. According to the American Psychology Association, the symptoms of depression involve any (or all) of the following:

Other symptoms of depression include irritability, anger, or physical symptoms (headaches or body aches) that do not seem to have a cause.

Depression please cut to the chase

“Depression please cut to the chase.” by darcyadelaide is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Risk factors

Depression occurs in both men and women across the lifespan. It can affect people across all ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds. While having a risk factor doesn’t mean that you’ll become depressed, some things can make it more likely. These risk factors include:


It is important to rule out a medical cause as some conditions, like brain disease or a thyroid disorder, can have similar symptoms. Some medications may also cause depressive symptoms, like beta-blockers, calcium channel blockers, ace inhibitors, angiotensin II blockers (ARBs), and alpha interferons.

There are other depressive conditions than major depressive disorder, like:

If your healthcare provider evaluates you for depression, they will use the diagnostic criteria of the DSM-V. To qualify as a major depressive disorder, you must experience a change in functioning from before. Also, you must experience five or more of the following symptoms during the same 2-week period (and at least one of the symptoms is either a depressed mood or loss of pleasure).


Luckily, depression is treatable. However, the treatment depends on the severity of depression, the person’s response, and personal preferences.

The bottom line

For some, the sadness is situational, while others experience clinical depression. While sadness and depression are often different, they can co-exist. Throughout a person’s life, an estimated one in six will experience depression. However, that doesn’t mean that you will always feel this way. Regardless of how you are feeling, you are worthy of happiness and healing.

If you are feeling depressed, call the substance abuse & mental health services administration National Helpline (800) 662-HELP (4357).

Written by on Jul 23, 2021

Caitlin Goodwin, DNP, RN, CNM, is a Board Certified Nurse-Midwife, Registered Nurse, and freelance writer. She has over twelve years of experience in nursing practice.

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