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Depressed or Sad? How to Recognize the Difference

The Sleep Club Editors

We all get sad. It’s a natural human emotion every person on the planet goes through at one time or another. Depression, however, is not a universal feeling and is often confused with sorrow. This misunderstanding leads to it being overlooked by many or treated as something those affected by it should be able to control. “Get over it!” or “Cheer up!” is something those who struggle with depression hear quite a bit — neither of which are helpful, by the way — and a lot of that has to do with many believing being depressed is simply more intense, lingering sadness.

Sadly — and, yes, we meant to lead with that — it is not quite that simple. As we enter the second week of Mental Health Awareness Month, we at Sleep Club would like to take just a moment to separate the two to shine a light on how to best support those struggling with either.


Being “sad” doesn’t mean you’re depressed, but being “depressed” does mean you’re “sad” (among other things) 

Losing a loved one, having our feelings hurt, learning about the pain of others and being affected by it — even reading, watching or listening to a sad story can hit us in the feels — causes us to experience that aching sorrow in the pit of our stomach and heart that makes us cry, even weep.

Sadness is normal, and the pain of loss and the grief that follows can hit us hard. Our sorrow may hold us longer than we would like and may even cause us to cry at odd, uncomfortable times, but it is still us simply feeling the natural emotion that accompanies such hurtful situations.

Depression is very different. It is a clinical, mental disorder that can take over and even destroy people’s lives if unchecked. Being sad is a sign of depression, and is not always the cause. There is much more that goes into it including a feeling of hopelessness, lack of motivation, feeling discouraged, and losing the desire/interest in those things that person used to enjoy as well as shutting other people out and wanting to be alone. Severe depression can also cause someone to be unable to function at work or in their daily life, stop enjoying the smallest things as well as consider, attempt, and commit suicide. Basically, “Get over it!” and “Cheer up!” are not the answers, and what is needed when someone is depressed is a healthcare professional to support and assist.


A shoulder to cry on vs. professional treatment

When someone is feeling old school “gotta cry because something negative has happened to make me feel that way” sad, there are some tried and true methods for successfully moving beyond the sorrow. 


Embrace and acknowledge 

You’re sad. It’s true. And it’s okay. Have yourself a good cry, let yourself feel the pain, and don’t ignore how hard whatever negative issue hurt you.


Write it, draw it, paint it, dance it — express the hell out of it 

Journaling about your feelings, singing, drawing, dancing — whatever form your expression takes, do it. The act of emoting manifests for each of us in different ways and if you want to create an interpretive dance to perform in front of your mirror that fully releases and reflects the sadness within, go for it. You’ll feel better.


Laugh until you cry

Watching your favorite standup, putting on a funny movie or television show, reading great wit and humor, or even hanging out with someone who invariably knows how to make you laugh helps take the edge off. Things happen in our lives that make us believe we’ll ever smile let alone laugh again. Believe us, we know. But you will and by putting yourself in situations that prompt that, you’re taking that first step to opening yourself back up to letting go.


Call on your support system

You are not alone. The people who love you are there for you. Share with them, take walks together. You don’t even have to talk unless you want to. Sometimes it’s enough to feel the care coming your way.


Slow and steady

Getting over sorrow doesn’t just happen overnight and in all truth, if you push yourself to “Get over it!” — whatever it is — too fast, it will probably rear its sorrow-filled head before you know it. Baby step it back to feeling joy. In the case of losing someone, that hole doesn’t get filled but becomes something deeper and warmer in their memory. We never stop missing those we love but we do learn to accept and to appreciate. Give yourself a break.

Now, all of these things to help deal with sadness are just little bits to get you started. You’ll find what works best for you as we humans do with all things. You could discover running marathons helps you or taking up a new hobby, travel, whatever. It’s your life and when it comes to dealing with sorrow, finding that thing that helps you move forward is what you want and no one knows what that is for you but you.

That brings us to “depression”. You can’t just journal, meditate, dance, laugh, etc.,  depression away, and if you discover your sadness starting to take over your life and grow into hopelessness, losing interest in the things you once loved, a desire to be left alone for long periods of time, and even thoughts of hurting yourself or others, that’s when it's time to seek the help of a medical professional. Doing that is called “self-care” and that is essential.


Something” may be wrong, but “You” are not 

There is a huge stigma around pretty much every aspect of mental wellness. Admitting you are depressed, seeking help, and even telling others comes with a lot of baggage. The first known written accounts of what was called “melancholia” can be found in BCE Mesopotamia when it was believed the onset was spiritually-based and caused by demons. The great Roman philosopher and leader, Cicero, however, believed depression actually had psychological origins, and it was in 825 that the Persian physician, Rhazes, thought mental disorders originated in the brain and even created a sort of early behavioral therapy that involved positive reinforcement for changing behavior.

Many of those who were put to death during the witch hunts and trials were because of depression and the belief that the supernatural was causing melancholia. Those who felt it was physically-based rather than spiritual were in the minority, and because of the asylums that were created to “treat” and house those exhibiting symptoms of hopelessness, deep sadness, loss of motivation, and more, and the legacy of believing them to be possessed, the stigma grew. 

Even today, the causes of depression are not fully understood. There are multiple contributing factors, including social, psychological and physical. A combination of medicine and therapy have been very effective in treating depression and turning it on its head to finally move it away from “There’s something wrong with you” to “There’s something wrong and let us help you.” People are finally understanding that you can’t just “Get over it!” and you’re not just “sad.” Depression can cause loss of appetite, sleep, and more and, conversely, not eating, not sleeping, and more can make you feel — you guessed it — more depressed.

Ultimately, if those feelings overwhelm or continue for long periods of time, reach out to a medical professional. We can’t say it enough and we can’t impress upon you how important it is to get support when you need it.


Similar yet different

We frequently look at our sadness as something to be ashamed of for ourselves. Are we depressed? Should we hide it? Are they the same things? Remember, just because you’re sad doesn’t mean you’re depressed, but being depressed does include being sad, and there are times when feeling sad just has to be. It’s the only way we can cope. 

With that in mind, we’d like to leave you with this:

There’s a moment towards the end of the film Ordinary People that speaks to that need to just let the feelings happen. If you don’t know it, it is a film about how one family deals with death, depression, sorrow and forgiveness — or the lack thereof. Timothy Hutton portrays “Conrad” — his first movie and a role for which he won an Oscar — a boy who’s returned home after a suicide attempt led his parents to commit him to an institution. He’s having a hard time adjusting to his old life, has difficulty relating to the mother who clearly can’t forgive him for surviving the boating accident that took the life of her other son, and is figuring this next phase of his life out. He’s also reconnected with one of his friends from the asylum, Karen, who seems to be back on track while he’s floundering. While his parents are out of town and after a particularly difficult situation with the girl he likes, Conrad calls Karen only to discover she’s killed herself. He comes close to attempting suicide again but instead goes to see his therapist, Dr. Berger, and has a cathartic, life-changing session, finally understanding he’s suffering from survivor’s guilt. Dr. Berger asks what brought this on and Conrad shares he just heard Karen committed suicide and that he feels if he’d known she wasn’t doing as well as she made him believe, he could have done something to help her. When Dr. Berger says to him, “You’re taking her on, too?” Conrad explains, “No! I just… I feel really bad about this. Just let me feel bad about this!” Seeing his honest pain and sorrow, Dr. Berger says, “Okay.”

Sometimes, we feel really bad about things and the only way we’ll feel better is if we let it flow through us so we can heal. When that “feel bad” is bigger, however, and begins taking over our lives to the point we can’t see an end in sight, it can be really scary. 

Regardless of whether you’re sad and you need a shoulder or you’re depressed and need medication and therapy, asking for help can make all the difference in the world. We know it can be hard, especially if you’re worried about what other people think. But if you’re feeling sad, you deserve to discover your smile again, and if you’re depressed, you deserve to move out of the dark and come into the light. Both of these are hard to do alone and in regards to depression? Raising your hand and calling for “Help!” may just save your life.

In an effort to help you or anyone you know in need of support during a rough time or if you believe you or a loved one are dealing with depression, we’d like to share a link to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a division of the US Department of Health and Human Services. You are not alone.
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