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Depression VS Sadness

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Depression VS Sadness

When does sadness become depression? All emotions, even the negative ones, have important functions. Emotions drive our decision-making and behaviour and help us understand ourselves better. But how do we know if someone's high or low mood is an expression of a mood disorder or just a healthy emotional response? We will explore this question as well as the distinction between the diagnoses of different mood disorders in this explanation.

  • We will begin by looking into depression vs sadness definitions, which will help us see the difference between sadness and depression.

  • Next, we will expand on the understanding of situational sadness vs depression by exploring depression vs sadness symptoms and treatment.

  • Finally, we'll look at how the depression diagnosis is made, drawing a distinction between unipolar and bipolar depression.

Depression VS Sadness, illustration of a man crying under a rainy grey cloud, StudySmarterExperiencing negative emotions is generally considered healthy and common, freepik.com

What is the difference between depression and sadness?

Let's examine how the distinction between depression and sadness is drawn in psychology.

Depression vs sadness definition

Sadness is a common emotion, and it is characterised by painful and unpleasant feelings. It is typically situational, meaning it arises in response to a difficult life event, and transient, meaning it dissipates with time. Similarly to other emotions, sadness can impact your physiology, behaviour and cognitive processes, including perception, logical thinking and memory.

Emotions, like sadness, are our body's reactions to different situations. Sadness can be brought about by experiences that bring about feelings of helplessness, loss, failure, or guilt. We might feel helpless when our beloved pet gets sick and an important relationship breaks down or if we fail in something. In response to these or similar situations, we might feel less motivated to do things we typically like, lose our appetite, and experience insomnia or increased sleepiness; our posture and facial expressions can also change.

These responses are normal and generally adaptive; in time they pass, we return to feel like our usual selves again. If emotions become stable and persistent for a longer period of time, we refer to them as moods. Low mood is characterised by prolonged sadness, and it is one of the key symptoms of depression.

Low mood alone is not sufficient for a diagnosis of a mood disorder.

How is sadness adaptive? The feedback we get in the form of emotions helps us make better decisions in the future. Sadness in response to an experience of loss can make us aware of behaviours we should avoid so we don't experience a similar loss again.

Sadness also evokes sympathy; expressions of sadness can therefore encourage social support from others at times when we need it the most and generally strengthen social bonds.

To diagnose a mood disorder like depression, a person must display several symptoms over time. Moreover, the symptoms have to lead to a significant impairment in functioning. Depression can interfere with many domains of life, and due to its high prevalence, it is one of the leading causes of disabilities worldwide.

Depression is a mood disorder; a core feature of this mental illness is a persistent experience of low mood or sadness.

Difference between sadness and depression

Both sadness and depression involve changes in our emotions (how we feel), cognitions (how we think), physiology (e.g. appetite, sleep, arousal) and behaviour.

The key difference is the time for which the symptoms persist, the degree to which it impairs our daily functioning and the number of associated symptoms.

  • For the clinical depression diagnosis, it is required that low mood or one of the other key symptoms to persist every day for a period of at least two weeks.

  • Depression is also associated with a group of other symptoms that accompany low mood. The severity of an individual's depression is dependent on the number and severity of co-occurring symptoms.

  • Depression is also characterised by significant functional impairment, which we typically don't see in people experiencing transient sadness.

Functional impairment refers to difficulties fulfilling one's social, educational or occupational responsibilities and engaging in everyday activities. A depressed person might experience difficulty taking care of themselves, maintaining a daily routine, doing chores and maintaining their performance at work or school.

Sometimes grief and bereavement can cause people to experience a long episode of low mood and other symptoms associated with it. The ICD-11, a manual used to diagnose psychological disorders, has a higher threshold for diagnosing depression in a bereaved person. To diagnose a bereaved person with depression, the key symptoms need to be present for at least a month, and other symptoms not typically associated with bereavements like suicidal thoughts or low self-worth also have to be present.

Situational sadness vs depression overview

Let's compare the way depression and sadness manifest and are typically treated.

Depression vs sadness symptoms

To qualify for the diagnosis of depression, a person needs to experience at least one of the following for two weeks: persistent low moods, low energy or fatigue, or loss of interest and pleasure most of the time. The ICD-11 also identifies other symptoms of depression, which include changes in sleep, changes in appetite, poor concentration, low confidence, suicidal thoughts or acts, changes in motor movements as well as feelings of guilt and self-blame.

The severity of the diagnosed depression will depend on the number of symptoms that a person experiences in their day-to-day life. Overall, for a diagnosis to be made, a minimum of four symptoms is required, with the symptoms lasting a minimum of one month. Moreover, for a diagnosis of depression, it is required that the symptoms significantly impair the individual's everyday functioning.

Some symptoms associated with depression can co-occur with sadness. However, what distinguishes sadness from depression is the duration, persistence, and number of co-occurring symptoms, as well as their impact on one's functioning.

Depression vs sadness treatment

To manage sadness, you can engage in comforting or rewarding activities. While talking about difficult emotions to a therapist can be of benefit for people, it is not necessary to take medications to manage sadness.

Talking to a friend, eating your favourite meal and engaging in various self-care activities can help speed up your recovery from sadness. Therefore, it is important to know what coping strategies work for you when you are experiencing difficult emotions. Most often, all you need is time. It's possible that within a couple of hours or days, your mood will improve on its own.

Depression is treated with therapy, medication, or both. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence recommends three types of therapeutic intervention for depression treatment:

  • Behavioural Activation aims to change behaviours that maintain depression. For example, clients may be encouraged to schedule more social activities during behavioural activation therapy. People experiencing depression often avoid pleasant activities, which can exacerbate their symptoms; by incorporating more rewarding activities, behavioural activation aims to relieve some symptoms of depression.

  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) aims to help clients identify how their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours influence each other. CBT targets some negative beliefs associated with depression with different techniques like behavioural experiments.

  • Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT) focuses on helping clients build and strengthen their relationships with other people. IPT assumes that depression stems from interpersonal problems.

Other than therapy, people with depression can be offered medication. Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) are one of the most common antidepressant medications. SSRIs increase the availability of serotonin at the synapse to help relieve depressive symptoms.

Depression VS sadness, illustration of a woman talking to a therapist, StudySmarterDepression can be managed with therapy and medication, freepik.com

Depression diagnosis

The 11th edition of the International Classification of Diseases, a manual for diagnosing physical and psychological disorders, outlines two mood disorders: depression and bipolar disorder. We already talked about the diagnostic symptoms of unipolar depression. Now let's examine the symptoms of bipolar depression.

Unipolar vs bipolar depression

Unipolar depression involves episodes of low moods but not high moods (mania). In contrast, bipolar disorder also referred to as bipolar depression, involves both periods of high mood (mania or hypomania) and periods of low mood (depression).

A high mood on its own is not always an indication of a manic episode. An important distinction between mania and high mood or hypomania is that mania leads to impairment in one's functioning, whether at work, school or at home.

Mania occurs when persistent high mood, and other associated symptoms, start to interfere with one's life.

People can also experience hypomania without bipolar depression. Hypomania is an experience of high mood that persists for over four days. Contrary to mania, it doesn't lead to impairments in functioning or interfere with everyday life.

Bipolar depression symptoms and treatment

To diagnose a manic episode, the ICD-11 requires "euphoria, irritability or expansiveness, and increased activity or subjective experience of increased energy" (11th ed; ICD-11; World Health Organization, 2019), as well as three other associated symptoms to be present for several days.

The associated symptoms listed in the ICD-11 include increased talkativeness or pressure of speech, flight of ideas, increased self-esteem or grandiosity, decreased need for sleep, distractibility, impulsive, reckless behaviour, increase in sexual drive, sociability or goal-directed activity (11th ed; ICD-11; World Health Organization, 2019).

The diagnosis of bipolar depression requires at least one manic and one depressive episode, lasting for at least two weeks, as well as causing significant impairment in functioning. Most people diagnosed with bipolar disorder are prescribed medication, such as mood stabilisers. There are also several therapies that have shown to be effective in treating bipolar disorder, including relapse prevention interventions, Family Focused Therapy and CBT.


Depression VS Sadness - Key takeaways

  • Sadness is a common emotion. It is typically situational and transient. Similarly to other emotions, sadness can impact your physiology, behaviour and cognitive processes, including perception, logical thinking and memory.
  • Depression is a mood disorder; a core feature of this illness is a persistent experience of low mood or sadness.
  • The difference between sadness and depression is that depression causes significant impairment in functioning. Moreover, the diagnosis of depression requires a number of symptoms to persist for at least two weeks, with some symptoms present for at least a month.
  • While sadness doesn't require formal treatment, depression is treated with therapy and medication.
  • The ICD-11 identifies two mood disorders: depression and bipolar depression/ disorder. Bipolar disorder involves both depressive and manic episodes.

Frequently Asked Questions about Depression VS Sadness

Depression is a mood disorder; a diagnosis of this requires the presence of at least four symptoms listed in the ICD-11 over some time. A common symptom of depression is persistent low mood. Sadness, on the other hand, is an emotion typically transient and develops in response to an unpleasant event.

You can use coping skills to manage sadness, but sadness generally doesn't require formal interventions. Depression is treated with antidepressants and therapy.

Sadness is an adaptive response. Sadness in response to an experience of loss can make us aware of behaviours we should avoid so we don't experience a similar loss again. 


Sadness also evokes sympathy. Expressions of sadness can therefore encourage social support from others when we need it the most and generally strengthen social bonds.

You can be diagnosed with depression if you experience persistent low energy or loss of pleasure, as well as other associated symptoms, without experiencing low moods/ sadness.

Depression doesn't necessarily mean you're sad all the time, but it is a common symptom. The clinical diagnosis of depression requires at least one of the following symptoms to persist over two weeks:  persistent low mood, low energy or loss of interest and pleasure from activities.

Final Depression VS Sadness Quiz

Question

What is sadness?

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Answer

Sadness is a common emotion. It is typically situational and transient. Similarly to other emotions, sadness can impact your physiology, behaviour and cognitive processes, including perception, logical thinking and memory. 


Show question

Question

What is the difference between emotions and mood?

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Answer

Mood is typically more stable than emotions and persists over time.

Show question

Question

Is low mood sufficient for a diagnosis of depression?

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Answer

No, to diagnose depression, multiple symptoms are required, which need to persist for a specific period.

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Question

Is sadness adaptive?

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Answer

Yes, it can help us avoid future negative experiences and evoke sympathy in others.

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Question

What is depression?

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Answer

Depression is a mood disorder; a core feature of the illness is a persistent experience of low mood or sadness. 

Show question

Question

What are the similarities between sadness and depression?

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Answer

Both sadness and depression involve changes in our emotions, cognitions, physiology and behaviour. 

Show question

Question

What are the differences between sadness and depression?

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Answer

The key difference is the time for which the symptoms persist, the degree to which it impairs our daily functioning and the number of associated symptoms.

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Question

What is functional impairment?

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Answer

Functional impairment refers to difficulties fulfilling one's social, educational or occupational responsibilities and engaging in everyday activities. 

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Question

What are the three key symptoms of depression identified in ICD-11?

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Answer

Persistent low mood, low energy or fatigue, and loss of interest and pleasure from activities.

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Question

What are the associated symptoms of depression identified in ICD-11?

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Answer

Changes in sleep, changes in appetite, poor concentration, low confidence, suicidal thoughts or acts, changes in motor movements as well as feelings of guilt and self-blame.

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Question

What therapies are recommended for depression treatment by the National Institue for Health and Care Excellence?

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Answer

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Behavioural Activation and Interpersonal Psychotherapy.

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Question

What is the difference between unipolar and bipolar depression?

Show answer

Answer

Unipolar depression involves episodes of low moods but not high moods (mania). In contrast, bipolar disorder also referred to as bipolar depression, involves both periods of high mood (mania or hypomania) and periods of low mood (depression).

Show question

Question

What is a manic episode?

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Answer

Mania occurs when persistent high mood, and other associated symptoms, start to interfere with one's life. 

Show question

Question

What is the main difference between mania and hypomania?

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Answer

Hypomania does not lead to impaired functioning, but mania does.

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Question

What are the two mood disorders identified by the ICD-11?

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Answer

Depression and bipolar disorder.

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