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Depression or sadness? How to tell the difference
Posted 24 January 2020
Sadness is a normal emotion that we all feel from time to time. It’s when it starts to impact your daily life that it may be developing into something more serious.
It’s important to understand the difference between depression and feeling sad so that you can get the right support and treatment.
In Australia, 1 in 10 people suffer from depression and there are over 300 million people worldwide who are affected by it.
What’s the difference between sadness and depression?
Sadness can often be tied to a specific situation that has happened. In response, you may feel upset, flat, teary or even in pain depending on the cause. When you’re sad about one thing, you can usually still feel happy about other things.
Dr Michael Musker, Senior Research Fellow for Mental Health and Wellbeing at SAHMRI says, “We all feel sadness at some point, and it’s quite normal to feel sad, if we didn’t then there’d be a problem as it’s an important emotion.”
Depression on the other hand is when sadness lasts for several weeks and feels like you simply can’t escape. It can consume your thoughts and impact your day-to-day life. It’s like wearing a pair of glasses that make everything look negative – yourself, others, the world and the future.
Can sadness lead into depression?
Sadness can turn into depression if it’s left unchecked, particularly when people are lonely and have no support.
“When you get stuck at the dark end of sadness and it’s every day for at least two weeks then you’re heading towards a clinical problem,” advises Dr Musker.
To be classified as depression, it needs to be a continuous feeling all day, everyday, and a sadness that feels consuming.
Dr Musker says, “Sometimes we feel sad for part of the day and then we feel happy later on, that wouldn’t be depression.”
Signs you could have depression
There are 9 main symptoms of depression:
- Feeling sad every day without any break for several weeks.
- Feeling unmotivated, particularly if you’ve stopped doing things you usually enjoy.
- Difficulty sleeping (or sleeping too much).
- Feeling anxious and agitated, or the opposite, feeling sluggish and unmotivated.
- Having lots of negative thoughts about yourself.
- Feeling that life’s not worth living or it’s all too hard.
- Getting physical symptoms like aches and pains.
- Low self-esteem – or feelings of worthlessness.
- Feeling unmotivated or low sex drive.
“If you start getting at least five of these symptoms then you would be considered to have depression,” says Dr Musker.
If it’s affecting your ability to work, to concentrate, your behaviour is changing or if it starts to cause problems in your family then it’s definitely advised to speak to someone about it.
Can there be more than one type of depression?
There are two types of depression: Typical and Atypical.
Generally with Typical Depression, you get little amounts of sleep, feel agitated and anxious, have negative thoughts and often wake up feeling very low. It’s also common to have no appetite and lose a lot of weight.
Dr Musker says, “The other type, Atypical Depression, you actually do all of the opposite, you sleep way too much, you can barely get out of bed, you feel the need to sleep almost all day and wake not feeling any better.”
With Atypical Depression, rather than feeling anxious and agitated you feel very slowed down and unmotivated to do anything. People with this type of depression often eat too much and become overweight.
Can it happen out of nowhere? Or do certain situations trigger it?
Depression can often follow a difficult event, but sometimes it can come out of nowhere due to low serotonin levels in your brain. Serotonin is known as the ‘happy chemical’ because it contributes to your happiness and wellbeing.
Depression can also be genetic, which means you sometimes have no control over it occurring.
Dr Musker says, “Bullying at work, or high stress situations can lead to depression. If there are ways of dealing with these social stressors, then this would be a good place to start. Try speaking to a work counsellor, or school teacher.”
When should you get help and who should you speak with?
It’s advised to talk to a close friend, or your GP if you have depression symptoms for longer than two weeks. It’s important to open up about how you’re feeling; this can help you to correct some of your negative thoughts.
However, most people are too frightened to go and talk to their GP or they don’t want to bother them.
Dr Musker says, “Particularly with depression you’ve got a feeling of low self-worth so you really don’t want to bother other people about it.”
It’s important for your wellbeing that you seek professional help.
The best treatment for depression
Each person is unique, therefore the right treatment will look different for everyone.
There are a range of effective treatments and health professionals who can help you on the road to recovery.
If you’re experiencing moderate to severe depression, your doctor may prescribe an antidepressant. This medication helps to reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Keep in mind everyone has different ways of processing medications; therefore it may be trial and error to find the right fit for you.
“People can often get put off from taking antidepressants because of the side effects, but they may just need to change to the right drug for them,” Dr Musker says.
Some people suffering from depression may find it beneficial to talk to a psychologist or therapist. Speaking to a trained professional about your thoughts and emotions can help you see them from a new perspective. It can also help to identify any problem areas and how to implement coping strategies during tough times.
Sticking to a healthy lifestyle
Exercise, a good wholesome diet and the right amount of sleep can also really help you reduce your chances of getting depression or help pull you out of it. Getting these basic needs under control can actually improve your mood and overall wellbeing.
“By having a healthy diet you can reduce the inflammation in your body and therefore reduce the effect of the lower levels of serotonin on your brain, giving your body a better chance of recovering from depression,” says Dr Musker.
Sleep is a restorative process that heals your body naturally, getting a minimum of seven to eight hours a night is key.
Depending on your individual needs, your doctor will determine the best treatment plan for you, so you can enjoy your life.
If you or someone you know needs support, contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.