They are two different concepts with multiple points in common . Two ideas that are too often misunderstood and confused.

It is about sadness and depression , two terms that today we intend to clarify and differentiate once and for all. These differences are not only circumscribed to the emotional expression of both sensations, but also have to do with the psychological and psychophysiological causes that give rise to each of them.

Sadness and Depression: A Harmful Confusion

There is a terrible confusion between the two terms, sadness and depression. Let us define both concepts and clarify the recurring doubts about their similarities and differences.

The signs and symptoms that produce depression and sadness can be difficult to differentiate for a person who is poorly educated on the subject. Fortunately, mental health professionals know that, based on a great deal of scientific research, there are certain signs and symptoms of a different nature that allow us to differentiate between these two states.

To sum up, we can explain up to six basic points to know when we are dealing with a sad person, or someone who suffers from a depressive disorder .

  • To elaborate: “Are there several types of depression?”

1. Depression is a psychological disorder

Depression is a psychopathology in which, for different causes and reasons, the affected person manifests certain symptoms: sadness, apathy, anguish, feelings of hopelessness… In other words, sadness is only one of the facets of depression.

While sadness is a passing mental state, people who suffer from a depressive picture are in a chronic situation of discomfort and uneasiness . To be diagnosed with depression, a person must have been suffering from this type of symptoms for at least six months.

2. Sadness is a relatively temporary state of mind

The feeling of sadness is a relatively common psychological state , and is not in itself an indicator of any mental disorder. It is simply the psychological reaction to something that has hurt us or to difficult circumstances from which we find it difficult to escape. The appearance of sadness, crying and weeping is something totally normal.

Sadness is one more of the human emotions, and it is not bad nor should we worry too much about someone being sad for a few days. We may be sad when we lose a family member or close friend, we may feel sad when a plan is cut short and we may even feel this way for no apparent reason, perhaps because of a hormonal change or because we have woken up in a low mood.

Therefore, one of the differences between sadness and depression is that the former is to be expected, while few people develop depression in their lifetime.

3. Neuroimaging tests

As we see in the image below these lines, people with depression have a significantly lower level of activation in various areas of the brain than healthy people. Through different neuroimaging techniques we can observe that the depressed brain is clearly different from the healthy brain.

In addition, serotonin levels are much lower in people with depression, which influences many mental processes. A sad person, on the other hand, does not experience such radical or lasting changes in his or her brain activation dynamics.

4. Abulia

Abulia is characterized by affecting people with depression, leaving them totally (or partially) unable to cope with everyday life . Going to work, to shop or to manage becomes an impossible mission for patients with this type of condition.

Somehow, people with depression feel that there’s nothing worth moving for, and they act on this idea. They lack initiative for the most basic things, from combing their hair to going out in the street.

Abulia and the various effects on the behavior of people with depression is not something they choose for themselves. The cause of these behavioral manifestations is found in the deterioration of the nervous and immune systems. Abulia can be common in both people who are sad and people with depression. The difference is that depressed people present this apathy for weeks or even months .

5. When sadness goes too far

Sometimes, prolonged sadness over time can lead to a case of depression . The progressive deterioration in the quality of life of the affected person may be noticed because they become unable to do their daily tasks, are frequently affected (crying, isolation) and are very limited by their psychological state.

If this situation lasts for several months, the person may be in the midst of developing a depressive episode. Thus, the difference between sadness and depression is partly quantitative. But there is also a qualitative difference : in depression it is often not possible to identify the fact or the memory that generates the discomfort. This is something that does not happen when we are sad; in these situations, we feel this way because of a fact that we more or less know.

6. Sadness does not need therapy; depression does

As we have seen, u n common state of sadness is transient and not of major importance . It is very likely that people who are going through a period of emotional pain do not require any specific professional support. Simply the return to routine and the informal support of friends, family and relatives can be more than enough to get life back on track and overcome this state of sadness.

However, depression is a serious disorder that should be treated by a professional , because it affects the person’s quality of life very significantly. An accurate diagnosis and therapy focused on cognitive restructuring and, if necessary, on psychopharmaceuticals, can decisively help the patient recover his psychological well-being and maintain it over time, avoiding relapses.

Another way of looking at it is to consider that sadness is actually a useful emotion. It serves to add emotional tone to certain memories and thus make wiser decisions in the future. The difference between depression and sadness would be, then, that the latter is a disruption of the normal functioning of the brain, something that is not useful but rather a barrier. That is why it is considered that the symptoms of depressive disorders must be mitigated, and currently work is being done to go to the root of the problem and eliminate the disorder itself , although at the moment we do not know how to do this and many years of research lie ahead.

Bibliographic references:

  • Foti, D. y otros (2014). Recompensar la disfunción en la depresión mayor: Evidencia de neuroimágenes multimodales para refinar el fenotipo melancólico. NeuroImage , 101, pp. 50 – 58.
  • Triglia, Adrián; Regader, Bertrand; García-Allen, Jonathan (2016). Psicológicamente hablando . Paidós.