Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, MSCIS, MPhil, RN
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 1/9/2022
Everyone goes through ups and downs in life. When you suffer from a major setback, it’s normal to feel sad, frustrated and disappointed.
These feelings can take a serious toll on your well-being as a person, but they rarely last forever.
When feelings of sadness, anxiety or emptiness persist, they may be a sign that you’re affected by depression.
Because sadness and depression share some characteristics, they’re often confused by people unaware of the key differences between them.
Below, we’ve explained what sadness and depression are, as well as how temporary feelings of sadness differ from the mental illness that is major depression.
Finally, we’ve explained what you can do if you’re feeling sad, empty or depressed and want to seek help to overcome your symptoms and improve your quality of life.
Sadness is an emotion that can develop in response to negative experiences. You might start to feel sad after experiencing a personal setback, such as losing your job, or when you’re forced to spend too much time away from your family or close friends.
When you’re feeling sad, you might feel emotionally numb and as if your life lacks the happiness and satisfaction it once had.
In response to sadness, you might feel tired and lacking in energy, less interested in activities or hobbies, or uninterested in eating and caring for yourself.
For some people, sadness can result in opposite symptoms, such as overeating and difficulty sleeping.
It’s common to feel frustrated when you’re sad. You might vent, cry or engage in other behaviors to cope with your sadness and find relief.
Sadness is a normal feeling that everyone experiences at some point in life. While some things might prolong or worsen sadness, even the most severe feelings of sadness typically fade away with time.
Clinical depression, or major depressive disorder, is a mental disorder that involves a persistent low mood, loss of interest in activities, pessimistic outlook and other symptoms that persist over a period of several weeks.
Unlike sadness, which is a temporary feeling, depression is a serious mood disorder that affects the way you feel, think and behave on a daily basis.
Depression can involve a variety of psychological and physical symptoms. Common symptoms and signs of depression include:
A pessimistic mood and hopeless outlook on life
An empty, sad or anxious mood that develops on an ongoing basis
Feelings of worthlessness, guilt or that your situation is hopeless
An irritable mood and difficulty keeping yourself still
Slowed speech, facial expressions and physical movement
A feeling that nothing is pleasurable, including your usual hobbies
Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or waking up at a normal time
An inability to concentrate on specific tasks or remember information
Cramps, aches and pains without any obvious cause
Digestive issues, such as diarrhea or constipation
Changes in your appetite and weight loss or gain
A feeling of reduced energy and physical fatigue
Thoughts of death and/or suicide attempts
These symptoms can vary in severity from mild to extreme. If you’re depressed, you may only notice a few of the symptoms listed above on a daily basis, or you might notice symptoms that vary in severity from time to time.
Most mental health professionals consider a person as suffering from depression if they have several of the symptoms listed above on a daily or near-daily basis for a period of at least two weeks.
A key difference between sadness and depression is that sadness, even when severe, rarely affects you all the time.
Even in the wake of a serious setback that makes you feel sad, you’ll generally have moments in which you feel happy, amused or satisfied.
The feelings of sadness may return, but there’s a good chance that you’ll still experience happy moments.
Depression, on the other hand, will typically affect you throughout most of the day. It’s a mental disorder that can affect your feelings, thoughts and behavior, not a single feeling that can come and go at certain moments.
One way to think of the difference is that sadness is a single human emotion tied to an event or situation, while depression is a specific disorder that involves many symptoms, not just sadness.
If you have persistent feelings of sadness, they could be a symptom of depression. In this case, it’s always best to talk to your healthcare provider about these feelings and the effects that they have on your daily life.
Depression is very common. In fact, it’s one of the most common mental health conditions in the United States.
An estimated 19.4 million American adults, or 7.8 percent of the adult population, were affected by a depressive episode based on the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health conducted by the US Department of Health and Human Services.
There’s no single factor that causes depression. Experts believe that a range of different factors plays a role in the development of depression, including a person’s genes, their environment and their physical and psychological well-being.
Certain factors may increase your risk of developing depression. These include experiencing a major life change, dealing with significant stress or trauma, developing certain types of physical illness or having a close family member with depression.
Our guide to the most common causes of depression goes into more detail about the numerous factors that can contribute to depressive symptoms.
Depression is a treatable mental health disorder. If you think you may have depression, you can get help by:
Asking your primary care provider for a mental health referral.
Contacting a mental health professional in your local area.
Using our online psychiatry service to connect with a psychiatry provider from home.
When you talk to a mental health provider, they may ask you some questions to determine if you have depression or are just experiencing normal sadness.
These may include questions about your symptoms, their severity and when they first started to affect you.
You may need to complete an assessment to give your mental health provider more information about your symptoms and general mental health.
Several treatment options are available for depression, including medications, talk therapy and changes that you can make to your habits and lifestyle.
Depression is often treated with antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
These medications work by increasing the levels of chemicals called neurotransmitters in your brain and body.
Your mental health provider may prescribe an antidepressant by itself or for use in combination with psychotherapy.
Antidepressants are effective for most people with depression, but it can take several weeks for them to start working.
You may notice that your appetite, sleep habits and other symptoms start to improve before your moods and feelings.
Our list of antidepressants provides more information about the medications that are available to treat depression.
If you have depression, you may benefit from taking part in psychotherapy, or talk therapy, with a mental health provider.
Several forms of psychotherapy are used to treat depression, including problem-solving therapy, interpersonal therapy (IPT) and cognitive-behavioral therapy for depression (CBT).
Therapy can help you identify problematic or harmful ways of thinking that contribute to your depression.
Some forms of therapy also involve learning relaxation and coping techniques for dealing with your depression symptoms.
Our guide to therapy for depression goes into more detail about the numerous forms of therapy used to treat depression symptoms.
Both temporary feelings of sadness and the symptoms of depression often improve with small but meaningful changes to your habits and daily life.
Try the following habits and self-care techniques to improve your mood when you’re depressed:
Keep yourself active and try to exercise on a daily basis
Spend time with your friends and family members
Don’t be afraid to ask for help from the people around you
Set aside time for your hobbies, interests and passions in life
Try using meditation to calm your mind and improve your mood
Consider taking part in a support group
Focus on gradual progress, not an overnight change in your symptoms
Avoid making major life decisions while you’re depressed
Our full list of self-care strategies for depression goes into more detail about how you can help yourself if you’ve been diagnosed with a form of depressive illness.
It’s normal to go through rough patches in life. When your feelings of sadness don’t get better over time, they may be a symptom of major depressive disorder.
If you’re worried that you might have depression, it’s important to seek help.
Don’t be afraid to reach out for professional help from a licensed mental health provider, either in your local area or using our online mental health services.