Am I Really Just Sad or Depressed?

Has anyone opened to you about being depressed? Have you opened up to anyone about being depressed? If so, take a pause and think of the response you received or gave in that situation. Were you trying to be supportive and said something like, “I feel sad sometimes too”, or “don’t worry, this too shall pass”. Although the effort you have taken from your side in providing an empathetic response is appreciated, a response like this may mean that we need more clarity in the difference between sadness and depression.

I hear you, these are heavy times we never saw coming. As the pandemic continues, there are hardships along the way. CDC survey reports that at least 40% of Americans are struggling with mental health. This may mean that many of us and our loved ones, friends, etc are feeling a bit low. But are we really just sad or depressed?

Let’s break down the difference, so we can take care of ourselves and our loved ones, and be of help during these uncertain times. So the next time you give an empathetic response or express your feeling, you can understand when it’s time to speak to a therapist.

Why is addressing the difference crucial?

The confusion can lead to neglect of a serious condition that may require treatment (depression) or, we may continue to overreact to a normal emotional state, that we all experience (sadness). It is also important to seek help when needed to reduce the future implications on our mental and physical health.  

On the surface, the terms may seem quite similar and we might have interchangeably used the terms. However, there are many important differences between them. 

What is sadness?

Sadness is defined as an emotional state characterized by feelings of unhappiness and low mood. It is one of the basic human emotions. 

Sadness is a normal response to situations that are upsetting, painful, or disappointing. Sometimes these feelings can feel more intense, while in other cases they might be fairly mild.

What can you do? 

Feeling sad is normal, acknowledge and embrace the emotion. Here are 5 simple ways to lighten your mood when you are feeling “sad”.

1. Acknowledge the emotion

Welcome the emotion of sadness and acknowledge its presence. This process of recognition and acceptance can provide clarity to work with the emotion. Remind yourself that experiencing emotions is normal. Cry and express the emotion. Allow yourself to feel sad.

2. Write about the feelings

Writing down the event and your feelings help understand why you’re sad, so you can take steps to make you feel better. Or write one thing you are grateful for, things of the positive can distract you from the negative thoughts.

3. Reach out

It is important to reach out and vent your feelings. Call that person whom you feel comfortable talking to.  The process of sharing can make a huge difference. 

4. Talk a walk

A mindful walk and breathing the fresh air can help appreciate the nature around you. 

5. Shower yourself with self-compassion and kindness

Research suggests that training compassionate responses can increase the resiliency to aversive events. It is important to practice self-compassion, so we can spread it to others around. This can help you to stay kind to yourself and others during difficult times.

What is depression?

According to APA, depression is more than just sadness. It is a mood disorder. People with depression may experience a lack of interest and pleasure in daily activities, significant weight loss or gain, insomnia or excessive sleeping, lack of energy, inability to concentrate, feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt, and recurrent thoughts of death or suicide.

How do you know if you are depressed?

Based on the DSM-V criteria, If you’ve been experiencing five or more of the following symptoms for at least two weeks with one of the symptoms being either (1) depressed mood or (2) loss of interest or pleasure, then it is possible to have depression:

Depression is the most common mental disorder. Fortunately, depression is treatable. A combination of therapy and antidepressant medication can help ensure recovery.

  • Anger and irritability
  • Anxiety and agitation
  • Changes in appetite or weight (can be either a lack of appetite accompanied by weight loss or increased appetite with weight gain)
  • Fatigue or lack of energy
  • Feelings of sadness or emptiness
  • Feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, or excessive guilt
  • Loss of interest in activities usually enjoyed
  • Mysterious aches and pains with no discernible cause
  • Problems with thinking, memory, concentration, and decision making
  • Sleep problems such as insomnia or sleeping too much
  • Slowed thought, speech, or physical movements
  • Thoughts of death and suicide

Remember that there is no stigma in seeking out help for mental health problems. After reading through the list, if you feel you suspect depression, know that you’re not alone. Please reach out to our doctor for medical assistance. Also, it is important to rule out medical conditions such as thyroid problems that may mimic these symptoms. 

What can you do?

Apart from psychotherapy and antidepressants, things can feel challenging, and just getting out of bed can be a daily struggle. Here are a 5 tips for you to practice when you have depression. 

1. List your support network and reach out

Research suggests that support groups and social support go a long way to helping manage depression. Let go of the stigma or feeling of being ashamed and seek out your support network. Seek the right kind of support.

2. Focus on self-care and daily routine activities

Research shows that 80% of people with depression can experience sleep disturbances. Turn off electronics an hour before bed and prioritize sleep. 

Keep track of your eating habits, numerous studies have shown a positive correlation between improving nutrition and mental illness. Talk to a physician and balance your diet based on vitamin intake, zinc, or any other supplements. 

3. Stay active

APA suggests that “Exercise was a beneficial antidepressant both immediately and over the long term”. It not only benefits your body but also your head. The well-researched exercises proven to lessen depression to some degree are walking and jogging. Remind yourself to head out for a mindful walk every day! 

4. Have a wellness or self-care box

Carefully consider the things that you love and might try when you’re feeling low, these can be any of the things you would love doing when you’re happy.

Choose one activity from the list and get into action! It can be simple things like listening to your favorite music, having a warm bubble bath, or reading a self-help book! 

5. Educate yourself

Psychoeducation is key to any mental illness. It allows you to develop insight into your condition. Educating yourself can lead to better treatment adherence, lower the stigma associated with the condition, improve quality of life, and reduce relapse. 


  • Feeling sad during uncertain times is not depression.
  • Reading an article or hearing a podcast is not a replacement for therapy.
  • It is important avoid any stigma associated with mental illness  and seek professional help.
  • We all experience varied emotions during our day, and sadness is one of them. 
  • If you or your loved one is experiencing prolonged sadness or depression here’s a helpline: look for a Psychologist from the APA Psychologist locator or SAMHSA – dial in the National Helpline number 1-800-662-4357.

Looking to sleep better, eat a bit healthier, move more, build a practice of self-care, or just want to feel more energy each day? Let Shapa be your virtual coach. Shapa focuses your program based on YOUR lifestyle and YOUR goals so you can build healthy habits and achieve lasting results. Learn more about the Shapa difference

About the author:

Sujatha is the study manager and content creator extraordinaire on the Shapa Health team. With a Bachelor’s in Psychology and Master’s in Clinical Psychology from India, she furthered her academic skills in Applied Behavior Analysis from Ball State University, Indiana, USA. Currently, she resides in Chandler, Arizona. She has 4+ years of expertise as a mental health professional trained in psychometrics and psychotherapy working with children, adolescents and adults. Over the past 2 years, Sujatha developed a passion for mindful living, neuroscience research, human behavior and decision making, and is driven by curiosity and gratitude. As part of the Shapa Health team she designs personalized missions utilizing behavioral science and mindfulness techniques to improve the personal health journey of the Shapa community. When not at work, she enjoys baking, hiking and spending time with family. Connect with Sujatha on LinkedIn.

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