Sadness vs. Clinical Depression

Sadness vs. Clinical Depression

Sadness is an emotional state characterized by feelings of unhappiness and low mood.

It is considered one of the basic human emotions. It 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.

Unlike depression, which is persistent and longer-lasting, sadness is temporary and transitory. Sadness can, however, turn into depression. Being able to tell the difference between normal sadness and depression might encourage you to take action and seek resources for an improved mood.

Verywell / Nusha Ashjaee

Is Sadness a Feeling or Emotion?

Sadness is a normal human emotion that often occurs in response to upsetting, painful, or disappointing situations. This emotion can vary in intensity. Like other emotions, it is temporary and lessens with time.

Feelings of sadness can be intense depending on their source, but this emotion is also often accompanied by lighter moments. Even when you are sad, you may feel okay at times and comforted by those around you. You might feel better after crying or discussing your feelings with a friend.

Coping With Sadness

Here are some ways to experience normal sadness in a healthy way and to allow this emotion to enrich your life:

  • Allow yourself to be sad. Denying such feelings may force them underground, where they can do more damage with time. Cry if you feel like it. Notice if you feel relief after the tears stop.
  • If you are feeling sad, plan a day to wallow. Plan a day or evening just to be alone, listen to melancholy music, and observe your thoughts and feelings. Planning time to be unhappy can actually feel good and can help you ultimately move past the sadness into a happier mood.
  • Think and/or write about the context of the sad feelings. Are you sad because of a loss or an unhappy event? It's usually not as simple as discovering the cause of the sadness, but understanding why you're sad and exploring those feelings can help you feel better.
  • Take a walk. Sometimes some fresh air and a little quiet time can change your perspective.
  • Call a close friend or family member. Sometimes venting your feelings can help you process them.
  • Be kind to yourself. This may include a hot bubble bath, a nap, or splurging for some really good chocolate.
  • Let yourself laugh. Fire up a favorite comedy, binge-watch it, or find a funny YouTube video.
  • Consider starting a gratitude journal. Focusing on the positive, even if you can only think of one thing to be grateful for daily, helps you shift away from negative, sad feelings.
  • Remember that sadness can result from a change you didn't expect or signal the need for a change in your life. Change is usually stressful, but it is necessary for growth. If you're sad because you need to change something, think about the steps you can change to make your life more joyful.

Important Distinctions

It is important to be able to distinguish between feelings of normal sadness and symptoms of more serious depression.

It is the transitory nature of sadness that makes it different from depression. While sadness is limited in duration, depression lasts longer and creates significant impairments in a person's ability to function in their daily life. Sadness is an emotion, whereas depression is a mental disorder.

Be aware of the signs of sadness turning into depression and get help if you notice these symptoms significantly impacting your life for two weeks or longer.

  • Normal human emotion

  • Often occurs following disappointments and painful experiences

  • Usually passes with time

  • You can usually still function and do things you enjoy

  • Mental disorder

  • Caused by many factors including genetics, experiences, social factors, and brain chemistry

  • Can be long lasting without treatment

  • You feel fatigued, unmotivated, and disinterested in things you used to enjoy

Symptoms of Depression

Symptoms of depression include:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or "empty" mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness and/or pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and/or helplessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities that were once enjoyed, including sex
  • Decreased energy, fatigue, and/or being "slowed down"
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, and/or making decisions
  • Insomnia, early-morning awakening, and/or oversleeping
  • Loss of appetite and/or weight loss, or overeating and/or weight gain
  • Thoughts of death or suicide and/or suicide attempts
  • Restlessness and/or irritability
  • Persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment, such as headaches, digestive disorders, and chronic pain

If you experience these, you may feel inclined to just "tough it out" and wait until it passes. However, the earlier you recognize these signs, the sooner you can seek help and change your situation.

Symptoms of Clinical Depression

When to Call Your Doctor

Know that you are not alone if you are experiencing some (or multiple) of the symptoms above.

If you've been experiencing symptoms of sadness or depression for longer than a few weeks, consider reaching out to your doctor to determine the cause and what you can do about it.

Sometimes feeling depression is not a result of mental illness. It could be a medical condition, like hypothyroidism, for example, that can be causing symptoms of depression.

Once your doctor rules out any potential medical causes, they will be able to provide other options for your depression or refer you to a psychiatrist or therapist who can help you.

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Your doctor will use a number of techniques to determine if what you are feeling is normal sadness or depression. This often involves asking questions or having you complete a questionnaire about what type of symptoms you are experiencing, how long you have been feeling them, and how severe they are.

Your doctor will also want to know more about your life and the impact these symptoms have had on your ability to function at home, work, and school.

Your doctor may also perform a physical exam and conduct lab tests to rule out medical conditions or that might be contributing to your symptoms. Remember to tell your doctor about any medications or supplements that you are taking since certain medications, such as beta-blockers and corticosteroids, may also cause feelings of depression.


There are a number of factors that can play a role in causing depression. Some of the risk factors for depression include:

  • A family history of mental illness
  • Substance use
  • A history of other mental health conditions
  • A weak social support system
  • Experiencing a trauma
  • Chronic health conditions
  • Poor self-esteem
  • Stressful life events
  • Brain chemistry
  • Childhood trauma

It is important also to be aware that feelings of sadness in response to a situation in your life can turn into depression. This is why it is essential to seek help if you suspect that what you are feeling is more than normal sadness.

Treatment for Depression

Depression is usually treated using medications called antidepressants or through talk therapy. Usually, the best treatment plans include both.


Some popular medication choices for depression include:

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Paxil (paroxetine), Prozac (fluoxetine), and Zoloft (sertraline)
  • Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) like Cymbalta (duloxetine), Effexor (venlafaxine), and Pristiq (desvenlafaxine).

Your doctor will discuss with you which option is best for you.


Cognitive therapy is a popular type of psychotherapy for depression. It teaches people to take their negative patterns of thinking and replace them with more positive ones. This is helpful because our thoughts and what we say to ourselves impacts our mood and motivation.

If we frequently say negative things, we're creating a mental environment relevant to depression. Positive thinking, on the other hand, triggers positive emotions. And while controlling all aspects of depression isn't possible, this is one aspect we do have some power over.

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Your doctor may also recommend lifestyle changes that you can make that may help you cope with your symptoms. Doing things like getting regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, getting adequate sleep, and staying connected with loved ones can help you manage your condition.

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Finding ways to overcome sadness or depression can get you back to feeling like your normal self. While normal sadness is usually temporary and can often be relieved with lifestyle adjustments, you should talk to your doctor if your symptoms last longer than two weeks. If what you are feeling is depression, there are effective treatments available, including medication and psychotherapy, that can help.

If you or a loved one are struggling with sadness or depression, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.