Depression: How To distinguish depression from sadness

I have always found the easiest way to distinguish sadness from depression is to ask yourself if your overwhelmingly negative, hopeless feelings penetrate every cell of your body. Say yes, and you are probably depressed.

It is natural to think there is a continuum going from sadness to depression, but, actually, there is one continuum for sadness and a separate one for depression. You can be a little sad or deeply sad, a little depressed, or deeply depressed; but deeply sad never equals even a little depressed. They are completely different feelings. Depression is a full body experience, sadness is not.

Sadness is when your gerbil dies but you can still go to work. Depression is when your partner chooses someone over you, and you feel so rotten it is as if every part of your body, mind, and spirit is affected. Depression is bleak, dark and hopeless. Despair rules. On the other hand, you may feel numb, as if nothing is registering on your emotional radar screen.

When you’re depressed there isn’t much that gives you pleasure. If sad, you can still enjoy some chocolate or a beautiful sunset.

It can be helpful to distinguish a few things:
Is your depression from an external source, like a bad diagnosis, big disappointment, divorce, death, or job loss; or, did it develop from an internal concept, self-rating, idea, or state of mind? If your depression was sparked by grief, you may want to deal with that, and assume it is not depression, per se, but another aspect of your reaction to loss.(See the chapters on grief for more on its protean landscape.) Generally speaking, if your depression is linked to an external event it is more likely to respond to treatment fairly quickly. On the other hand, if it came from internal issues you have been wrestling with for years, you may want to consider professional help. Some people respond quickly, while others may take longer. All that matters is taking the first step.

In this day and age, it is easy to think a depressed person needs medication. While there are situations when that is appropriate, in many instances it is not necessary. In Germany, for example, if you go to a psychiatrist with mild to moderate depression he or she will suggest St. John’s Wort. Taking fish oil, and vitamin D3 are also invaluable in lifting your spirits.

Numerous studies have shown that any exercise helps combat depression. Something as seemingly simple as walking, assuming you swing your arms at the same time, actually balances out the hemispheres of the brain, allowing you to think more clearly. In addition, that rhythmic motion helps banish obsessive thoughts that often accompany the blues.

Dietary changes make a difference, especially if you keep your blood sugar levels as stable as possible by not skipping meals, and eating a balanced breakfast. In the early 1800s, when Dr. Samuel Hahnemann was developing his theory of homeopathy, he wrote, before you give anyone any remedy, make sure they are sleeping, eating a balanced diet, and getting some sun. The most basic self-care can have enormous benefits.

Even though it may be the last thing you feel like doing, socializing has been known to soothe feelings of estrangement, isolation, and worthlessness. So, fight the inertia to stay put and make some plans. Meeting someone for tea, or running into people as you do errands, can have a salutary effect.

One thing the research seems to consistently show is how cognitive-behavioral therapy helps change depression-creating thoughts to ones that soothe your emotions and shift your perspective on life. What is less obvious, is how many ways there are to change your thoughts. Many new age books, like “Ask and It Is Given” by the Hicks’ provide numerous techniques for shaping your thoughts and reframing unhelpful perspectives and attitudes to ones that serve you. I am still very partial to Albert Ellis’ classic “How To Stubbornly Refuse To Make Yourself Miserable About Anything, Yes, Anything!”

Dr. Ellis would have been the first person to remind you that catastrophizing about one’s mood only makes it worse. If you catch yourself saying how awful it is to feel depressed or how you can’t stand it, remind yourself you can stand what you don’t like. By upping the emotional ante with awfulizing thoughts, you actually increase bad feelings. Yes, they feel rotten, but they won’t last. You can combat pernicious thoughts with the paradoxical, Buddhist, technique of exploring your feelings. By going deeply into what scares you most, you prove how, debilitating as they are, they won’t kill you. This difficult practice, of sitting with extreme discomfort, builds emotional muscle. To support your efforts, try reading or listening to books or lectures by Pema Chodron, a brilliant contemporary Buddhist nun.

On a behavioral level, you can improve your mood by raising endorphins, the naturally occurring feel-good chemicals in the brain. Exercise, yoga, meditation, kundalini yoga, Kapalabhati breath work (find a youTube link), laughing, spending time with children and pets, dancing, singing, playing music, and engaging in something creative (this might be an art or craft project, cooking, baking, furniture making, writing, or decorating), all can jump start your mood, especially if you do them.

To decrease crankiness, try eating mood altering foods like complex carbs, beans, and chocolate. (See Chocolate’s Healing Powers on this site.) It is also a good idea to avoid wine, beer, and liquor since they act as depressants. Drink herbal tea, especially uplifting mint, and calming chamomile. Don’t skip even one meal, as it will lower your blood sugar level and add to your emotional ups and downs. Try eating three meals and two snacks a day. They don’t have to be big portions, just enough to keep your blood sugar on an even keel.

Journaling can be a real refuge when life seems oppressive. Venting, writing poetry, and making gratitude lists all quiet emotional noise, and re-orient your thinking.

You can always make an appointment to talk with a therapist or clergy person. Friends and family may not want to hear how depressed you’re feeling as they find it too threatening, and feel obliged to make you better, even though that’s not their job, and they often don’t know what to say.

Take the Beck Depression Inventory so you can better assess your true psychological state.
BDI link:

If you think you are depressed, or you are having thoughts of suicide, please seek help. There are numerous avenues you can pursue, whether it is calling a counselor, a 24 hour hot line, clergy, or your doctor. Help is there if you want it.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang

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Nicole Urdang

Nicole S. Urdang, M.S., NCC, DHM is a Holistic Psychotherapist in Buffalo, NY. She holds a New York state license in mental health counseling and a doctorate in homeopathic medicine from the British Institute of Homeopathy.