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What’s the difference between being depressed and being sad or unhappy?

One of the reasons depression is often misunderstood is that people may equate it with being sad or unhappy. They expect that someone with depression should be able to just get over it, or should respond to efforts to “cheer them up.”

But depression is an illness. It’s not the same thing as being sad or unhappy, although those may be symptoms of depression. Dr. Simone Vigod, chief of psychiatry at Women’s College Hospital, explains that everyone experiences life’s ups and downs, but not everyone experiences depression.

“Life happens: there are stresses in life and there are challenges in life,” Dr. Vigod says. “There are losses, there are transitions. And on a daily basis, there are things that can make our mood go up, or that can make our mood go down.”

Sadness or a low mood is not always an inappropriate response. There are many situations, events and stressors in life that might make someone feel those emotions as they cope with a setback or a loss. This type of understandable reaction is not usually cause for worry.

It becomes a cause for concern when these feelings don’t go away.

Ongoing symptoms

People with depression have a consistently low mood, or a loss of interest in things that normally matter to them. A person must experience these symptoms on most days, for a period of at least two weeks to be diagnosed with depression.

“One day of feeling low here and there probably doesn’t constitute a major depression. There’s an element of consistency,” Dr. Vigod says. “The other element of depression is that it does have an impact on a person’s function. So the effect that low mood and loss of interest is having on a person’s ability to work. The effect it is having on their interpersonal relationships, their social situation. Or if the distress that the low mood is causing is so distressing that it’s intolerable.”

Depression is not just an extension of sadness. In addition to low mood and loss of interest, depression can have other troubling symptoms, including:

  • sleep problems: either sleeping too much, being unable to fall asleep, or waking up in the night
  • appetite issues: either eating too much, or not wanting to eat
  • low energy levels
  • concentration problems
  • negative thinking or feeling very pessimistic

“Depression is characterized by negative thoughts about yourself, about how you perceive the world and how the world perceives you,” Dr. Vigod says. “So someone who is in the throes of a depression will interpret something in a negative light when it could have been interpreted in many ways.”

The symptoms of depression are often disturbing, and interfere with the person’s life and their ability to function. Someone with depression is feeling something beyond an appropriate or regular reaction to the ups and downs of life.

“At the extremes, people may have thoughts about not wanting to live anymore and have plans about how they would take their life,” Dr. Vigod says. “That is in no way a normal variance of sadness.”

The causes of depression are complicated, and research indicates that there is no single cause. Some people may be genetically or biologically predisposed to depression. Environmental and social factors, such as trauma and major psychological stress, may also play a role.

“The most important thing to know is that depression is treatable,” Dr. Vigod says. “Regardless of the cause, there are effective treatments for depression.”



This information is provided by Women’s College Hospital and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: May 7, 2019.

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