Modern-day Western culture loves positive thinking. We’re encouraged to smile, look on the bright side, “think happy thoughts”, to the point where sadness has been marginalised as an almost problematic emotion or a red flag for mental health. However, sadness is a normal, valid, healthy emotion that you should not be afraid to express. It may not be comfortable, and no one particularly enjoys feeling sad, but sadness has a crucial role in our lives and is a healthy emotional response to unpleasant situations: failing to achieve an important goal, losing a loved one, getting sick, or witnessing a distressing situation. Sometimes, even the weather can make us feel down (that one is an actual condition and is called Seasonal Affective Disorder), or you may have an undiagnosed medical condition that affects your mood, such as a food allergy.
It’s impossible for all our experiences to be pleasant. From time to time, life throws unexpected challenges at us, and sadness is a valid response to some of them. Sadness can teach you to be more empathetic, connect with others, and understand how you want to be treated. If you allow yourself to feel sad and vulnerable, you won’t get stuck feeling that way forever. On the contrary, bottling up those feelings will do more harm than good. So, if your day didn’t go as planned or you’re going through something, you shouldn’t feel guilty about being sad or disappointed. It’s all a part of life.
The difference between sadness and depression
When they feel sad, some people worry that they have depression, but the two terms aren’t synonyms. Sadness is a healthy response to something negative that has happened in your life. Depression is a complex mental health condition that means so much more than being sad. However, depression can start from a negative event in your life, and normal, healthy sadness can evolve into something more complicated if it’s not addressed in time.
One of the biggest differences between sadness and depression is their duration. Normal sadness is a fleeting emotion: you feel bad after something unpleasant has happened, but that feeling slowly dampens, and you eventually feel relieved. Sometimes, time alone is enough to cure sadness. Other times, talking to a friend, crying, or going for a walk helps us feel better. But, if sadness doesn’t go away after a few weeks and you constantly feel down no matter what, then it can be a symptom of depression.
Although in popular culture, depression is confused for extreme sadness, that’s just one of the many forms this condition can take. There are many types of depressive disorders, and they can manifest in different ways. You cannot always spot the depressed person in the crowd because a depressed person might not cry and be visibly down. Instead, depression can also manifest as a feeling of numbness, where you lose interest in the things you used to enjoy, and you find it hard to connect with friends and family.
What are the signs of depression?
If you find yourself in a situation where you are overwhelmed by sadness, try to pin it down to the event that caused it. Is it because of something that happened to you recently, such as problems at work or missing a loved one, or is it a generalised sense of sadness that you can’t track back to anything? One of the tricky things about depression is that it can creep up on you; you don’t go from being happy one day and then depressed the next. It’s a slow, nearly imperceptible transition, and if the cause is somewhere in your past, such as childhood trauma, you need professional help to overcome it.
If you feel sad because of something unpleasant that happened recently, then what you are going through is normal, and you will feel better soon. However, if sadness persists, and you’re also experiencing some of these other signs, then you may benefit from therapy for depression:
- You feel sad just about every day
- You’ve lost interest in your hobbies and no longer enjoy them
- You’re sleeping too much or having trouble sleeping
- You feel tired all the time
- You have a fluctuating body weight because you are eating too much or too little
- You lose your patience quickly, you feel restless, and minor inconveniences annoy you
- You feel guilty or unworthy
- You have unexplained aches and health problems, such as headaches and stomach aches
- You can’t concentrate and make decisions
- You have thoughts about death and dying.
What should I do if I’m depressed?
If you have recognised yourself in one or more of the symptoms above, talking to a professional therapist will help you find out if you meet the criteria for depression and, if you do, you will explore several treatment options. Many people assume that means being put on antidepressants, but that’s not always the case. Although medication plays an important role in treating depression, there are many cases where you can get better without them. For example, you may first be recommended psychotherapy or “talk therapy”, and the sessions will help you navigate your feelings, and the root of the problem, in a safe, supportive, and non-judgemental setting.
Your therapist will help you understand what caused your depression and develop healthy ways of coping. Additionally, they may also suggest several lifestyle changes that have been proven to reduce depression symptoms:
- Having a healthy, balanced diet
- Being physically active
- Finding new hobbies and activities for you to enjoy
- Practising meditation and mindfulness techniques
- Avoiding harmful coping mechanisms, such as alcohol, binge eating, and gambling
- Joining a group that focuses on an activity you enjoy
Even if asking for help feels hard, it is the best thing you can do for your mental health. If you’ve been struggling with sadness for a while now, you have negative thoughts, and you worry that you might be depressed, reaching out is the first step towards getting better.