Sadness vs. Depression

“Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.” – Carl Jung

Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between feeling “sad” and feeling “depressed.”  Both emotional experiences can feel similar, and the distinction often requires consultation with a mental health professional.  Some people think about the difference between sadness and depression with regard to its intensity and length, however Siegel (2010) notes that “it’s quite possible to feel sad for days in a row and yet be quite depressed for just a few hours.”  So what then, makes the difference?

In “The Mindfulness Solution,” Siegel asserts that the true difference between sadness and depression is that “sadness feels alive and fluid and is an essential part of living a full life, while depression feels dead and stuck and gets in the way of living.”  The emotion of sadness is an appropriate and necessary balance to the emotions of joy and happiness.  Without being willing and able to fully experience and immerse oneself in sadness, there is less appreciation and ability to experience happiness.

Depression Inventory

Adapted from “The Mindfulness Solution” is a depression inventory to help you assess your typical levels of sadness or depression.  On a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = rarely, 5 = most of the time), rate how often the following things happen:

  • I feel sad, unhappy, or down.
  • I seem to lose or gain weight without dieting.
  • I am not interested in things that usually matter to me.
  • I don’t have much energy or strength.
  • I feel stuck or trapped.
  • I feel guilty or have a heavy conscience.
  • I feel like a failure/loser.
  • I don’t have much self-confidence.
  • Even when positive things happen, I don’t feel happy.
  • I have trouble making decisions.
  • I don’t feel “alive” or engaged in life.
  • I have trouble getting myself motivated.

Sadness and depression have a funny connection to one another.  Sadness can act as a secondary emotion, masking a more primary emotion like anger.  Our personal tendencies for how we choose to deal with (or not deal with) sadness have a powerful effect on our emotional experience as well.  Of course, few people really “like” to be sad and often fight to push it down or deny it.  Of course, when we avoid emotions, they stick around much longer.  As Robert Frost wrote, “The best way out is always through.”

When you open yourself up to the possibility of fully experiencing and immersing yourself in all of your naturally occurring emotional experiences, you are allowing yourself to have a full range of emotional life.  An unintended consequence for many people of denying painful feelings is an emotional numbing or deadening.  This emotional “dead space” is much like what many people report depression to feel like.  It is almost like being disconnected, checked-out, and totally unengaged with life.  It is unfeeling.

Take a moment to check in with yourself and put words to what emotions you are experiencing right now.  Perhaps you are feeling sad or depressed right now, or maybe you’re feeling more anxious or excited, or perhaps even just calm and relaxed.  Whatever you are feeling right now, pause to think about a time in the past when you were feeling very different – i.e., opposite to how you feel now.  Really remember how that felt different.  Emotional states come and go like waves.  They are fleeting.

The emotions you feel right now will pass, too – good or bad.  The freedom that comes along with a mindful approach to your emotional experience is that you no longer have to feel so “attached” to being so darned happy and joyous all of the time anymore than you have to be so frightened or worried about feeling … well, frightened or worried.  They are just feelings and they are temporary.

Major Depressive Episode

Adapted from Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) are the criteria for a major depressive episode.  You must have experienced five or more of the following symptoms during the same two-week period and they must represent a change from previous functioning:

  1. Depressed mood for most of the day, almost every day through self-report or observation by others.
  2. Markedly diminished interest/pleasure in all/almost all activities for most of the day, almost every day.
  3. Significant weight loss when not dieting or weight gain, or increase/decrease in appetite almost every day.
  4. Insomnia or hypersomnia almost every day.
  5. Psychomotor agitation/retardation almost every day.
  6. Fatigue/loss of energy almost every day.
  7. Feelings of worthlessness or excessive/inappropriate guilt almost every day.
  8. Diminished ability to think/concentrate or indecisiveness almost every day.
  9. Recurrent thoughts of death (beyond a fear of dying), recurrent suicidal ideation or a suicide attempt.

Many cognitive behavioral therapists address sadness and depression by encouraging clients to recognize cognitive distortions and replace these distorted thoughts with more rational ones.  While this can be extremely helpful and has an incredible amount of empirical evidence to back up its efficacy in the treatment of depression, incorporating a mindful and accepting attitude to sadness and depression is an incredibly useful supplement.

Third-wave cognitive-behavioral therapies, including ACT, DBT, and other mindfulness-based cognitive therapies, encourage the use of mindfulness practices in learning to be more comfortable with and accepting of uncomfortable emotional states.  Mindfulness practices teach us how to take depressive thoughts more lightly and not get so “caught up” in their intensity.  This is not denying their existence or invalidating the emotional experience of sadness or depression – rather, it is giving you the freedom to observe your emotional experience without it taking over.

Siegel (2010) reminds us that “thoughts are not reality … Because we get so stuck in our thoughts when depressed and those thoughts tend to be so negative, meditative techniques that help us identify less with thoughts can be particularly helpful.”  The next time that you feel as though you are stuck in a state of sadness or depression that you do want to be stuck in, allow yourself to open up to the possibility of disentangling yourself from your depressive thinking.  Mindfully observe your thoughts and emotions and watch them pass.  You are not your thoughts.  You are not your emotions.

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American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (Revised 4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Siegel, R.D. (2010). The mindfulness solution: Everyday practices for everyday problems. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Featured image: Shandi-lee XXI {pieces II} by Shandi-lee / CC BY-2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.

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