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The Difference Between Sadness and Depression

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Sadness is something everyone feels on a regular basis, even God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. It is one of the uncomfortable feelings which are part of the built in warning system God designed in our mind to guide and protect us. But while everyone feels sadness, why do some experience depressions ranging from mildly disruptive to life-ending suicide? Pulling back the curtain of our mind to reveal the difference between sadness and depression helps us understand and manage our feelings, and life, better.

Sadness is a Normal Response to Hurtful Situations

When an event or situation occurs, we develop an immediate view of the event based on our past experiences, stored data in our memory banks, and our belief system. Our view then determines and arouses a feeling. When the event is one which doesn’t live up to our expectations or desires, is wrong or hurtful to us or those we care for, doesn’t go as we planned, or involves us making a mistake or sinning, then our warning system produces an uncomfortable feeling letting us know something is off, our viewpoint might be inaccurate, the situation might be potentially harmful, or something is happening we need to pay closer attention to. It’s like the red light on the dashboard coming on to get your attention about a potential problem.

One of those normal, but uncomfortable, immediate emotional responses our warning system uses to get our attention is sadness. It lasts a short time (minutes to days), and although it might cause immediate mild to moderate distress, it doesn’t interfere with our functioning and doesn’t disrupt our thinking process or distort our view of ourselves, God, or life.

Depression Interferes with Life

If the problem our sadness warns about isn’t identified and dealt with in a healthy way, the problem gets worse. As the problem worsens, our internal system intensifies the warning, the sadness, to get our attention. For some, the sadness continues for several weeks and worsens into a clinical Depression. Depression often lasts a month or more and is a pervasive, life-interfering state of mind that we will discuss at length coming up.

Some basic differences between normal Sadness and Depression include:

  • Depression involves a loss of self-esteem. Sadness doesn’t.
  • Depression lasts weeks to months. Sadness lasts hours to days.
  • Depression impairs function and productivity. Sadness doesn’t.
  • Depression distorts our perspective, impairing a realistic/clear view of life and leading to thinking there is no hope, we are alone, are incompetent, will fail. Sadness minimally, if at all, impairs perspective.
  • Depression disrupts our ability to process a situation and the stored information in our memory banks to make a decision. Sadness doesn’t.
  • Depression interferes with our relationships. Sadness doesn’t.
  • Depression is a serious illness that for 10% can be life-threatening. Sadness is a normal, beneficial part of our mind’s operating system.

Major Depression, or the most common clinical depression, is a common mental (psychological) disorder, affecting an estimated 15.7 million adults aged 18 or older in the United States in 2014 alone, or 6.7% of all U.S. adults, according to the National Institute on Mental Health. According to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, the probability of struggling with clinical depression at some point in life is about 16-18%, with women (20-26%) twice as likely as men (10-12%). And according to the World Health Organization, depression is the leading cause of disability in the world, more than any other physical disease.

Studies have shown that depression is caused by a combination of biological, environmental, genetic, and psychological factors. It occurs in children, but is more common among adults. It can also occur together with other medical illnesses, such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer as well as other psychological disorders like anxiety disorders, PTSD, and substance use disorders. Those with a family history of depression, those who have been through recent life changes or major trauma or stress are also at higher risk for normal feelings of sadness escalating into depression.

Sadness and Depression in the Bible

Both sadness and depression are alluded to in the Bible. Just before Jesus’ crucifixion, we see Judas betray and Peter deny Christ. Both experienced sadness from these actions. Peter was able to repent, receive forgiveness, and grow. Judas allowed the sadness to deepen, had trouble accepting Jesus’ forgiveness, and then seemingly progressed to depression and suicide.  Read more of these men’s very different outcomes in Matthew 26:69-27:10.

We all experience sadness, but the key is for us to perceive the event accurately, manage our emotions well, identify what we are getting warned about, then apply spiritual and psychological skills to address the situation. If we do so, the circumstance, instead of beating us down into a depression, will actually help us mature and grow more Christ-like.

Get Help for Depression

If you think you might be struggling with depression, it is important for you to visit your doctor and get help if necessary. There are several online quizzes you can take from the privacy of your home to get you thinking about your mental health and help determine if you need to find professional help. Click here for simple Depression and Suicide Screener quizzes you can take today and in a matter of minutes find out your risk for depression. Remember, if you are wondering if you have depression, you most likely could benefit from a professional mental health assessment to help you determine the accurate diagnosis, but more importantly, identify and address the underlying issues activating your internal warning system.