The Difference Between Sadness and Depression

How to raise our awareness of depression to exercise some compassion

mental health, the difference between sadness and depression

Depression can affect people of all ages and backgrounds. It is mainly characterized by feelings of prolonged sadness, hopelessness, and a loss of interest or pleasure in previously enjoyable activities. Unfortunately, many people still view depression as an inherent weakness or personal failing, perpetuating the stigma and shame around seeking help. Often a lack of compassion for mental illness can be traced to a lack of education.

To help reverse the impact of the stigma, we need to better support ourselves and others. Read on to discover a metaphor designed to help you distinguish and articulate the difference between depression and sadness.

Firstly, what is the difference between sadness and depression? When you’re feeling sad, there is usually a source or situation that you can link it to.

I am sad because I didn’t get the job I was hoping for.
I am sad because I miss someone.
I am sad because I had to work instead of going to a concert with all my friends.

The subjects that create sadness vary in intensity, but the subjects themselves are the trigger for feeling sad. Sadness is simply a mood and it is short-term. For example, it is possible that you can initially feel sad about something, and after a sustained period of time, you become depressed. Once this happens, you are no longer in a mood of sadness; you’ve in a sense become the sadness.

Depression also changes the chemistry of your brain and alters your perception. It clouds your memory and judgement, making it difficult to imagine that you’ve ever felt any differently or that you will ever feel happy again. It can last for months, sometimes years, and reoccur several times in one’s life. In other words, you can be sad about a thing; depression is the thing.

Isolation Island: What’s it like to experience depression

The following metaphor is inspired by my friend and licensed mental health counsellor, Aaron Moore, whom I’ve spent over 50 hours training with in his mental health courses. 

Picture being on a beautiful island beach with a bunch of your friends. The sun is shining and sparkling on the water. The air is warm on your skin. Everyone is smiling, laughing, and listening to music. Some people are playing volleyball or soccer in the sand.

Then all of a sudden, a thick, grey, damp fog creeps its way off the water and onto the beach surrounding you. The warm air on your skin has been replaced with a cold, wet dew. You are inhibited from seeing the reality of your surroundings clearly: all you see is fog.

It appears that you are entirely alone; there’s just one strange thing: you can still hear everyone else playing in the sand, laughing, and carrying on like nothing’s changed. You try to call out to them, explain your experience, and ask for help, but they can’t seem to understand why you’re unable to enjoy yourself.

They can’t relate to why you would feel so scared, unmotivated, and spacey on such a sunny, clear and perfect day.

You try to be more descriptive and tell them about the fog, but they respond with things like: “Try waving your arms around to clear the fog. Put in some effort and maybe it will blow away.” Or, “You need to reframe your mindset: just believe it’s sunny again. Fake it till you make it.”

This heightens your feelings of isolation and loneliness. No one is taking you seriously. No one believes you’re telling the truth. You seem to be the only one in this mysterious fog which you have already tried everything in your power to get rid of. You don’t have control over the weather, so pretending that it’s sunny doesn’t actually bring the sun out. You’ve tried faking it, but you never seem to make it.

Every now and then, for no apparent reason, the fog will lighten up slightly for a few minutes or a few hours but then inevitably return, making your emotional state completely unpredictable and thus your request for support unclear and confusing to yourself, and others.

You desperately want to capitalize on these moments of clear skies, but you’re afraid if you show laughter, it will be harder to convince people of your struggle. You try to move forward through the fog but get more lost because you can’t see clearly. You become stranded in one place until you build the strength to try again.

You exert every bit of energy you have just to take a step forward, but the heaviness of the fog makes you feel like you’re in slow motion, exhausting you easily from your attempts. Passively or blatantly, you’re accused, more and more, of being overdramatic, lazy, negative, and ungrateful.

The loop continues and hopelessness ensues, eventually turning the fog to a downpour.

If you’re trying to hold on to hope, things will change, but it’s almost like the rain has changed the way your brain operates and has convinced you that the only way out is to let go and give up.

Rowing out of the rain

When the “fog” or rain (aka depression) lingers for too long, it can transform your mind and brain into something even you wouldn’t recognize.

After several years of experiencing depression and anxiety on and off, my brain changed so much that I went from someone who knew exactly what they wanted in life to a complete loss of purpose on earth and frequent suicidal thoughts.

I was becoming convinced that maybe I had been depressed for so long because my fate was to die young. Potentially, the only meaning to my life would come out of my death, I would think.

This was not me; this was the depression talking.

It’s imperative that you fight tooth and nail with everything you’ve got left, to make progress in rowing out of that rain—or the sh*t storm, if you prefer.

What I’ve learned is that the only way to get off “isolation island” is to build a rowboat with the following materials:

  • Professional counselling or therapy: half of the wood needed to build the boat.
  • Medication: the other half of the wood needed to build the boat.
  • Self-compassion and forgiveness: one oar.
  • Living in a stable, predictable, safe environment: the other oar.
  • A daily resilience routine including meditation, movement, uplifting music, creativity, connecting with loved ones, proper nutrition with supplements that support the immune system and mood, right hours of sleep, lots of water, no booze: all of the screws that hold the boat together.
  • Community: the lifeline should you go overboard.

Your boat doesn’t have to be fancy, just functional, and, of course, these are just examples of what could help build your boat. Your combination of materials might look different than this.

It will likely take trial and error to see what works for you. Once the boat is built, consistency will win the day. No one can physically row the boat for you. It’s up to you to put one stroke after the other. There will be moments when the water is calm and moments when you’ve got to row like hell against the tide just to get out of bed.

In any case, moving out of depression requires a multi-pronged, malleable method. Your regimen won’t be the same as someone else’s, and it won’t be the same for all time.

Dear supporters of depressed people

It’s understandable if you’re unsure of how to help if you’re uninformed on mental health challenges and/or you simply can’t relate. But consider that depressed people aren’t necessarily asking for a solution from you. They’re asking for a connection. They’re asking to be heard. To be seen. They’re asking to be accepted and loved just the way they are, while they fight to evolve.

Instead, they are often told to get over themselves. That they’re too in their own head. That they must be attracting their unhappiness. They’re accused of being irrational. Prompted to think of all they have to be grateful for. Reminded that “it could always be worse,” which ultimately makes them feel even worse.

They’re completely misunderstood and part of them doesn’t even understand themselves. Part of them wants to abandon themselves, always looking for a way out of their own skin, out of their own mind.

Here’s the thing: we humans have a hard time being present with someone who is suffering because we’re afraid of feeling helpless. Ironically though, that is how they feel. So, meeting them in their place of helplessness is the most compassionate thing we can do for them.

Instead of trying to “fix” depressed people with advice and solutions, which might only heighten the sense of disconnection, try this approach instead:

  • Validate their experience by saying in your own words: “This must be so challenging and frustrating.” Ideally, you would mirror back something they said, rather than guess what they’re feeling or impose your interpretation on them.
  • Show them that they’re worthy of reliable connection in your own words: “You’re not alone in this. I’m right here beside you.”
  • Co-create a path forward in your own words: “I don’t have the answers, but how can I support you while we figure out the next best steps together?” Assisting them in finding professional help could be a powerful first step.

Those struggling with depression ultimately require compassion from themselves and from others. Mental health education is a critical step in forming depression compassion and ending the stigma. 

Originally published in the Elephant Journal as Instead of trying to Fix Depressed People, Try This. (Brown, 2022)

Photography by Jeremie Dupont

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