Sadness is a human emotion that all people feel at certain times during their lives. Feeling sad is a natural reaction to situations that cause emotional upset or pain. There are varying degrees of sadness. But like other emotions, sadness is temporary and fades with time. In this way, sadness differs from depression.

Depression is a longer-term mental illness. It impairs social, occupational, and other important areas of functioning. Left untreated, symptoms of depression may last for a long time.

Keep reading to learn more about the differences between depression and sadness.

When you’re sad, it may feel all-encompassing at times. But you should also have moments when you are able to laugh or be comforted. Depression differs from sadness. The feelings you have will affect all aspects of your life. It may be hard or even impossible to find enjoyment in anything, including activities and people you used to enjoy. Depression is a mental illness, not an emotion.

Symptoms of depression may include:

  • constant feelings of sadness
  • irritability
  • fatigue
  • changes in sleeping or eating patterns
  • difficulty concentrating
  • loss of interest and enthusiasm for things which used to provide pleasure
  • feelings of deep, unwarranted guilt
  • physical symptoms, such as headaches or body aches that do not have a specific cause
  • feelings of worthlessness
  • constant thoughts about death
  • suicidal thoughts or actions

You may have some of these symptoms if you are sad, but they shouldn’t last more than two weeks. Suicidal thoughts are a sign of depression, not sadness.

Guide to the DSM-5 criteria

Mental health professionals use the American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5 criteria) to help determine if someone is sad or depressed. You may receive a diagnosis of depression or persistent depressive disorder if you meet the criteria.

The DSM-5 criteria include nine potential symptoms of depression. The severity of each symptom is also weighed as part of the diagnostic process. The nine symptoms are:

  1. feeling depressed throughout each day on most or all days
  2. lack of interest and enjoyment in activities you used to find pleasurable
  3. trouble sleeping, or sleeping too much
  4. trouble eating, or eating too much, coupled with weight gain or weight loss
  5. irritability, restlessness, or agitation
  6. extreme fatigue
  7. unwarranted or exaggerated feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  8. inability to concentrate or make decisions
  9. suicidal thoughts or actions, or thinking a lot about death and dying

Read more: Signs of depression »

Depression can occur in both men and woman of any age. Depression affects people across all ethnic groups and socioeconomic backgrounds.

There are several risk factors for depression. But having one or more risk factors doesn’t mean you’ll become depressed. Risk factors include:

  • early childhood or teenage trauma
  • inability to cope with a devastating life event, such as the death of a child or spouse, or any situation that causes extreme levels of pain
  • low self-esteem
  • family history of mental illness, including bipolar disorder or depression
  • history of substance abuse, including drugs and alcohol
  • lack of family or community acceptance for identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT).
  • trouble adjusting to a medical condition, such as cancer, stroke, chronic pain, or heart disease
  • trouble adjusting to body changes due to catastrophic injury, such as loss of limbs, or paralysis
  • history of prior mental health disorders, including anorexia, bulimia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or anxiety disorder
  • lack of a support system, such as friends, family, or coworkers

Depression is also a possible side effect of some medications. If you’re concerned that a drug you’re taking is affecting your mood, discuss it with your doctor. Some medications that might cause depression include:

  • beta-blockers
  • corticosteroids
  • hormonal medications
  • statins, which are drugs used to treat high cholesterol

Talk to your doctor if you experience sadness for longer than two weeks. And call emergency services to receive immediate medical help if you’re having suicidal thoughts.

Note if your feelings interfere with your ability to function, take part in life, or experience enjoyment. Speaking to a professional, like a therapist, clergy member, or other trusted person, can be a powerful first step toward recovery.

Learn more: The best depression apps of 2016 »

Your doctor will use several diagnostic tools to help distinguish between sadness and depression. You doctor will ask you a series of questions or have you fill out a questionnaire based on the DSM-5 criteria. This will help them determine if you’re experiencing sadness or depression.

They’ll also want to talk to you about your symptoms. They’ll ask how you’re feeling and what your daily life is like.

Your doctor may also do a physical exam. This will determine any underlying health problem affecting your condition. That could include a blood test to determine if you have an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism).

If you’re experiencing sadness, some minor lifestyle changes may help.

  • Connect with other people. Make a phone call, take a yoga class, or join a jogging club, knitting circle, or another group that interests you.
  • Build in time each day for an activity you enjoy.
  • Watch funny television shows or movies, or read a lighthearted or funny book.
  • Engage in physical activities or sports.
  • If you love animals, spend time each day with a furry friend.
  • Do not self-medicate through the use of drugs or alcohol.
  • Treat yourself kindly by eating healthy and trying to get enough sleep.
  • If you have trouble sleeping, try meditating or taking a warm bath before bed.
  • Simplify your life as best you can.

Lifestyle changes can also help you feel better if you’re experiencing depression. But these changes may not be enough. If you’re depressed, psychological counseling with a professional you trust can make a difference. This type of counseling is also known as talk therapy.

If you’re depressed or suicidal, you can receive inpatient care by staying in a hospital or other therapeutic setting.

Your physician or therapist may prescribe medications for you. There are many different types of antidepressants. You and your doctor will decide which ones you should try. These depend on your needs, family history, allergies, and lifestyle. You may need to try several before you find a treatment plan that works best for you. Sometimes, antidepressants may increase suicidal thoughts. It’s important that you let your doctor know immediately if you experience worsening depression.

Learn more: Depression medications list »

If you’re experiencing a period of sadness, lifestyle changes and being proactive may help. You may also seek out professional help if you feel it will help to talk. Or if you feel medication may help.

Depression is treatable. But simple lifestyle changes may not be enough to help your recover. You’ll likely need to take part in therapy. You might also take medication to help treat your symptoms.

Allow yourself to get the help you need. If you feel that you can’t take the next step, try to connect with someone who will take that step with you. For example, talk to a trusted family doctor. Or you could ask a friend or family member to go with you to your first appointment with a therapist. No matter how you’re feeling today, you deserve, and can achieve, hope and healing.

Conquering both sadness and depression takes effort. Make sure to keep your appointments if you’re seeing a therapist. And talk out everything that is on your mind. Here are some more tips to help you manage both sadness and depression:

  • Set your alarm clock and wake up at the same time each day. Maintaining a routine that includes self-care can help make life more manageable.
  • Include physical activity in your routine. It can boost mood and improve your health.
  • Don’t isolate yourself. Spend some time each day with someone you like, either in person, or on the phone.
  • Resume activities that have given you joy in the past, or try new activities that interest you. Having something to look forward to can help boost your mood.