Am I Depressed or Just Sad?

Have you ever heard someone say in response to a disappointing situation in their life, “Oh, now I’m so depressed”? Depression tends to get used in casual conversation rather freely today. Many people use it to describe when they’re having a bad day, or they’re feeling down or low.

The terms sadness and depression may be used interchangeably by some people, but they are not the same at all. It’s important to be precise when using these terms, since one of them refers to an emotion, and the other describes a major mental and behavioral health illness.


What Is Sadness?

Sadness is one of the emotions that everyone feels from time to time. It’s normal to experience sadness in our day-to-day lives when we feel disappointed or have experienced a loss. During our lives, we can expect to feel sad and grieve over the loss of relationships, loved ones who pass away, jobs due to layoff or termination and possibly our health as we age.

This emotion is not reserved for the really big life changes, though. We can feel sad when a friend cancels plans with us if we were really looking forward to seeing them. Some of us feel sad and have to reach for a box of tissues when watching a film with a particularly tragic storyline or ending. We may feel sad when we have to say goodbye to friends and family at the end of a visit if we know we won’t see them for a while.

The end of one chapter in our lives can make us feel sadness. Leaving a job voluntarily means leaving coworkers who we may have worked with for some time. Moving from one residence to another means leaving a familiar neighborhood and settling in a new one. Graduating from college and transitioning to full-time employment means making a shift in lifestyle from student to worker. Even though we planned for these transitions, and we want them to happen, the change brings with it a certain amount of wistfulness about leaving behind the “old” for something new.

Sadness vs Depression

If someone asked you to describe how sadness feels, more than likely, you would say something along the lines that it hurts. There is a tangible amount of emotional pain that goes along with sadness. You don’t have to cry to express your sadness — some people react to feeling sadness with withdrawing, while others become irritable or angry.

Sadness is neither right nor wrong. It just is. If you were to take the time to map out your level of sadness about an event over several days or weeks, you would likely see that it varies.

Depression, on the other hand, is a mental and behavioral health illness with ongoing symptoms. Sadness doesn’t show up, move in with you and stay for an extended period while blocking out all other emotions. Depression does.


There are many factors that can contribute to whether someone becomes depressed, such as:

  • Family history of depression
  • Hormone levels
  • Stress
  • Difficult life circumstances

Some medical conditions can contribute to depression. Approximately one-third of patients with chronic pain will become depressed at some point during their life.

Depression Is Common

Depression is often referred to as “the common cold of mental illness.” Depression gets this name because it’s a condition that people often consult their primary care physicians about.

About one in five women and one in 10 men will experience an episode of depression at some point. An estimated 21 percent of women and 12 percent of men in the United States will become depressed during their lifetime. Once someone has experienced one episode of depression, they are at a higher risk for subsequent episodes.


Signs and Symptoms of Depression

If sadness feels like pain, you can describe depression as a lack of feeling. Some people who have been depressed have described it as a pit or black hole that they can’t get out of, no matter how hard they try. Others have said that an episode of depression is like trying to walk or run through thigh-deep water — everything they try to do takes a long time and is exceedingly difficult. Another account of what depression feels like is that the world seems gray, and there is no brightness or color anywhere.

While the signs and symptoms of depression are different depending on each person, there are common indicators to look out for:

  • Lack of interest in activities that used to be enjoyable — Hobbies, spending time with family and friends, sex or other activities that used to bring joy are no longer appealing or satisfying. There is no feeling of pleasure or joy in engaging in these activities.
  • Low energy levels — You may be feeling sluggish or physically drained. Attempting to stick to a routine is difficult, since completing even a small task can seem overwhelming or take much longer than normal.
  • Feeling worthless or hopeless — Low self-esteem is a common struggle that goes along with depression. You feel as if there is nothing you can do to change the situation, and things will never get better for you.
  • Changes in sleep patterns — If you’re suffering from depression, you’re likely having difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. Or, you may want to sleep all the time.
  • Changes in appetite/weight gain or loss — Depression can lead to a lack of appetite or increased appetite. You may not have the energy or drive to make nutritious meals. You end up skipping meals or choosing fast, unhealthy alternatives instead.
  • Feelings of guilt or self-loathing — Blaming yourself harshly for mistakes or shortcomings, whether they’re real or imagined, often happens when you experience bouts of depression.
  • Concentration issues — If you’re battling depression, chances are you’re having difficulty concentrating and making decisions. You may also notice your memory isn’t as sharp as it used to be.
  • Feeling angry or irritable — Having a short fuse, very little patience, no tolerance and high levels of frustration are all common with depression. Other people can easily get on your nerves when you’re depressed.
  • Aches and pains — Many people don’t realize that depression often has a physical component. Sometimes, people notice a change in physical condition first, before they realize their mood is also down. Depression can be accompanied by unexplained headaches, muscle aches, as well as stomach and back pain.
  • Escapist behavior — Engaging in reckless driving, dangerous sports, compulsive gambling or substance abuse can be a manifestation of depression.


Not everyone who experiences a bout of depression will experience all of the symptoms on this list. The more symptoms you experience for two weeks or more, the more likely you are depressed and need to seek professional help.

How Depression Can Impact Your Life

There are several ways in which depression can impact your everyday life. This mental or behavioral health issue can take over all aspects of your life during an episode, and its influence is far-reaching.

Lack of Interest in Personal Appearance

When you are depressed, doing everyday tasks can become more difficult. It’s not uncommon for self-care to take a back seat.


You may find that routine activities — such as showering regularly, keeping your hair clean and neatly styled, brushing your teeth daily or wearing makeup — now take too much energy and effort. You may still perform these activities, but not as regularly as usual.

The same is true of finding clean clothes to wear every day. If you’re depressed, you may find it easier to wear the same clothing more than once or sleep in your clothes because changing into pajamas at bedtime takes too much effort.

Staying at Home Unless Going out Is Unavoidable

The low self-esteem that goes with feeling depressed can make you want to keep to yourself. It can feel more comfortable to stay at home, where you feel “safe.”

This behavior falls in line with a lack of interest in activities that you used to enjoy. If you used to go out before you became depressed, you will notice that you don’t feel like engaging in these activities when you are experiencing a depressive phase.

Neck and Back Pain

If you already have issues with back pain, becoming depressed may make your symptoms worse. The results of a study conducted by researchers at the University of Alberta found that the participants with depression were four times as likely to experience “intense and/or disabling neck and low back pain” than those who were not depressed.


Difficulties at Work or School

Lack of sleep or the inability to concentrate make it difficult to perform your best at work or school. Even if you had been a good student or employee before the bout of depression started, a supervisor or teacher will notice the difference and wonder about the perceived lack of motivation.

The other person’s first thought may not be to wonder whether you have a mental or behavioral health issue. Some people lack the sensitivity to ask about the situation delicately.

Without knowing what is going on, they may perceive you as having become disorganized or even lazy. This assumption can create conflict between the two of you, which will do very little to help with feelings of low self-esteem and hopelessness that characterize depression.

If the depression is moderate to severe, you may find it difficult to summon the energy to try to even describe what is going on from your point of view. It may seem easier to let the other person continue to have assumptions about you, even if they are false.

Sleeping More Often During the Day

You may notice that you want to sleep more during the day when you are depressed. This effect of the disorder goes hand in hand with not being able to sleep well at night and not wanting to interact with other people.

When you are hiding in your shell — in bed and sleeping — there is no possibility that you will have to interact with others. Since you may find interacting with others challenging during a depressive phase, and you have a lack of energy anyway, retreating to the safety of your bed makes sense.

Relationship Problems With Family Members

Once depression sets in, it affects your relationships with family members as well. You no longer see the world and your place in it the same way. You may either become more withdrawn than usual or irritable and aggressive. Neither one of these changes sets the stage for a happy family life.


Family members often don’t know what to do to help, even when they know what the problem is. They may become frustrated by the depression and give advice that’s not helpful, such as “Just snap out of it,” or “Maybe you just need to exercise/get outside more/take vitamins.” These comments are not helpful and may even discourage you from seeking treatment.

Feeling Disconnected From Other People

One of the symptoms of depression is that it makes you feel cut off from other people. This deep sense of loneliness is difficult to get rid of, and trying to socialize and spend time with others doesn’t necessarily help.

When depressed, it’s possible to feel very lonely even when you’re in a room with several other people. This disorder can make it very difficult to feel connected to anyone, because it feels as if no one understands exactly what you are going through.

Thoughts About Self-Harm

Depression is a brain disorder, and it doesn’t have anything to do with what is going on in someone’s life. It can be difficult for your friends and family members to understand why you might be cutting yourself or obsessively thinking about death. They don’t understand why you think your friends and family would be better off without you.

The disorder — not you — manifests these thoughts. If you have thoughts of harming yourself and are concerned you might act on them, go to the closest emergency room to get immediate medical help or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Drug Abuse/Addiction

Substance abuse is not an uncommon symptom among people who are depressed. Some people do not recognize their symptoms as depression — they only know they feel badly. They look for relief, anything that will help them regulate their moods or give them a break from the symptoms of depression, if only for a short time.


Connection Between Depression and Substance Abuse and Addiction

In some instances, the depression comes first. People may not recognize they are depressed and start self-medicating with drugs. They may not know where to get help or have concerns about seeking treatment for their depression because of their drug use.

In other cases, the substance abuse starts first. People living with mental or behavioral health issues are more likely to abuse drugs. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) released figures showing that 26.7 percent of people with mental illnesses abused illicit drugs, while only 13.2 percent of the general population did the same. Chronic, heavy drug abuse tends to make mental and behavioral health symptoms worse over time.


If you become addicted to drugs, you’re unable to function without regularly using your drug of choice. You may become physically addicted and have to continue using to avoid experiencing withdrawal symptoms. Or, you may become psychologically addicted and feel you need to continue using to cope with life stresses and function properly.

Alcohol Commonly Used by People With Depression

Not surprisingly, alcohol is the most common drug people living with depression use to self-medicate. It’s readily available, socially acceptable and legal.

Initially, when someone starts to drink, they feel relaxed and happy. The alcohol helps get rid of inhibitions and stressors that may have been bothering them about their day or life in general.

Unfortunately, as a person continues drinking, their mood starts to change. They can become depressed, anxious, irritable or belligerent. Some people become violent when inebriated. Excessive alcohol consumption can put anyone at risk for various injuries, from a slip and fall to being involved in a confrontation or motor vehicle accident.

Dual Diagnosis

If you have both an addiction and a mental or behavioral health illness such as depression, you have a dual diagnosis. It’s not an uncommon situation, and it requires specialized treatment.

To effectively treat your dual diagnosis, you need to detox. Once you rid your body of the influencing chemicals, you can then be evaluated to determine whether there are any signs of mental or behavioral health illness. Effective, long-lasting treatment starts with a correct diagnosis.

Once you receive a mental or behavioral health illness diagnosis, you can undergo treatment that addresses both. It is the only way you’re going to be able to learn how to live life without the influence of your drug of choice and deal with your mental or behavioral health illness.

Tackling one of these concerns while leaving the other untreated will only make it more difficult to break free from addiction. With a dual diagnosis, both conditions are intertwined and tend to feed off of each other — to move into long-term recovery, you need to address both at the same time.

Time to Get Rid of the Stigma Attached to Depression and Addiction

Depression and addiction are common mental and behavioral health concerns, and they’re nothing that anyone needs to be ashamed of. Many people deal with them during their lifetime, whether they immediately recognize the symptoms or not.

Just as you would seek professional medical help if you have cancer, you can’t just get over depression or addiction on your own. Having depression or addiction is not a moral or character weakness.


The good news is that depression and addiction are treatable. If you recognize the symptoms, contact a doctor and ask to be screened for depression and addiction. Once you know what you have, you can then seek proper treatment for them.

Your treatment plan can include prescription antidepressants, therapies or a combination of both. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a strategy that teaches you how to change your negative thoughts and emotions to more positive ones, and your behaviors follow suit.

Find Help for Depression and Addiction

If you think you may have a dual diagnosis of depression and addiction, 12 Keys Rehab can help. Our compassionate team has extensive experience helping clients living with both conditions.

When you come to 12 Keys, you’ll start by detoxing with professional care to make you as comfortable as possible. Once your body is free from the chemicals, we’ll take the time to do a thorough evaluation to determine the correct diagnosis. Then, working with our addiction specialists, you’ll design a treatment plan that addresses your specific needs, goals, challenges and interests. Your customized treatment plan will include an array of treatment modalities to provide healing on every level: mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually.

You’ll discover how enjoyable living a sober life can be while developing the skills you need to face everyday challenges and life changes in a healthy way. You’ll have the opportunity to reconnect with family, and you’ll develop a strong support system that you can lean on as you navigate your unique path to lifelong sobriety.

Contact us today to get started on your journey to a better, fulfilled life.

The Addiction Blog