Ups and downs are a part of life. But what about the times when you’re feeling really down—for a while—and you can’t tell if you’re just going through something that’ll pass or if it’s maybe something more serious? If you’ve ever wondered, "Am I depressed or going through a sad patch?" here’s what you need to know about the two, how to know if a low period is morphing into depression, and how to start feeling better.
When is sadness actually depression?
Listen, we all get sad. And it’s also not unusual for you to go through a gloomy period where you’re just not feeling like sunshine and rainbows. Especially if you’re going through something like a big loss, weird life changes, or a series of really effing unfortunate events. But the difference between a lil season of sadness and legit depression comes down to a few things. Most notably: how long it lasts, what symptoms you’re dealing with, and how much they’re messing with your life.
In the simplest of terms for all the non-science folks, major depressive disorder is basically when someone feels “down in the dumps,” “blah,” or really low for a specific period of time, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR). And a whole lot of people go through this. About 8.4% of adults in the U.S. (aka 21 million people) had at least one major depressive episode in the past year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
So when considering (or talking to a professional) about what you’re going through, it’s important to consider how long you’ve been in this headspace. To meet an official diagnosis, five or more symptoms have to stick around nearly every day for at least two weeks.
Next, think about what other symptoms you’re experiencing around this sadness, like a change in appetite, sleeping a lot more or a lot less, feeling generally low energy and fatigued, feeling hopeless or worthless, moving through the world more slowly, having trouble focusing, or having thoughts of suicide (or attempts). And remember: There are different levels of suicidal thoughts, and more passive but still serious forms include thinking things like, I just wish I wasn't alive, I wish I could just be asleep for two years, or I don't wanna participate in life right now, says clinical therapist Alo Johnston, LMFT.
Finally, there’s the matter of functioning. A diagnosis of depression hinges on symptoms impacting your life in some way—whether you’re missing work, canceling plans every weekend, withdrawing from your people, etc. Loss of functioning can also happen in more subtle, often overlooked ways, Johnston says. “Things that felt possible or even easy before suddenly feel very difficult. That can be things that don't seem like they should require a ton of energy or effort, like making a phone call or emailing someone back.”
Heads up: If you experience recurrent thoughts of death, recurrent suicidal ideation, or have made a plan or attempted suicide once, you don’t have to go through that every day to meet the DSM-5-TR’s diagnosis criteria.
So, if it’s not depression, WTF is up?
While depression tends to set in without rhyme or reason, you also can’t always pinpoint why you’re feeling sad, says psychotherapist Elizabeth Fedrick, PhD, LPC. That’s why monitoring your mood and symptoms and seeing if they get progressively worse is so important. “If there is a specific cause, it is helpful to check in after the situation has been resolved to determine if your mood is improving or remaining low. A lack of improvement in mood states might indicate that what you are experiencing is more than a low mood,” she adds.
Even if you don’t meet the criteria for major depressive disorder, that doesn’t mean that your sad patch isn’t something more serious. There are a few other depressive disorders in the DSM-5-TR, like premenstrual dysphoric disorder, substance/medication-induced depressive disorder, and persistent depressive disorder (which means you experience at least two depressive symptoms for two years). Then there are the “other specified” disorders, which include shorter depressive episodes (2 to 13 days) and don’t require someone to hit five of the symptoms.
And not to mention, the DSM-5 -TR includes something called adjustment disorder, which is basically when “you are going through a really tough time due to something specific going on in your life,” Johnston says. You might also want to consider speaking to a primary care provider, as physiological conditions, like thyroid issues, can sometimes feel similar to depression, he adds.
So when trying to determine if your sad patches might be depression, it’s important to figure out if you’re experiencing any of the above symptoms, how severe they are, how long they’re lasting, and if they’re getting worse. The good news is that even if you don’t know exactly what you’re going through, a therapist can jump in and help you work through a sad patch, depression, or another mental health condition, says licensed therapist Ash Shah, LCSW.
FYI: You don’t need a depression diagnosis to get help for your sadness.
If you can’t shake your sad patch and other symptoms stick around—and are not linked to anything else, like a bad environment, substance misuse, and/or other medical conditions—try to seek out a mental health professional. It’s important to note that there is no real threshold for when your mental health is “bad enough” to seek help, Shah explains. Anyone can try therapy, and it’s always OK to ask for help if you’re worried about your mental health or just need someone to talk to. If you’re nervous about reaching out, remember that a lot of therapists offer free consultations which might help you suss out if therapy (or this therapist) makes sense for you, Shah adds.
Getting a depression diagnosis and finding treatment that’s right for you can take some finessing. Therapists use the DSM-5-TR alongside other screening tools, questionnaires, and other tests to figure out what might be going on in your noggin. Once a pro evaluates everything, they can come up with a plan of action, which usually includes therapy, medication, or a combo of both if you’re diagnosed with depression, Shah says.
Stuck in a sad patch? Here’s some advice.
OK, so maybe after reading this or seeing someone you've come to the conclusion that you don't meet the criteria for a depressive disorder—you're just really sad right now. So, what do you do with that? Start out by acknowledging your sadness without judging yourself, especially since experiencing negative or mixed feelings like sadness is totally normal. Practice accepting the emotion instead of beating yourself up or repressing those thoughts, which can make it all worse in the long run, Shah explains. “If I ignore feelings of sadness for a long time, this could turn into feelings of anger or resentment,” she explains. “My physical body could also start to feel worn down as our mental health has a strong correlation with our physical health.” Part of accepting this feeling and confronting the stigma might also mean talking it out with your friends, family, or whoever you trust, Johnston adds.
Once you’ve done that, see if you can identify what prompted the sad patch and if there’s anything you can reasonably do to work through it. “The things that make sadness potentially more at risk of turning into a depression is when you feel stuck or trapped,” Johnston says. “So I think identifying what choices you have [can help], and sometimes those choices are scary.” So if you got into a fight with a friend, consider reaching out to share what hurt you or work toward a compromise if you want to salvage that relationship. If that doesn’t work, think about if it’s time to do a slow fade or cut off that connection. If you’re stuck in a sucky job, identify ways you can make it as bearable as possible while also thinking about what you value in a workplace and how you can use that to inform your next job search. You’ve got options, so think through all the possibilities.
To avoid mulling over these sad feelings for too long, try to identify whatever normally makes you feel good, Shah suggests. “Think of your mood like a battery; what helps you feel recharged and more energized?” Maybe getting active is your jam. Or plan a hangout with friends or family. If that’s not your thing, see if making a delightfully unhinged Nailed It!-type creation might make you feel better.
With depression, it can be hard to place where your feelings are coming from (and the symptoms don’t always include sadness, but that’s another convo for another time), but remember that depression is very common and it’s not weird if you experience a depressive episode at some point in your life, Johnston says. Whether you’re going through a depression or a sad patch, you’re not alone, so try not to panic or feel ashamed and consider reaching out for help so you can get through this.
Additional reporting by Shannon Barbour
Wondermind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health or mental health professional with any questions or concerns about your mental health.