The majority of my friends struggle with depression and/or anxiety. My partner also struggles with periods of recurring depression. Either consciously or subconsciously, I have surrounded myself with people who understand and can relate to my experiences of mental illness. This means I regularly forget that a lot of people do not experience mental illness, and may think that depression is a form of sadness.
Depression is often simplified as a period of extended sadness, likely because it’s the easiest explanation. Sadness is an emotion that everyone has experienced at one point or another, and so it is relatable and understandable. The issue with depression is that it often appears irrational to the outsider, and so it is much harder to understand unless you have lived experience.
Sadness usually has an obvious cause, but depression does not.
Sadness is an emotional response to a perceived or real loss of something that you consider to be important to you. It is a valid emotional response to your own emotional pain and the pain of others. It usually has an obvious cause like a break-up, a death, or a failed goal.
DBT teaches us that sadness is a valid emotional response when “you have lost something or someone irretrievably, or things are not the way you wanted or expected and hoped them to be.” (source)
Depression often does not have a clear cause. I have struggled with cycles of depression since the age of 14, and the depressive periods are sometimes triggered by traumatising events. I have plunged into depression in response to rape, loss of friendships, and feeling overwhelmed from too many responsibilities. Other times, they hit when I am progressing at the same rate as before, without any clear triggers. I have become incredibly depressed while travelling in a dream destination, and at other times with no obvious additional stressors.
Depression can hit people whose lives look easy or enviable to the outside world. People with stable incomes and jobs that they love, those with loving family and friends, those who are in good physical health and physically attractive; depression does not discriminate against this. This can be one of the hardest things for people to understand about depression: your life can look technically perfect from the outside, and you can still be cripplingly depressed.
Depression is as much physical as it is emotional.
The symptoms of sadness are pretty well-known. Your body may feel heavy and you may feel pain in your heart, like physical heartbreak. You may feel hot behind the eyes and sometimes cry. As time passes, or as you take steps to make peace with your loss, then you will feel less sad.
Depression is a whole body experience. I can tell when I am starting to go through a depressive period because I start sleeping for several hours longer than normal at night and feeling the urge to nap every single day. I also feel like a heavy weight is sitting on my chest and weighing me down. Other common physical symptoms of depression include reduced libido, decreased appetite, an increase in aches and pains, and difficulties with concentration and memory.
There are obviously the emotional symptoms of depression as well. Rather than a prolonged experience of sadness, depression can often feel like a complete emptiness of emotion. I usually feel unmotivated, hopeless, and like everything is too much effort to bother doing. Other common emotional symptoms include feelings of worthlessness, thinking about death and suicide, and general frustration with the situation.
When you are going through depression, the overwhelming feeling is that everything is too much.
Depression lasts so much longer than sadness.
Depression can last for weeks, months, or even years at a time. You probably won’t feel the same level of depression every second of every day, but overall the hopeless feelings are in command of your body.
Sometimes depressive periods can be alleviated by exercise, medication, and/or positive life changes. Sometimes it feels like too much effort to even get out of bed, let alone try to make positive changes. Other times, it feels like nothing you do can take away the disease that has taken over your mind and body. Sometimes depression just has to run its course before you can feel any sense of relief.
Sadness is a primary emotion that everyone experiences. Depression is a debilitating mental illness.
I think that maybe the reason that people struggle to understand depression so much is because they view it as an extended form of sadness. Sadness is a much more bearable emotion that can be alleviated and tolerated relatively easily. Depression takes over your entire being and can leave you feeling like a shell of your former self.
There is hope for reducing symptoms of depression, and some sufferers do recover fully. Committing to therapy, practising self kindness, and surrounding yourself with supportive and loving people can go a long way towards alleviating symptoms and increasing your quality of life. Depression may live inside of your body, but it does not define you as a person.