Depression isn’t sadness

(NOTE: please don’t read an amateur blog post and start mis-diagnosing yourself and your friends. Seek help from a professional or encourage your friends to)

Recent events have brought depression back into the public eye (along with all the other terrible and shitty things that have happened this month). It’s important to get good information out because there are a lot of misconceptions about depression and leaving it untreated or treating it poorly can seriously detract from a person’s life.

One of the common misconceptions I’m seeing all over the place is that depression is basically being really sad – or being sad for a really long time. But sadness is only one of the possible symptoms of depression. You can be depressed without feeling sad at all! This is something I’ve been slowly learning over the last few years. Couple of my friends shared their experiences with me.

I have actually found that depression in many cases is the absence of sadness, or any other emotion.

Or feeling emotions but being unable to engage with or express them (alexithymia)

Here are some of the symptoms of depression listed on WebMD (bold mine):

  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
  • Fatigue and decreased energy
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and/or helplessness
  • Feelings of hopelessness and/or pessimism
  • Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping
  • Irritability, restlessness
  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex
  • Overeating or appetite loss
  • Persistent aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment
  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” feelings

Are you surprised by any of these? Especially the ones I bolded? Sometimes depression makes people feel grumpy and irritable. Sometimes it makes them feel just not particularly excited about things or actively negative about things they would normally enjoy. Sometimes depression makes people kinda shut down because it feels too hard to remember things, focus, or make up their mind.

These things can be misinterpreted as personality traits or intentional behavior, as self-absorption, laziness, apathy, ennui, or poor priorities. That might look like aimlessness, a lack of direction in life, inability to care for oneself (cooking, cleaning, hygiene), choosing easy/cheap pleasures over responsibilities or more fulfilling activities (fast food where you would normally prefer to cook at home, TV instead of time with friends, masturbation/lazy sex/disengaged sex instead of the usual engaged or passionate sex). 

Again, these are just examples of how things can play out. They aren’t symptoms of depression and can be the result of choices or other circumstances or circumstancial stress/sadness. 

This is by no means an exhaustive or exact list, the point I want to make is that depression is not just sadness turned up to eleven. If someone is experiencing sadness as a symptom of depression, it might not be very helpful to treat them like someone who’s sad about something. You can’t just distract them or tell them to cheer up or get over it because the sadness is not being caused by their dwelling on a sad thing. The same goes for the way you treat yourself. Don’t beat yourself up over feeling sad. Don’t tell yourself to snap out of it or further upset yourself by trying to force a mood change. There are certainly things you can do that will help (I’ll save that for another post), but you have to remember that depression is not sadness. They are not the same thing. Don’t treat them that way.

(I want to also note that a person with depression can be sad about something separately from being depressed. In that case, the usual approaches to dealing with sadness may be appropriate)

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