Depression or sadness? How do I know the difference?

depression symptoms to look out for, written by Dr Ganesh Naidoo of Medmate

Sadness is a normal human emotion that we all experience. Feeling low or sad is a natural reaction to stress, grief or simply having a bad day. However, there’s a difference between feeling sad and being depressed.

Depression is a mood disorder that causes persistent feelings of sadness or low mood, loss of interest in things you usually find enjoyable, and an inability to function during everyday activities.

Depression affects how you think, feel and behave. It isn’t something you can ‘snap out of’; it’s a serious medical condition that can get worse if not treated. It should be diagnosed by a professional.

It’s also very common; one in seven Aussies will experience depression in their lifetime. Females are more likely to be affected, too; women between 16 and 85 are about five per cent more likely than men to develop the mood disorder, according to Beyond Blue.

“It’s important not to think of depression as a singular event,” says Dr Ganesh Naidoo, Medical Director at Medmate. “It’s a normal part of human existence, and everyone has a lifetime risk of developing it, with many people experiencing it multiple times in their lives.

“It’s very treatable , but it’s about recognising symptoms, understanding they’re not temporary, then getting assistance as quickly as possible to get you through that period.”

What’s the difference between feeling sad and being depressed?

Sadness and depression are related, but they’re distinct emotional states. “Sadness is a natural human emotion that’s triggered by a specific event or situation such as loss or disappointment. However, the feeling is temporary. Sadness subsides as time passes or a situation passes,” explains Dr Naidoo.

“Depression is a longer-term mental illness. It’s persistent and affects the functioning of all important areas of your life. It’s usually classified by having a pervasive low mood, and a marked loss of interest or pleasure in everyday activities, persisting for at least two weeks.”

A good way of determining whether you’re depressed is to ask yourself what you used to enjoy in your life. “Think about what would be normal for you, then consider how things have changed. If you’ve had a persistent change in your feelings or attitude towards something you used to enjoy, that’s a very good indication there’s an underlying mood disorder,” says Dr Naidoo.

Signs and symptoms of depression

Everyone experiences depression differently. However, these are some common signs and symptoms of depression.

Emotional signs and symptoms

  • Persistent low mood or loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Feeling anxious or agitated
  • Feeling irritable or angry
  • Crying a lot or feeling sad
  • Feeling overwhelmed or indecisive

Physical signs and symptoms

  • 5% increase or decrease in appetite or weight
  • Changes in sleep such as difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep
  • Headaches, muscle pains or stomach ache
  • Butterflies or a churning stomach
  • Feeling rundown or ill

Behavioural signs and symptoms

  • Withdrawing from family or friends
  • Persistent fatigue or lethargy
  • Impaired or a significant change in concentration
  • Suicidal ideation

I think I might be depressed. What should I do?

“If you’ve noticed a change in your mood that’s unusual for you, you should talk to your doctor, even if it’s prior to the two weeks that traditionally classifies depression,” says Dr Naidoo.

“Any changes in mood that are affecting your life with your family, your social circumstances or your ability to work are an indication that it’s worth discussing how you’re feeling with a health professional.”

How do I talk to my doctor about how I’m feeling?

Loss of memory and lack of concentration can be one of the symptoms of depression. To help you talk to your doctor effectively, it can be a good idea to keep a diary so you can give your doctor a rounded picture of how you’re feeling.

“Note down how you’re sleeping, eating, how you’re coping at work and with your personal relationships, and whether you’ve had any thoughts of suicide or death,” says Dr Naidoo.

“It’s important to be as open and upfront as possible so your doctor can get the full picture.”

How is depression diagnosed?

“Your doctor will take a full medical history as there could be contributing medical conditions that may be exacerbating or masking the condition,” says Dr Naidoo.

“They will also ask about any other contributing factors such as substance abuse, alcohol and drugs. Once they understand your full medical history, they will go through a questionnaire and ask some specific questions that might include details around whether your sleep, appetite or mood has changed over the past few weeks. These details can guide the doctor about whether the mood disorder is of a sufficient level that requires treatment, and what that treatment might be.”

I’ve been diagnosed with depression – what now?

“Depression is very treatable,” says Dr Naidoo. “With the right treatment, people can get back to normal functioning.”

Most people will be referred to psychological therapies such as CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy), and some people might need medication.

I’m having suicidal thoughts, what should I do?

If you’re having suicidal thoughts, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. “You can also speak to your GP and tell them you’re having suicidal thoughts. They will arrange immediate help,” says Dr Naidoo.

You can also find immediate support at:

What’s next? How Medmate can help you

Talk to a Medmate doctor today for some initial advice.

“Medmate doctors are registered Australian doctors who are accessible seven days a week (including public holidays) to provide immediate mental health support,” says Dr Naidoo.

“This means you’re able to consult with a mental health doctor online from the comfort and privacy of your own home, either via video or audio call.

“During our virtual consultations you’ll discuss your symptoms and concerns with the doctor. They may ask extra questions to better understand your situation, confirm the diagnosis, and develop a support plan.

“After the evaluation, the doctor will offer guidance on how to connect with mental health professionals, such as psychologists and psychiatrists. They’ll also be able to assist with prescription renewals to help you manage your mental health issue until your local GP is available.

Learn More

What are the causes of depression?

About the Author

  • Dr Ganesh Naidoo

    BSc biomed Mbbs FRACGP. Dr Naidoo is an Australian General Practitioner and Medical Director of the national telehealth service, Medmate.

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