Are You Just Discouraged or Really Depressed ? How to Tell the Difference

With the all the bad news in the media lately, it’s easy to feel bad. Reports about the bad economy, the Gulf oil spill or the war in Afghanistan are enough to overwhelm anyone with sadness. Some depressed and discouraged feelings are a completely normal response to tough times but some blue feelings are signs of a more serious medical/emotional disorder called clinical depression.

While the cluster of symptoms which accompany normal discouragement can be the same as those of clinical depression in the short run, there are major differences between the two experiences. Unfortunately, many people confuse normal sadness or discouragement with the emotional disorder of depression. The NIMH* has listed 4 myths about depression which are widely believed:

  • Depression is not a real medical problem.
  • Depression is something that strong people can “snap out of” by thinking positively.
  • Depression only happens when something bad happens inyour life, such as a breakup or the death of a loved one.
  • Depression will just go away on its own.

It seems that we have trouble with invisible things. We need a cast or X-ray or blood test to make things real for us. Also we tend to avoid things we fear and avoidance keeps us from being able to confront or understand the problem. Nonetheless there are significant distinguishing characteristics which separate clinical depression from everyday sadness and discouragement:

Normal Sadness and Discouragement :

  • Is a normal emotional response to bad news.
  • Is a transient, short term experience which doesn’t last more than a few days.
  • Doesn’t significantly interfere with overall functioning or performance.
  • Does not result in significant changes of activity or demeanor.
  • Gets better when problematic situation improves.

Clinical Depression:

  • Is a psychological disorder which affects one’s physical, cognitive and emotional well being.
  • Is caused by a combination of neuro-chemical, psychological and environmental factors.
  • Does not improve with “good” news.
  • Is characterized by a cluster of symptoms which last a minimum of two weeks and include:

Physical Symptoms

  • Sleep disturbance – early morning wake up
  • Marked changes in appetite and weight ( increase or decrease)
  • Fatigue and lack of energy
  • Various physical complaints such as headaches or stomachaches which can’t be explained by other medical conditions

Behavioral/ Attitudinal Symptoms

  • Loss of interest or enjoyment in usual hobbies, including sex
  • Difficulty with concentration, memory and decision making
  • Neglect of personal appearance and home
  • Withdrawal and isolation from friends and family

Emotional Symptoms

  • Persistent sadness
  • Frequent tearfulness for no obvious reason
  • Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness
  • Thoughts of death or even suicide
  • Increased agitation, irritability and anxiety (Especially in men)

Knowing the difference between everyday sadness and clinical depression can help to relieve unnecessary worry on one hand or unnecessary suffering on the other. There is no cure for the transient pain which is caused by tough times and losses but there is effective treatment for the emotional disorder of depression.