What makes depression different from the blues?

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Normal grief is not considered a psychological disorder, however, depression is a disorder that requires treatment. Professional help is available for depression and should be sought if the bereaved is preoccupied with death, experiences thoughts of suicide, has severe feelings of guilt, experiences a decreased enjoyment in activities, is unable to function or has persistent feelings of worthlessness.

After the death of a close friend or family member, many people report trouble sleeping and eating, little interest in daily routines, tearful outbursts, sadness, and irritability or anger. All of these symptoms can be signs of depression or simply part of healthy grieving. How can you tell the difference?

When you're grieving, it's normal to feel somewhat depressed and to experience waves of intense feelings. But feeling occasionally depressed differs from sinking into a clinical depression. Up to 50 percent of widows and widowers have symptoms typical of major depression during the first few months after a spouse's death. Usually, this eases over time. A review noted that 15 percent of people are depressed at the one-year mark. By two years, this dwindles to 7 percent. A personal or family history of depression may put you at greater risk of major depression when bereaved.

While the vast majority of people will pass through grief without needing professional help, you should seek treatment for serious or long-lasting symptoms of depression that interfere with daily life. Talk with your doctor or a mental health professional if you have suicidal thoughts or experience any of these other symptoms of bereavement-related depression:

  • persistent feelings of worthlessness, which is generally felt with depression but not with healthy grief
  • ongoing guilt
  • marked mental and physical sluggishness
  • persistent trouble functioning
  • hallucinations, other than occasionally thinking you hear or see the deceased

Small studies suggest that psychotherapy, antidepressant medication, or both may ease symptoms of depression associated with grief.

Dr. John Preston, PsyD
Psychology Specialist

Sadness is considered a normal, healthy emotional reaction to minor losses and disappointments. Sadness is very transient, lasting only several minutes, a few hours, or, at most, a few days. It is unpleasant but typically doesn’t interfere with your functioning. Normal, minor bouts of sadness don’t knock you off your feet.

Grief is a much more intense and sometimes devastating human experience. However, it is considered an inevitable and normal emotional reaction that people in every culture across the world experience after a major loss, such as the death of a loved one or a divorce. Grief tends to have a major disruptive effect on the lives of the grief stricken and can result in prolonged periods of sadness, loneliness and mourning, which can last anywhere from a few months to several years. Normal grieving may last a very long time; broken hearts do not mend quickly.

Grief is extremely painful, but it is not mental illness. Grief also differs from depression in two other ways. With normal grief reactions, your feelings of self-esteem are generally unaffected. Despite great sadness, you continue to believe that you are a worthwhile individual. In clinical depression, feelings of worthlessness, inadequacy and lack of self-confidence are common. Also, there are four symptoms of depression that are absent during times of grief: serious thoughts about suicide, severe sleep disturbances, marked agitation and a complete loss of aliveness and vitality. 

Although the daily experience of a person grieving may be filled with feelings of loss and sadness, there is also the ability to experience moments of happiness. The grieving person may enjoy a funny movie, experience happiness when visiting a loved one, appreciate a nice meal or enjoy seeing a beautiful landscape. Even while grieving, despite a good deal of suffering, thankfully, there can be times of pleasure and aliveness. Often, this is not the case with depression. With severe depression, most often there is no ability to experience even brief moments of happiness. Life feels boring, dull and robbed of all vitality and meaningfulness.

Depression 101: A Practical Guide to Treatments, Self-Help Strategies, and Preventing Relapse

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Depression 101: A Practical Guide to Treatments, Self-Help Strategies, and Preventing Relapse

When you have depression, it can feel like there's no way out. To begin changing the way you feel, you'll need an arsenal of proven techniques for lifting your mood and preventing relapse. The...

Everyone has blue moods once in a while. They result from life-changing events. Losses must be grieved. Disappointments endured. No one escapes this kind of sorrow. If your underlying mood and self-esteem are at optimal levels, however, these feelings dissipate in a reasonable time.

When sadness and fatigue or extreme irritability last longer than two weeks, become intense (enough even to prompt suicidal thoughts) and/or prevent you from going to work, school or social events, you may be experiencing biochemically based depression. You will need medical help and possibly psychotherapy to elevate your mood. Those who try to wait it out or ignore it generally fail.

Most people are familiar with the concept of depression. It is a commonly used word, associated with feeling blue or simply feeling sad. Sometimes people say, “I feel depressed,” meaning that their mood is low.

Everyone experiences this type of mood fluctuation, which is part of life’s natural changes. However, the concept of major depression refers to something different, one that signifies a more severe mood extended in time. It is among the more painful of human experiences, characterized by a persistent feeling of sadness and disengagement from life’s events.

Depressive features can interfere with every aspect of life, including social relationships, work, emotional stability and physical health. Depression could be termed a “democratic” experience, experienced by many people without regard to one’s socioeconomic status, education and general health.

Dr. Ramesh Ghanta, MD
Psychiatrist (Therapist)

Sadness is usually caused by a catastrophic event, but depression is a feeling of lingering sadness. Watch Ramesh Ghanta, MD, of Frankfort Regional Medical Center, explain how to handle depression.

Depression is not equivalent to the ordinary experience of feeling down that commonly occurs in daily life. Depression is an illness that affects mood, body, behavior and mind. The condition may be of such severity that the affected person may not be able to function normally and optimally. Depression can negatively impact important roles that the person fulfills, such as spouse, parent and worker.

When the grief process is particularly protracted and has not resolved within a reasonable amount of time, the lack of resolution may be a sign that a clinical depression has developed. The feelings of sadness experienced during the grieving process may seem identical to the feelings of sadness inherent to clinical depression. Generally, any time feelings of sadness persist for two weeks or more and interfere with a person's daily activities, some form of treatment is indicated. While 10 percent of Americans experience it, depression is not normal.

Depression is not equivalent to the ordinary experience of feeling down that commonly occurs in daily life. Depression is an illness that affects mood, body, behavior and mind. The condition may be of such severity that the affected person may not be able to function normally and optimally. Depression can negatively impact important roles that the person fulfills, such as spouse, parent and worker.

Most, if not all, people will feel sad at some point in their life. They may even feel sad for a period of time. However, these "blues" are not the same as what is clinically diagnosed as depression. The main difference between the blues and depression is how much it affects your daily life. Both the blues and depression can occur from day-to-day stress, traumatic life events and poor coping skills, but true clinical depression impairs your ability to complete day-to-day activities such as work and chores, and maintain relationships with family and friends, whereas the blues typically do not affect your ability to complete normal activities, even though you may feel upset or sad.

The blues refers to normal variations in sad mood that most people experience at certain times during their lives. The sad mood that characterizes depression is more frequent and severe compared to the blues and is accompanied by other symptoms including changes in interest, energy, concentration, sleep, appetite and thoughts of death or suicide. Depression typically results in significant distress for the patient and the patient’s family and usually causes significant functional impairment such as being unable to work or fulfill social or caretaking obligations.

Dr. Patricia A. Bloom, MD
Geriatric Medicine Specialist

There is a wide spectrum of unhappiness, all the way from dysthymia or dysthymic mood disorder through various stages of depression, mild, moderate and severe.

Severe depression is especially debilitating and dangerous, with threat of lost productivity, destroyed careers and families, and suicide. Depression is definitely treatable and curable, so it is particularly important to seek treatment, and for friends and family to encourage victims of depression to seek treatment. Doctors, therapists and even hairdressers and bartenders should be educated to counsel depressed people. Important interventions have started in the military because of a horrifyingly escalating rate of suicides in active military and returned vets.

Stress is definitely implicated in depression. There is new evidence that a pro-inflammatory state seen with stress, even low-grade chronic stress, with production of inflammatory substances called cytokines, is implicated in the cause of depression.

Many skilled therapists incorporate mindfulness into their therapeutic counseling. There is evidence that mindfulness practice may reduce the recurrence of depression. And there is a growing body of scientific evidence that reduction of stress through mindfulness (meditation) practices improves health and state of mind.

There are many ways to reduce stress, both through formal practices like mindfulness, and also through involvement in activities that people find absorbing, like various forms of physical activity, music, art appreciation, involvement with family, friends and pets. The important thing is to identify ways that reduce stress in your life and commit to treating yourself with stress reduction every day!

Dr. Tarique D. Perera, MD
Psychiatrist (Therapist)

A bad or blue mood that interferes with everyday functioning and lingers longer than two weeks may be a symptom of depression, says Tarique Perera, MD, a psychiatrist with Contemporary Care of Connecticut.

 

Dr. Marsha Lucas
Psychology Specialist

We all have an occasional bout of the blues. But sometimes the blues can blossom into full-blown depression. In this video, neuropsycholgoist Marsha Lucas, PhD, shares some of the signs when it's time to seek treatment.

Depression and the blues are two different conditions. From time to time everyone experiences the blues, feelings of worry, unhappiness or grief. But when changes in mood interrupt one’s ability to eat, sleep, work and participate in once-enjoyable activities, depression may be the cause. Depression is more than just feeling “stressed out” or "down in the dumps" for a few days. True clinical depression is more intense, lasts longer, can significantly interfere with day-to-day activities and is more common than people may think.

Those who live with depression may feel worn down, powerless and full of despair. Because of this, it can be extraordinarily difficult to find ways to help themselves. It’s important for them to remember that all is not lost and once they start treatment, they will begin to feel better.

Trinity Health is a Catholic health care organization that acts in accordance with the Catholic tradition and does not condone or support all practices covered in this site. In case of emergency call 911. This site is educational and not a substitute for professional medical advice, always seek the advice of a qualified health care provider.

Dr. Sudeepta Varma, MD
Psychiatrist (Therapist)

Many people will experience the “blues” at some point in their lives—we all experience a bad day or bad week. However, depression is more than just a bad mood—it is a persistently low mood that just doesn’t go away on its own. In depression we also see key associated symptoms—low energy, difficulty concentrating, low mood, appetite disturbances, i.e., wanting to eat more or less, weight gain or loss, memory problems, feelings of guilt, hopelessness, and in some severe cases, even thoughts of suicide. People with depression feel a lack of motivation and a lack of pleasure (anhedonia) from things which they previously enjoyed. It affects all aspects of their lives and can have considerable impact on work and relationships. People with depression should not be blamed for it. It is a medical condition and should be treated as such.

Depression is a serious medical condition that involves the body, mood and thoughts. It affects how you eat and sleep. It alters your self-perception. It changes the way you think and feel. Men with a depressive illness can't just "snap out of it" or "pull themselves together," because depression isn't the same as a passing mood. Left untreated, depression may last for weeks, months or years at a time.

Depressive illnesses can make routine tasks unbearably difficult. Pleasures that make life worth living-watching a football game, playing with children, even making love-can be drained of joy. Depression brings pain and disruption not only to the person who has it, but also to his family and others who care about him.

If you are experiencing some of the following symptoms, you may have a depressive illness. Ask yourself if you are feeling: sad or "empty"; irritable or angry; guilty or worthless; pessimistic or hopeless; tired or "slowed down"; restless or agitated; like no one cares about you; or like life is not worth living. You may also: sleep more or less than usual; eat more or less than usual; have persistent headaches, stomachaches or chronic pain; have trouble concentrating, remembering things or making decisions; lose interest in work or hobbies; or lose interest in sex.

If these symptoms are familiar, it's time to talk with your doctor. Depression is a real, medical illness that can be successfully treated, most often with medication, psychotherapy ("talk" therapy) or a combination of both. Support from family and friends plays an important role as well.

This answer is based on source information from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Depression is a depressive disorder that involves a person's body, mood and thoughts. It can affect and disrupt eating, sleeping or thinking patterns, and is not the same as being unhappy or in a "blue" mood, nor is it a sign of personal weakness or a condition that can be willed or wished away.

People with a depressive illness cannot merely "pull themselves together" and get better. Treatment is often necessary and many times crucial to recovery.

Most people get depressed or "down" every once in a while, but major depression is different: it's felt most of the day, for nearly every day of the week for at least two weeks and it interferes with your daily life. Severity, duration and the presence of other symptoms distinguish depression from ordinary sadness. Depression—with feelings that range from discouragement to hopelessness—is a serious mood disorder that can cause severe symptoms, and not just seasonally. It affects approximately 19 million Americans every year.

Continue Learning about Depression

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.