Am I Depressed Or Just Sad? 5 Ways To Tell Sadness From Something More Serious

Knowing the difference between sadness and depression is the key to managing it.

sad woman looking out the window 7713 Photography/Shutterstock

When you're feeling down about your life and yourself, do you wonder if you're depressed or just plain sad? Should you be worried about your mood shifting, or should you just ride it out?

Sadness versus depression — there's a fine line between the two emotions. Knowing the differences is key to understanding how to manage and cope with how you're feeling.

While there are many different variations of depression, there are two fundamental forms.


Chemical depression is depression caused by a chemical imbalance in your brain, one that's often genetic or the result of trauma.

Situational depression is usually a short-term sadness, often brought on by a life event.

RELATED: 'Being' Depressed Is Not The Same As 'Feeling' Depressed (+ The Difference Between The Two)

Sadness versus depression: Which one are you struggling with? Here are 5 questions to ask yourself.

1. Has something happened?

One way to tell if you are depressed or just sad is to consider what is happening in your life right now.

Has your dog died? Is a parent sick? Have you lost your job? Did you have a car accident?


Sometimes, life events happen that make us feel overwhelmed and sad. It happens.

The results of those life events can cause situational depression, a short-term feeling of depression. Situational depression is a type of depression that feels bad, but will most likely pass in time.

The key question to ask yourself is, did you feel this way before the event happened or did your mood change because of the event?

If you were fine before the event happened, then you are most likely just sad and the depression will pass with time.

But if you were feeling this way before, you just might be dealing with chemical depression.

2. Have you been feeling down for a while?

Of course, after your dog dies, you're going to feel sad for a while. Just looking at the chair that they slept on can send you down into a dark hole.


But with time, while the pain and sadness are still there, it will ease and you will be able to go on with your life.

If you find that you aren’t feeling better with time but, in fact, are feeling the same or worse, then it could be that you are dealing with chemical depression, which is caused by something more systemic than a life event.

So, try to look back on the past few days, weeks, months, and years and see where your moods have been. Have you been up and down as life throws curveballs at you, or do you find that you have been down more often than up?

If you can’t remember how the past period of time has been, start keeping a mood chart. Keep track of how your mood is on a daily basis.


On a scale of one to 10, keep track of where your mood is each day, 10 being great, one being horrible. This way, you will have a record of your moods and you can watch what happens to them.

If you're consistently below a five, then that’s a piece of information. If you are up and down the whole spectrum, that’s another piece of information.

You can use this information to help yourself, your doctor, or your friends understand what is happening with your moods so that you can figure out how to deal with them.

3. Are you feeling hopeless?

The hallmark of chemical depression is hopelessness. That feeling that you will never be happy again, that you will never love or be loved, that life isn’t worth living, and why should you even bother, anyway.


I'm not saying you are suicidal (although you might be), but you are definitely questioning everything that life has to offer.

When you're struggling with sadness and situational depression, generally your outlook isn’t hopeless.

When my dog died, I was sad but I didn’t struggle with questioning my life or examining my choices. I was just sad that she wasn’t here with me and I missed her. I miss her still, but now I have a cat and I am happy.

So, if you find that you are struggling with hopelessness and despair, you might consider that you are struggling with more than just sadness and that it’s time to get help.

RELATED: Chemical Depression May Be Why You Feel Sad All The Time, Even Though Your Life Is Good


4. Is it getting worse?

Depression gets worse the longer it goes untreated. It’s a sad fact, but it’s true.

Do you find that your depression is worsening over time? Has it come and gone in recent years, but are you finding that it is present more often than not? Are you finding it harder to deal with than before?

Usually, when you're sad, the sadness doesn’t progressively get worse. Instead, it gets better.

When my mom died, the first few weeks and months were incredibly painful. I was sad, sad, sad. But, as life has gone on and time has passed, my sadness has lessened.

Yes, I still have moments when I'm deeply sad, but that sadness passes. It certainly hasn’t gotten worse.


If you find that your down mood is getting worse and not better, you might be struggling with depression. Learning how to manage it is important.

5. Does depression run in your family?

In my family, depression goes back generations. My great grandfather was institutionalized for 40 years and my grandfather was subjected to horrific treatments in the '50s.

I was diagnosed with depression when I was 42 and learned then that, in many cases, depression and other mood disorders are passed down in the family.

Of course, families can struggle with situational depression.

My siblings and my kids were as devastated as I was about my mom’s death and we all struggled. But, we've all been able to move forward and not have the sadness affect our lives.


Consider your family. Does your mother or your sister struggle with their moods? Does your dad get angry easily or your child disappear into their rooms some days?

It's very likely that, if someone else in your family struggles as you do, then you very well might be chemically depressed and it might be time to get help.

Understanding the difference between sadness and depression is critical. 

Knowing if you're depressed or just sad is a key part of figuring out how to manage it.


If you find that nothing significant has happened in your life, that your hopelessness has been with you for a while and is getting worse, and if mood disorders run in your family, then you might be struggling with chemical depression.

And if you're dealing with chemical depression, reach out to your primary care doctor to see what kind of treatment they might recommend to help you manage it.

If you're sad because of a recent loss in your life, or something that has happened but your sadness hasn’t lasted for a long time or is getting worse, then you might be dealing with situational depression.

Take care of yourself, eat and sleep well, exercise, and see if it passes with time.


If it doesn’t, reach out to your primary care doctor and see what they might recommend so you can get through this rough period of time.

Depression and sadness don’t have to hold you back from living your life! Face them head-on, learn how to manage them, and move forward. You will be OK!

RELATED: Why Am I So Sad? 6 Common Reasons People Struggle With Depression And Anxiety

Mitzi Bockmann is an NYC-based, certified life and love coach. Let her help you find, and keep, love in this crazy world in which we live. Email her at and get started!