I will assume right from the start that you and google are acquaintances and that you can access info on the Internet about the diagnostic criteria for depression (here is one). But, sometimes, it’s hard to know where you fit into what can seem like ambiguous and artificial constructs. For some people sadness and depression seem quite similar and they don’t meet all the ‘criteria’. And what about grieving? It’s kind of like both sadness and depression for some folks.
One day, in a counselling session, I was trying to come up with a simple way to explain the difference between sadness and depression; the following three images came to mind (knowing that these are attempts to describe sadness but are, by no means, exclusive or inclusive of all people’s experiences).
The storm or a tsunami (grief): this is a powerful surge of weather that can take you by surprise with its intensity and rapid onset. You see, smell, or hear something, a memory pops into your head and you suddenly feel overwhelmed with emotions and thoughts. This is often the nature of grief. It’s not always present but when it is, it is fierce and unrelenting…for a time. And then it subsides, crests and falls over time, and when it stops we are left with a sense of exhaustion and lingering sadness. Grief is typically about losing someone dear to us or losing one’s dreams, faith, health, or trust in the world. It’s significant and devastating but it is often relieved a bit by periods of sadness and maybe even some sunnier breaks.
The coastal mist or drizzle (sadness): This is like the misty rain that is so soft and fine you don’t know you are soaking wet until you come into somewhere dry and feel chilled to the bone. This is how we sometimes experience sadness. It permeates and everything and it’s persistent: it’s a perpetual wet blanket. Our daily tasks can feel like treading through water; there is a heaviness that rarely lifts even when our thoughts are elsewhere. And we just want it to stop or ease up a bit. Sadness is also typically about a loss. Someone, some thing, or some idea is gone and we are deeply affected by its absence on a daily basis.
The mud puddle (depression): this is when all our energy is gone and we just can’t care enough about anything or anyone (not even ourselves) to move out of the stagnant, murky puddle of water we are sitting in. People urge us to snap out of it but we can’t. “What’s the point?” we argue. Everything is meaningless, hopeless, defeating, and so exhausting. We may want things to change but it doesn’t seem possible anymore. And it feels better somehow to stop struggling and just accept the sinkhole we are in or we might flail about, restless and anxious, but still feeling stuck. Depression is like this sometimes; it’s typically about an imbalance in a few (or more than a few) important areas of life—our physiological, vocational, spiritual, relational, and psychological selves, for example. It’s hard to figure out how we got here or how to get out and it seems to be sticking around for a long time.
The main difference I see between all three of these metaphors is the sense of movement. In grief and sadness, we are generally still fighting with it or working through it or managing life somehow. With depression, we are more often still and stagnant—shut down and unresponsive to the relationships or movements in our days.
I’ve written about how to manage the day-to-day in another post (Dec, 2015 blog post), so I won’t go into it here, but I will mention that movement is often a key strategy for getting out of the metaphorical puddle—exercising our physical, creative, or cognitive muscles, so to speak. Whatever you can do to keep moving through the storms or sadness, keep doing it (assuming it’s overall outcome is more health). If you really can’t get going on a daily basis, ask a friend or family member to help you access some psychological care.
To wrap this up, maybe these metaphors made sense of your experience and maybe they didn’t at all. If you would like to add to the conversation or if you have questions, I would love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org
Peace to you and your household,