Sadness, Melancholy and Depression; How to Know the Difference

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Sarvika Aggarwal

07 October 2021

6 Mins

Michelle looked up with heavy eyes saying, “I can’t seem to get away from this deep feeling of sadness. It’s been like this my whole life. I don’t know any other way of being”.

It may be surprising but she’s not the only one who’s become accustomed to melancholy like a familiar friend or just a necessary part of their daily life. Working with clients who have embodied their mental dysfunction can be very challenging because they cannot envision a life without it.

The fact is, unless diagnosed, many sufferers may assume it’s normal or at least their version of normal. Making attempts to help them walk out of their misery may be difficult because they have grown so comfortable with this state of being.

Why do people become attached to chronic unhappiness?

First, because happiness is an ideology that is hard to pin down and it’s very personal. What would make me happy, may make you feel very miserable.

It’s every individual’s decision to attach the feeling of happiness to an event or situation or achievement or otherwise. It also depends on their predisposition and what they have grown up deciding what is worth their feelings of happiness. In other words, the way we think about aspects of life may create happiness or not.

In some cases, people have developed only learning misery. Depending on the form that their nurturing years took some people may grow up only knowing sadness and may have no way of identifying happiness.

How one defines happiness is also key here. There’s no universal definition of happiness. What evokes happiness? Is it money, successful relationships, career advancement? One’s personal value system may also not be created to experience happiness because no achievement is worth celebrating.

How can you tell if you’re depressed or just sad?

A case of depression needs to be diagnosed by a licensed professional. There are key factors that are measured to reach the diagnosis. But because depression is such a common and overly used mental health term it can be difficult to discern between the feeling of sadness or the mental health disorder.

Some differences include the fact that the feeling of sadness may be encountered by a depressed person but a sad person is not necessarily depressed. Also, the feeling of sadness is usually diminished after the individual has released the feeling through an outlet such as crying or talking to someone. It is more temporary in nature than depression.

Depression is an overpowering and persistent mental health disorder that affects every aspect of a person’s life.

There are different types of depressive disorders and they are usually differentiated based on their intensity. However, generally, the symptoms include:

  • Continuous feelings of sadness
  • Lack of appetite or a rapid increase in appetite
  • Potential or inclination to self-harm
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Lack of motivation to partake in normal daily activities
  • A dramatic loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities
  • Insomnia or oversleeping
  • Fatigue
  • Identifiable loss or increase in body weight
  • Continuous morbid thoughts about death and suicide
  • Brain fog or confusion or inability to think clearly

However, if one realises that the feeling of sadness has existed beyond two weeks, it’s advisable and pertinent that one sees a mental health professional for help and support. There are many avenues of support and intervention which may include the use of antidepressants and psychotherapy.

Is addiction to sadness common?

Yes and more than we think. The current fast-paced high-pressure culture we live in tends to create feelings of deep dissatisfaction in many people. Nothing will ever be enough. The rapid rise of consumerism means the purchase of items will not alleviate the feeling of hopelessness because there’s always something new.

We are constantly inundated and stimulated with images of as yet unachievable goals such as rapid weight loss, the ideal life partner, healthy financial balances, a boosted social media following and more. All these serve to create a deep feeling of hopelessness especially when one is aware of the competitive edge.

What are the key traits of those addicted to sadness?

  • They can never find the ‘good’ in any situation
  • They will always be miserable even if there’s no reason to be
  • They enjoy proving how difficult their lives are compared to others
  • They are unable to restore themselves after a failure
  • They feel incapable of managing their emotions
  • They have unsuccessful relationships full of drama
  • They tend to use drugs, alcohol, sex, food or any other addictive substance to cope
  • They are unable to set and achieve goals
  • They do not enjoy their successes
  • They usually blame others for their demise or their lack of success

Is addiction to sadness connected in any way to creativity?

Research doesn’t confirm this indefinitely. A few connections have been observed but to assume that sadness and creativity are correlated will not be entirely conclusive. However, the idea that melancholy and creative expressions are related has existed for years.

Generally, self-reflective thought could lend itself to artistic expression. Also traditionally renowned artists have shown an affinity for depressive or melancholic dispositions.

Karol Jan Borowiecki a researcher from the University of Southern Denmark concluded after analysing 1,400 letters written by Mozart, Beethoven and Liszt that there is a causal relationship between negative emotions and creativity.

He determined that a composer would need a 37% increase in negative emotion to be able to produce a new composition.

In a paper by Modupe Akinola of Columbia Business School titled “The Dark Side of Creativity: Biological Vulnerability and Negative Emotions Lead to Greater Artistic Creativity”, she asked participants to describe their ‘dream job’ to which they were exposed to a positive or negative response after which they were asked to compose an artistic work which was examined by professional artists for creativity.

DHEAS, an endogenous hormone which reduces the effects of stress hormones, was also measured. Participants then reported how they felt subjectively and objectively about the experience and how the response to their speech affected their emotions.

The result was that those who had low levels of DHEA and those who received negative responses to their speeches produced more creative collages. Modupe’s conclusion was that the intrinsic relationship between emotion and cognition created these results. The sadder we are the greater the probability of applying more attention, detail and focus to a work of art.

In spite of these studies, one should ideally not take their mental health for granted for the purpose of producing creative works. Interventions must be applied to ensure that one maintains a proper balance between their mental health and artistic productions by learning the skills required and applying them in a healthy setting.

Walking clients through various types of addictions and mental health challenges can be tasking but the ultimate reward is when a client realises that they are empowered to overcome and to use the skills within their arsenal to enjoy their lives.

But it’s vital that we discover and identify our triggers. What leads us into that place of feeling addicted to sadness should be an indication that it needs to be addressed and with that, you may need the help of a mental health practitioner.

So, whether you think you feel sad or depressed it is always advisable to seek help and support and if unsure just have a preliminary discussion about what you’re going through.

Phoebe Gbesemete is a Counsellor, Mental Health Coach and Advocate. She speaks publicly on issues on mental health and runs her counselling practice, Light and Life Consult virtually reaching individuals from all over the world including countries such as Australia, India, South Africa and Hungary. She’s married with a beautiful daughter. She can be reached via Instagram @lightandlifeconsult.

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