We often lump together sadness and depression, but they’re actually quite different.

Let’s start with sadness.

We feel sad when we’re hurt or something is wrong in our lives. Sadness, like all emotions, eventually goes away. But if we try to minimize it or ignore it, it can last a lot longer.

Often we don’t feel comfortable feeling sad. And so it may feel natural to want to distract yourself or avoid feeling that way. When growing up, you might have been taught to bottle up your feelings of sadness and pretend everything was okay.

When we don’t know how to handle sadness, we can often feel alone and lost. Remember that sadness is something that everyone experiences. Ignoring your sadness can make things worse. As strange as it sounds, giving yourself permission to feel sad can help you to feel happier. Sadness can help push us to make changes, to problem-solve, and to connect with people who care about us.

Depression is different: It’s a mood disorder. People with depression experience a low mood that lasts more than several weeks and as long as many years. We need help to address depression.

People with depression tend to get better with a mix of medication, therapy, and lifestyle changes. Not everyone has access to these things, however. If you can’t afford therapy or don’t have access to a therapist, you may be able to find help through a support group or community mental health organization.

There may be reasons why you feel hesitant to try these options. There is often a lot of stigma surrounding mental health conditions like depression. People may think “it’s all in your head” or that you can “will yourself to get over it.” But depression is real and it’s not something you can fix just by being strong. Depression can happen to anyone, regardless of their mental or emotional strength.

Often, people who are depressed report that they don’t feel sad as much as they feel numb. Without depression, people experience common ups and downs on the roller-coaster of emotions. But someone with depression can feel flat, where it’s hard to have any strong feeling.

Many people with depression experience what’s called anhedonia—things don’t feel as fun, beautiful, enjoyable, or meaningful. It’s almost like you’re living life with a grey cloud over everything. Your favourite music doesn’t sound as good. A delicious meal doesn’t taste that good. You watch a funny movie but you’re not laughing. People you ordinarily love spending time with no longer make you feel happy. Anhedonia makes it harder for you to be able to feel like this is something you still enjoy.

Recognizing anhedonia can help you realize that your emotions are not necessarily reliable at this moment. That music may still be good, the meal delicious, the comedy funny, the relationship loving—even if it doesn’t feel like it is. It can be helpful to separate what things actually are from how they might feel right now.

Another common symptom that makes it hard to cope is the strong sense of hopelessness that can come with depression. Hopelessness lies to us. It tells us that things are never going to get better and there’s no point in trying. But it’s not true. It’s the hopelessness talking.

Remember that, even when you’re feeling hopeless, there’s at least a small part of you that still feels a little hopeful. That’s the part of you that’s taking the time to read this article, a part that still thinks deep down it’s possible that something can help.

We want you to know that part of you is correct. People with depression do get better. It can be difficult. It can take a long time. You may feel exhausted or discouraged along the way. But you can feel happy again.

What can help

  • You can feel happy and sad at the same time. Being sad about one thing doesn’t take away your ability to feel happy about something else at the same time. Try to avoid seeing things as all-or-nothing. Instead, try to notice times when things are in between the extremes.
  • You can’t “fix” your sadness, but you can sit with it for a while. Listen to some music. Read a book or story about someone else’s sadness. Write out how you are feeling. Or make something creative (even if you’re not artistic) to express your sadness.
  • Try not to judge yourself for feeling sad. Remember that everyone feels sad from time to time. Your sadness is valid. You’ve been through a lot and someone has hurt or disappointed you. There’s no need to apologize for your feelings. Sadness reminds us that we, as people, need connection. The way to feel connected with others is to open up and be vulnerable. This can be scary, so it’s important to pick the right person, someone who is able to be understanding and kind.
  • Let go of the fear that talking with sadness will burden others. If you’re worried about this, you can ask the person ahead of time if they are able to listen and be a support. Rather than apologize for how you feel, say thank you.
  • Crying. Find a safe, comfortable place and let yourself cry. Crying lowers your cortisol level—cortisol is the main hormone that causes stress—and can help you to feel less stressed or overwhelmed. Crying is a way to connect with the pain you are feeling and can be an emotional release that makes you feel better afterward.
  • Notice if you are trying to numb yourself from your sadness. If you were taught that it’s wrong or bad to feel sad, you are likely to try to distract yourself. You might eat too much. You might start using substances like alcohol or drugs more. You might distract yourself with TV, video games, shopping, gambling, work, or other things to keep your mind off of how you feel. It’s common and understandable to do this. But notice when it becomes too much, as it can lower your mood more. These distractions can make it harder to recover from what you’ve been through.
  • If you are feeling really down and having low energy, adjust your expectations for yourself. It’s not possible to always be productive or have energy. On days when you are exhausted and struggling to get out of bed, be kind to yourself and focus on only what is necessary. If you have children or pets, make sure they are being taken care of. If you don’t feel able to care for them, make sure to ask someone else to help you with their care.
  • Try to avoid “comparative suffering.” This happens when we tell ourselves we shouldn’t complain or be sad because others have it worse than we do. But sadness and other emotions don’t work that way. Someone else being sad or having more of a reason to feel sad won’t change how you feel. What’s more, the person who supposedly has it worse doesn’t benefit from your being harsh on yourself for feeling sad. Instead, validate your emotions. When you feel sad, you’re not saying that no one else has ever had it worse. But you do feel sad and you have reason to feel sad.
  • It can be helpful to watch out for the “arrival fallacy”—telling yourself happiness is just around the corner. You might be thinking, “I’ll be happy when I switch jobs.” Or “I’ll feel better after my HR department talks to the person who harassed me.” Or “I’ll be much better once the court procedure is over.” You might expect everything to get better, but what’s more likely is that some things will get a bit better, but others will stay challenging. So it can make you feel worse.
  • Remember that we care about you. Even when you feel alone, you’re not alone. There is a large community of people who can relate to what you’ve been through and how you’re feeling, and who—even though they don’t know you personally—want you to feel better.

If your sadness, depression, or hopelessness means you’re feeling suicidal or wanting to hurt others, please seek immediate help. It can be scary to tell people how you’re feeling, but it’s absolutely necessary when your life is at risk. Tell a friend or family member you trust. Call a helpline. If you have a family doctor or therapist, let them know how you feel. If you need to, go to the hospital. Remember that how you are feeling will change. The dark hole you feel you’re in will not last forever. The best thing you can do for yourself is to stay safe long enough to start to feel better.