Depression isn’t just very bad sadness: It’s suspended sadness
While generalities about the lived or felt experiences of human life, particularly intense emotional experiences, are fraught, there is something distinct about the experience we tend to refer to as sadness from the one we refer to as depression. These differences are not just in degree but in kind. Depression isn’t “very bad” or “lots of” sadness nor is it “sadness that doesn’t go away.”
Depression is a form of stuckness. While it is related to sadness (and can feel and be experienced similarly), it might be best understood as a kind of intense chronic suspended sadness—or at least a suspension of the full experience or process of sadness. This suspended sadness is often described by patients experiencing depression as a kind of numbness. Rather than an intensity of sad feelings, depression can be an absence of feeling or certain kinds of feelings related to sadness.
Unlike depression, sadness has a productive capacity as a way of working through
To highlight the difference between depression and sadness, it’s useful to delve into the productive and restorative capacity of sadness. Sadness can be defined by a kind of internal movement. Sadness is most often (though not always) a response to loss, disappointment, mistreatment, or unkindness. With a loss like a breakup or being laid off, the movement is in adjusting from being in a relationship or a job and moving through to a new state wherein we’re no longer in that relationship or position. Even with mistreatment, we’re sad (rather than angry) when that mistreatment is at odds with how we expected to be treated. For instance, we tend not to be sad when a stranger is unkind. We’re more likely to be sad when it’s a friend or someone we expected to treat us well.
In this way, sadness is about transition—a feeling that accompanies the movement of cells that must come with a meaningful change in our realities. We see sadness in a breakup or a death as a part of coming towards a state of being without this person. However, we also see it in a loss of childhood (like a child no longer asking for a bedtime story) or giving up an old way of being that no longer serves us but was meaningful. Sadness is a way of working through—more synonymous with grief and mourning than depression. In fact, grief and sadness can be thought of as twins.
Perhaps because of this productive aspect of sadness, people rarely seek therapy for sadness. Sadness is seen as both an ordinary state and one that can be worked through (and is, therefore, temporary). Though if there is much to be sad about, we can be sad for a long time. Yet, in these cases, it is still quite rare for someone to arrive at therapy with the stated reason, “I’ve been quite sad for a long time.” Even when they do, we discover something else is going on—they’re less sad than stuck in a kind of pre-sadness.
Since depression puts sadness on pause, the cure is to feel it (and build the conditions to feel it)
Since depression is a suspended sadness, the restorative power of sadness is unable to work. There could be many reasons why this happens. Sadness needs certain conditions to facilitate it. First and foremost is safety—a place to let one’s guard down and grieve. We need this both early in life and later on. Later on, we also benefit from a partner to hold our sadness—to watch and listen. Sadness also needs acceptance: help to come to terms with what happened and what is. It is only once we’ve accepted something as the case that we can grieve it.
And so depression puts sadness on pause when the conditions for it aren’t in place. To feel the sadness would invite danger (even physical danger) and shame. We’re alone and can’t afford to confront the feelings. Or we’re not alone but don’t have the full resources to help us through the immense sadness. Over time when the accumulation of unprocessed sadness builds up and up, we develop a chronic state of pre-sadness or depression.
The cure, then, is to feel the immensity of that sadness in a safe space with a partner such as a therapist who can hold all of it.