Depression and Sadness: When to See the Doctor

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on March 13, 2023
5 min read

Is your sadness just a low mood that will pass in time, or is it depression? Some symptoms can help you know when it’s time to talk to your doctor.

Depression is a common mood disorder. It’s a mental health condition that may be serious.

Depression can have both emotional and physical symptoms that affect how you feel, think, and behave. It can also damage your personal relationships. You’re sad and lose interest in your life or activities that once gave you pleasure.

Depression is not just sadness. Everyone can feel blue, down in the dumps, or sad at times. Emotional reactions to life’s ups and downs are natural. It’s normal to feel sad when you grieve a loss of a loved one, lose your job, or experience disappointments. Occasional low moods are not depression because the sad feelings eventually go away.

It’s also normal to feel like you want to be alone sometimes. Downtime can be healthy. You may want to just relax in a quiet place to recharge. You don’t always need to be around people or socialize.

Depression is constant, not occasional. Depression is when your symptoms of sadness and loss of interest in life are there all the time. You feel sad and withdrawn just about every day. Those feelings don’t let up. You can’t just shake off depression, even though other people in your life may tell you to “snap out of it” or that you can control your emotions. Depression isn’t something you can talk yourself out of feeling.

Loss of function. If you have depression, you may not be able to function normally in your daily life. Depression can affect your work, your home life, and relationships.

If you or your loved one has any of these symptoms regularly for 2 weeks or longer, they may have depression, not just sadness:

  • Sadness. You may feel hopeless, blue, or empty inside. You may cry often. You feel worthless, guilty, or sorry about things you’ve done in the past.
  • Anhedonia. Anhedonia is a common symptom of clinical depression. It’s when you lose the ability to enjoy things that used to give you pleasure. You no longer enjoy your favorite hobbies, sports, or movies, being with other people, or sex.
  • Sleep problems. You may not be able to fall asleep or stay asleep. You also may oversleep and not want to get out of bed.
  • Lack of energy. You feel tired and sluggish. You move slowly, speak slowly, and take a long time to react to people.
  • Weight issues. You may lose your appetite and drop pounds. You may also crave unhealthy food and gain weight.
  • Aches and pains. You may have body aches or pain in certain places -- like your back or head -- that don’t seem to have a physical cause. You may have muscle cramps or an upset stomach. Your pains don’t get better with treatment.
  • Neglect self-care. You may no longer care about yourself or how you look or dress. You may stop bathing or showering regularly. You may wear the same wrinkled or messy clothes all the time, or let your laundry pile up.
  • Anger. You may snap at people often, feel angry or resentful, and have verbal outbursts over small slights.
  • Mind fog. You have trouble thinking clearly or remembering things. You lose focus on tasks or conversations. It’s hard to make decisions.
  • Suicidal thoughts. You may think about death or suicide, or that you want to die.

Everyone with depression doesn’t have all of these symptoms or the same symptoms. You may experience some of these symptoms at times, but not all the time. You may also have more severe or milder symptoms than other people.

Children with depression may not want to go to school. They may not do well in classes or their grades may drop. Younger children may cling to their parents and worry about everything.

Teens with depression may also want to avoid school. They may be extremely sensitive, have a poor self-image, or eat or sleep all the time. They may even experiment with illegal drugs or alcohol or engage in self-harm like cutting their skin, banging their head against a wall, burning themselves, or pulling out their hair.

Older people may have undiagnosed depression because their symptoms are mistaken for normal signs of aging. They may want to stay home all the time and avoid people. They may lose their appetite, have trouble sleeping or remembering things, or have fatigue or pain that isn’t due to a medical condition.

If you think you or your loved one has depression, see your doctor or a mental health professional. They can diagnose your condition and suggest treatments that improve your symptoms.

Your doctor can perform a physical exam and review your medical and family history. They may give you a blood test to rule out medical causes of some of your symptoms. For instance, a thyroid problem can cause fatigue and a low mood. They’ll ask you about your symptoms. They may give you a questionnaire to fill out about your sad feelings and thoughts.

Your doctor or mental health professional can also determine if you have a particular type of depression, like melancholic, atypical, or seasonal depression.

Depression is treatable. Your doctor can prescribe medications and psychotherapy. They can refer you to a psychologist or psychiatrist for further therapy.

Don’t try to deal with depression on your own, or worry that other people will look down on you because of your condition or because you need treatment. With treatment, you can manage your depression symptoms.

  • If you’re diagnosed with depression, don’t feel ashamed. Depression or mental health treatment is not a stigma. Other people may not understand that depression is a medical condition, not just sadness. Getting treatment is taking care of yourself.
  • Don’t tell yourself that you’re weak and should be able to handle your emotions. You’re a person, not your diagnosis.
  • Learn more about depression and your symptoms so you understand them. Check out support groups where you can talk with other people who are living with depression.