by Noam Gordon, Ms.C, LPC
Many often wonder where to draw the line between healthy negative emotions and destructive negative emotions. Or in other words, what is the difference between normal sadness and depression?
I often hear a patient insisting that their problem is real and, therefore, constitutes a realistic reason for their depression, contrary to the real reason responsible for it – cognitive distortions. People’s examples for such reasons could be – malignant disease, bankruptcy, the loss of a loved one. It is important to understand and accept – there is no such thing as realistic depression! There is no situation which in and of itself brings about depression. Troublesome and burdensome situations are indeed common and widespread in our lives; however, the sadness generated by them is not to be confused with depression.
Healthy or Unhealthy?
The difference between sadness and depression is significant. Sadness is a natural emotional reaction to the presence of disappointment or sorrow, stemming from a realistic recognition of the triggering event. We need to feel sadness as part of our healthy adaptive coping with the pain. Depression, however, is a cognitive, emotional and behavioral disorder which derives from negatively distorted, unrealistic thoughts.
An example: Grief.
As an example, let us look at a situation of the loss of a loved-one. One could think: “He is gone forever, the pain is so immense, I miss him so much, his loss is so painful.” That realistic anguish spreads inside him. It is a necessary part of processing the loss. It expresses one’s humanness and gives both his life and the loss a meaning. As cruel as it may sound, while grieving we evolve.
A “Thoughts Assembly Line”
On the opposite side, one might say: “It is so unfair! Why do all the painful things happen to me? I don’t give a damn about anything anymore, it is worthless anyway. I will never be happy again.” These types of thoughts do not stem from an evidence-based reality recognition, rather from a personal thoughts assembly-line. Human beings do not have the ability to be fortunetellers, there is no gauge which measures fairness, and it would usually be wrong and inaccurate to claim that one would not find anything interesting anymore. These kinds of thoughts create self-pity and despair which often result in unnecessary mental damage.
Seeing the Difference
It is true that both sadness and depression can appear as the result of loss or failure. Nevertheless, it is important to differentiate between the two. Sadness is not a result of cognitive distortions, but a flow of emotions, lasting for a limited period of time, and does not cause the loss of one’s sense of self-worth. Unlike sadness, depression is comparable to sinking into quicksand. It lasts for a long period of time, has the tendency to reappear, and will always involve damaged sense of self-worth.
It is important to distinguish between the two mindsets, because unlike sadness, depression is not a legitimate normative mindset. Depression is not anchored in reality, as it lacks any kind of positivity. In fact, it is one of the worst forms of human distress. The only worth which could be attributed to it is the mental growth experienced by people recovering from depression.
The Outcome of our Thoughts
It is crucially important to remember – meanings and interpretations we assign to events we experience and our thoughts about them, are the assembly-line of our emotions. Our emotions are not a stand-alone element but rather the outcome of our thoughts. Even when reality is negative, a significant portion of the distress stems from cognitive distortions and not from the actual event. Hence, when we break free of those maladaptive cognitive distortions we realize we can withstand life hardship in more adaptive ways, and the pain associated with the challenges is changed as well.