This is the Difference Between Sadness and Depression After a Breakup

Updated 08/03/19
Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis

Like all relationships, each breakup is unique and challenging in its own way. No matter how long the relationship lasted or how serious it was, every loss hurts, and there are times when it seems as though your heart will never recover. Yet, somehow, it always does. As difficult as a breakup may be, the heart is a resilient muscle capable of regaining strength and loving again. But if you're not quite there yet, that's okay.

"Grief is normal; most of us wouldn't really want to be so callous and jaded that we would not feel affected by loss," says Sherry Benton, Ph.D., founder and chief science officer at Tao Connect. However, recognizing whether your grief is healthy or whether you may be experiencing depression after a breakup is important, according to Benton. "Depression is more debilitating and pervasive, with constant negative thoughts about everything, not just the breakup," she explains. If this sounds familiar, allow Benton to answer the questions you might have about dealing with a breakup, including knowing the difference between sadness and depression, and when you might want to consider seeking professional guidance.

Meet The Expert

Sherry Benton, Ph.D., is founder and Chief Science Officer of TAO Connect, and a professor emeritus at the University of Florida.

Why Are Breakups So Difficult?

Simply put, "the more important a relationship is to us, the more painful the breakup is likely to be," says Benton. The more time and emotion you invest in a partner, the more challenging it can be to move on and learn to be single again. Additionally, Benton points out that it tends to be more difficult when the breakup was not entirely your own decision. "It is much more painful to be the breakup recipient than the breakup initiator," she says. However, no matter the cause, all breakups can be challenging. It's important to remember that your feelings are valid, but you'll get through this.

What's the Difference Between Sadness and Depression?

"It's important to distinguish grief and depression," according to Benton. While both emotional states can cause sadness, insomnia, and loss of appetite, a person who is experiencing grief will feel these symptoms alleviate over time. On the other hand, depression is more complicated. "The feelings are constant and overwhelming," Benton explains. Additionally, there are often feelings of guilt and shame attached to depression that may be about more than just the relationship loss.

When Should I Seek Additional Mental Health Support?

Grief takes time to work through, but if you don't feel your mood and thoughts improving over time, seeking additional support from a mental health professional may help. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), if your sadness is interfering with everyday life, something more than just "feeling blue" may be going on.

Seeking the guidance of a licensed mental health professional can help pinpoint contributing factors of your depression (including identifying negative and distorted thought patterns) and learn psychological, behavioral, and situational strategies to regain control of your life. Licensed professionals may prescribe antidepressant medication, but this choice is personal and should take into account existing medications, health conditions, and personal preferences.

How Do You Move On?

The good news is that these challenging emotions typically are not permanent and there are plenty of ways to move through them. "Accept the process you're going through and be good to yourself," Benton states. As with most things in life, the best approach is to be kind and patient with yourself no matter what you're going through. 

Most people do best when they alternate between letting themselves feel the sadness and grief and then distracting themselves with fun, work, friends, and activities.

"Most people do best when they alternate between letting themselves feel the sadness and grief and then distracting themselves with fun, work, friends, and activities." According to Benton, this can actually lead to a gradual improvement in mood. For example, clinical psychologist Chloe Carmichael, Ph.D., writes in an Anexiety.org blog post that getting a massage or creating an empowering break-up playlist may help lift your spirits. Alternatively, a Health magazine article suggests volunteering or (if you feel you are mentally and financially capable) getting a pet; both of which have been scientifically linked to reduced feelings of loneliness and increased feelings of wellbeing and satisfaction.

Is There a Silver Lining?

"There are those rare occasions when someone finds their soul mate early in life, but most people experience a whole series of relationships and friendships before we find one satisfying for the long term," she says. This is one aspect of a breakup to focus on in order to shift your mindset and view the loss as a positive situation.

Benton also suggests focusing on what wasn't really working. Ask yourself, "What part did you play in the problems?" and "What did you learn about what you are really looking for in a relationship?" Once you start asking these questions, you can begin to let go emotionally and, if you want to be partnered again, start thinking about the possibility of finding a partner to create an even better relationship with.

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