Depression Versus Sadness: When to Talk with your Doctor
Most people will have depressive periods or times of sadness throughout their lives. For someone experiencing these feelings, it can be difficult to know when to seek help.
If you find yourself fighting early morning wake-ups or losing your appetite, Joseph Garbely, DO, DFASAM, a psychiatrist and the Chief Medical Officer at Caron Treatment Centers in Reading, PA, recommends scheduling time with your general practitioner. Trouble sleeping and appetite fluctuations are often the first symptoms to take root of Major Depressive Disorder, more commonly known as depression.
“These are early signs that you need to seek attention,” Dr. Garbely says. “While many people think they need a specialist, primary care physicians are well-trained in dealing with depression and anxiety. If they feel a case is more complicated, they may bring in a psychiatrist to manage medication and a psychologist to provide psychotherapy.”
Depression is a mental health disorder affecting more than 16 million people in the United States alone.
According to Dr. Garbely, anyone displaying four or more of the following symptoms for more than two weeks should reach out to their physician for guidance.
- Depressed mood
- Loss of pleasure
- Lack of energy
- Sleep disturbance
- Increased feelings of guilt
- Thoughts of self-harm
- Decrease in sexual drive
- Appetite disturbance
What’s the difference between sadness and depression?
Sadness, Danielle Weitzer, DO, a psychiatry resident at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine, is often temporary following a stressful trigger. A clinical diagnosis of depression, however, can last years without ties to a particular life event. It often worsens in the absence of medical intervention, she says.
While depression can be serious, there are effective treatments available. Most patients benefit from a two-pronged approach, combining therapy with medication, says Dr. Garbely.
“Antidepressants take some time to reach their full potential, which is usually about 4 to 6 weeks. A patient needs to give informed, verbal consent that they understand this type of medication won’t operate like an antibiotic,” Dr. Garbely states. “Fortunately, the benefits of therapy are more immediate.”
Finding the right balance
Because depression stems from a chemical imbalance in the brain resulting in decreased serotonin, Dr. Weitzer explains that medications aim to increase levels of this neurotransmitter to help patients find balance.
However, even when patients reach the right dose—which can require trial and error—medication will not change their triggers or their reactions to those triggers. For this reason, Dr. Weitzer recommends a type of psychotherapy called cognitive behavioral therapy, which seeks to alter a patient’s behavioral patterns in response to particular stressors.
In addition to medication and talk therapy, complementary treatment options exist that provide more immediate benefits with few, if any, side effects. Dr. Garbely wholly recommends a mindfulness meditation practice as a proven strategy for combating depressive feelings.
With regular practice, mindfulness can help ease stress, anxiety, and sadness — and has been shown to help prevent the progression of depression.
Dr. Weitzer urges patients to think holistically, encouraging them to stay connected to loved ones, throw themselves into a new hobby, and eat a healthy diet that is rich in fresh produce and low in sugar. She recommends maintaining an exercise routine and good sleep hygiene.
“Don’t be afraid to start the conversation with your primary care physician,” says Dr. Weitzer. “Depression is one of the most common mental health disorders, fortunately, there effective treatment strategies available. With a physician’s guidance, a patient can find the right combination of lifestyle changes and medication for an improved quality of life.”