What is Depression?

What is Depression?

Depression is different from the occasional sadness we all experience. Sadness is a normal emotion we all experience after going through upsetting situations like arguing with a loved one, breaking off a relationship, or losing a job. However, sadness that lasts more than two weeks and affects ability to function may be clinical depression, also known as major depression or major depressive disorder. (1) ​​

(2) & (3)

The Difference Between Sadness and Depression

When people are sad, they can still have moments of happiness but people who are depressed rarely, if ever, experience happiness. For instance, if you’re sad because you had a bad day at work, you can still go out with friends and have a few laughs afterwards. When people are depressed on the other hand, even the most talented comedian would have difficulty making them laugh. (4)

Sadness is an emotion that lessens or passes on its own in time. (5) Depression is an illness where sadness is an ongoing symptom that doesn’t lessen or pass on it’s own. With depression, sadness lasts for most of the day, nearly every day. (6) In addition, depression symptoms continue indefinitely without treatment. (7)

A person who is sad can continue to function and perform the routine tasks of daily living. (5) Depression, on the other hand, prevents a person from functioning normally. (6) Sometimes, just getting out of bed to face the day can be a major challenge for a depressed person. The illness makes accomplishing daily tasks a significant struggle. (7)

Symptoms of Depression

Unlike sadness, depression is characterized by the presence of a majority of the following symptoms that last at least two weeks and prevent a person from functioning normally. (6)​​​​

  • Pessimism (negative thinking) and feelings of hopelessness
  • Feelings of worthlessness, self-loathing, and self-blame (guilt)
  • Feeling anxious or “empty”
  • Decreased energy and fatigue
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities, including sex
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, and making decisions
  • Sleep irregularities such as insomnia, waking during the night, or oversleeping
  • Appetite and/or weight changes
  • Restlessness, irritability, and/or angry outbursts
  • Suicidal thoughts or suicide attempts

Depression is like a dark cloud that looms over your thoughts of yourself, your future, and the outside world.                                                                                                   (7)

Pessimism / Negative Thinking

Pessimism is what makes depression such a cruel illness. According to David D. Burns, M.D., author of Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, depression causes thoughts to be dominated by a pervasive negativity where people perceive not only themselves but the entire world in dark, gloomy terms. (9) Without depression, a person wouldn’t think so negatively. In fact, negative thinking is depression speaking. (10) Depression is so cruel and so convincing that these negative thoughts appear valid to a depressed person. (9) The fact that depressed people believe the pessimism and negative thoughts of depression is what makes the illness so debilitating.​​

As a symptom of depression, pessimism also keeps a person depressed. Depression leads to negative thoughts which maintain and prolong depression. (11) In other words, a vicious cycle is created where negative thoughts cause negative emotions which cause more negative thoughts and more negative emotions. (12) Figure 1 depicts the vicious cycle.

Figure 1. The Cycle of Negative Thoughts and Emotions

Distorted Thinking

The good news is that depression doesn’t tell the truth! The negative thoughts that depression brings are not valid! (9) When people are depressed, they believe their negative thoughts without seeing how inaccurate and incorrect they are. Dr. Burns refers to these invalid negative thoughts as cognitive distortions, all of which form the basis of a person’s depression. (9) See Figure 2 below for the top cognitive distortions of depressed people.

Figure 2. The Top 10 Cognitive Distortions

1. All-or-Nothing Thinking

You see things in black-and-white with no gray areas in between. You feel like a failure if you’re not perfect.


“I didn’t get an A on my exam. I’m a total failure.”

“I wasn’t elected Class President. I’m a total loser.”

2. Mental Filter

You pick out a single negative detail and focus on that detail alone.


“I can’t believe she cut in front of me. People are so rude!”

“There was a boring speaker at the event. The whole event was a disaster.”

3. Jumping to Conclusions

You make a negative assumption even though there are no facts to back it up.


You call a friend who doesn’t get back to you right away. You assume he doesn’t like you anymore. He later informs you he was out of the country for a family emergency.

You went on a few interviews and haven’t received a job offer. You think, “There’s no way anyone will ever hire me.” You later get a call with a job offer.

4. Magnification (Catastrophizing) or Minimization

You exaggerate the importance of your mistakes and minimize your achievements.


You didn’t make your assigned sales goal of $500.00. You think, “This is terrible. I’m going to be fired!”

You own a beautiful house. Your family and friends compliment you on it and you respond, “It’s not as big or fancy as some of the other houses in this neighborhood.”

5. Overgeneralization

You assume a single negative event that occurred will keep happening.​​​​​​


“I asked her out and she said no. No woman will ever want to be with me.”

“All I had to do was bake a cake and I didn’t use enough shortening. I can never do anything right.”

6. Disqualifying the Positive

You reject positive experiences and maintain a negative belief.


“Your boss tells you that your report is excellent. You think, “She’s just being nice.”

“Your father praises you for your chores. You respond, “You’re just saying that because you’re my Dad.”

7. Personalization

You see yourself as the cause of some negative external event you weren’t primarily responsible for.


“She didn’t follow my advice and she ended up getting hurt. I should have been more persuasive. It’s my fault she got hurt.”

“He didn’t check into a rehabilitation center like I suggested. I should have taken him there myself. It’s my fault he’s still struggling with his addiction.”

8. Should Statements

You motivate yourself by thinking you should do something, which causes you to feel self-loathing, shame, and guilt if you don’t live up to your standards.


“I should own a larger house.”

“I should be able to give the presentation without being so nervous!”

9. Labeling & Mislabeling

You attach a negative label to yourself, thus creating a negative self-image.


“She completed the exam faster than I did. I’m such an idiot.”

“I goofed up the financial calculations. I’m so incompetent!”

10. Emotional Reasoning

Assuming that negative emotions reflect reality.


“I feel stupid. I must be stupid.”

“I feel lazy. I can’t accomplish anything.”

The Top 10 Cognitive Distortions and the accompanying examples clearly show how depressed people focus solely on the negative aspects of their lives, think poorly of themselves, and even blame themselves for things beyond their control. All of this pessimism and negativity leads depressed people to feel completely hopeless. Dr. Burns provides a perfect explanation of how depression makes sufferers feel so hopeless:

“If you are substantially depressed, you believe that things will always be negative. As you imagine the future, you see only emptiness or unending problems and anguish. This bleak vision creates a sense of hopelessness. This feeling is absolutely illogical but it seems so real that you have convinced yourself your inadequacy will go on forever.” (9)​

Depressed people feel as if they’re drowning in a sea of negativity where the positive world eludes them. They struggle to stay afloat but without treatment, they continue to feel inadequate and sink further. They feel completely hopeless, as if they only have misery to look forward to. However, as Dr. Burns points out, this feeling is illogical. Depressed people only feel this way because they are depressed!

The Top 10 Cognitive Distortions along with the examples also show that depression causes its sufferers to significantly devalue themselves. The distorted thinking that depression brings makes a person who was once confident feel insecure, negative, and self-loathing. (13) In other words, depression significantly decreases self-esteem. (7) When people have low self-esteem, they are more vulnerable to depression and the depression continues to lower their self-esteem. (13) Figure 3 below depicts the relationship between depression and self-esteem over time.​​

Figure 3. The Relationship Between Depression and Self-Esteem

Figure 3 shows that a person’s self-esteem is at its highest when depression isn’t present. As depression progresses, self-esteem gets lower and lower. Left untreated, depression becomes severe and a person’s self-esteem is dangerously low.


An overpowering sadness that lasts for more than two weeks and decreases a person’s ability to function normally is likely to be depression. Left untreated, depression is much different from the sadness that everyone occasionally feels because it completely depletes a person’s ability to feel happiness or to function. Depression causes a person to have extremely pessimistic and distorted thoughts as can be seen in the Top 10 Cognitive Distortions. Left unchecked, depression causes self-esteem to reach a dangerously low point. Depression is a serious illness. It isn’t something that can just be shrugged off as those who are uneducated about depression seem to think.

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