How to Keep Grief From Spiraling Into Depression
“In some cultures, especially among men, it’s not common to acknowledge sadness.”
Sadness is a natural response to loss. And for those who’ve confronted profound sadness—the type induced by the loss of a loved one, or the end of a long relationship—it’s natural to wonder whether this grief could snowball into depression.
“It’s a question I hear all the time,” says Jin Y. Han, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Baylor College of Medicine. “I tell people that sadness can be a symptom of depression, but clinical depression is more than sadness.”
Every human being endures periods of sorrow, Han says. And while clinical depression is considered a mental health disorder, sadness in response to grief is part of “the normal spectrum” of human emotions, he says. “If something unfortunate happens to you or a loved one, the normal reaction would be to feel sad, and that doesn’t mean you have clinical depression."
Other experts agree. You may feel grief after a loss, whether it’s loss of a relationship, a job, or something less personal but still meaningful, says Michelle G. Newman, a professor of psychology and psychiatry and director of the Laboratory for Anxiety and Depression Research at Pennsylvania State University. But grief in response to loss or trauma is not depression. At least, not at first.
Feeling unhappy most or all of the day for two weeks or more is one sign of depression. Newman says. “But clinical depression also includes other symptoms like feeling hopeless about the future,” she says.
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Han adds to this list: “If your ability to function is impaired”—you can’t concentrate at work, or you find yourself unable to complete normal daily tasks—“then something is not right,” he says. Changes in your appetite, sleep habits, and energy levels are also associated with depression, he says. Some people with depression are almost immobilized; they don’t have the strength to get out of bed, or to leave the house.
Feeling like you don’t enjoy stuff that used to interest you is another hallmark of depression. “Even during periods of grief, most people experience fluctuations in positive and negative affect,” Newman explains. If you feel flat-lined—like nothing can make you feel good or happy or optimistic, even for short periods—that’s a major red flag, she says.
There are more symptoms associated with depression, which the NIMH lists here. (Anxiety, weight gain, and thoughts of suicide are among them.) But you need not experience all of them to be clinically depressed. Both Han and Newman say sadness can lead to depression—even when sadness starts out as a natural, healthy response to loss.
“Some people need more time to grieve than others, but if you feel like there’s something preventing you from getting over your sadness, or you feel like you’re not recovering normally, that’s not something you should ignore,” Newman says. She says some things people do (or don’t do) during periods of grief can increase the odds they’ll become depressed. “The worst thing somebody sad or grieving can do is immediately try not to think about it, or to act as if the event or loss never happened,” she says. “People need to process emotionally negative events because if they don’t, negative events don’t go away.”
Han reiterates this point. “In some cultures, especially among males, it’s not common to acknowledge sadness,” he says. “A person may not be sleeping or eating or enjoying anything, which are all signs of depression, but if you ask they’ll say, ‘I’m not sad.’” This is not a healthy way to manage grief, he says.
To accomplish the kind of grief management and “emotional processing” that can forestall depression, Newman says thinking about the loss, crying over it, and talking about it with others—friends, family, support group members, or a therapist—are all great options.
Getting back into activities you normally enjoy—especially exercise—is also a good idea. “Even if you don’t currently feel motivated to do those things, pushing yourself to start doing them again can be helpful,” she says.
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