How to tell the difference between an emotional slump and clinical depression

Changes in mood and emotional ups and downs are natural parts of life. If you’re struggling with a low mood and lack of motivation, you may wonder if what you’re feeling is just normal or something more serious. Here are some ways to tell the difference between an emotional slump and clinical depression. 

An emotional slump is often situational. Maybe there are some sad or stressful things going on in your life. Maybe you feel stuck. In a job, relationship, situation, place. Or just in your own rut of habit. You want change but aren’t sure how to bring it about. Feeling down is a natural response to feeling stuck, or after experiencing loss.  

While frustration over life circumstances, loss, or tragedy can trigger a depressive episode, depression often has nothing to do with what is going on in a person’s life. 

Things are going great, but then… You’re inexplicably sad. And tired. 

All those things you used to enjoy, you just can’t. Sounds like an emotional slump to me, how about you? Or it could very well be clinical depression. You may not want to go out, or stay in, and do the things you usually enjoy, or that energize you, or make you feel you have a purpose; but if you’re in an emotional slump, those feelings will pass. Give it a few days, or a week. Maybe a bit longer. 

Sometimes people mistakenly think depression is just ongoing sadness. But it’s often numbness. Not just the inability to feel good or happy or pleasure, but to feel anything. This can happen in an emotional slump, but it’s more common to experience it during a depressive episode. I’ve been there. Everyone and everything feels far away. As the numbness settles around and inside me, everything taken in through my senses is muted, but harsh. It’s like nothing can touch me, but at the same time it bruises me. Sylvia Plath likened it to being under a bell jar. 

It’s difficult, maybe impossible, to explain how feeling nothing can hurt so bad. 

What divides an emotional slump from clinical depression is duration, and how much it impacts daily life.  

Although an emotional slump can impact productivity and relationships, its effects are not as severe or ongoing as clinical depression, also known as major depressive disorder. There is not the same level of self-loathing during an emotional slump. Feeling inadequate slides into feeling worthless. Worthlessness can slip into belief that the world, especially loved ones, would be better off without you. Which brings us to what is often the biggest difference between an emotional slump and clinical depression: suicidal ideation, which is thoughts of suicide. 

If you are experiencing thoughts of suicide, you need to get help. And you need to get it as soon as possible. I understand that the negative thoughts seem more rational than positive. Hope seems irrational when there’s so much ugly, and your brain just can’t work well enough to push back against the endless spin of negative thoughts. The goal is to get things under control before you believe things will never get better. 

But you’re not worthless. You’re not helpless. It’s not hopeless. There is light beyond the dark. 

Bottom line, take responsibility for your mental health. If you’re in an emotional slump, there’s a good chance you just need to ride it out, making sure to do the things you know you should. Maybe you need to take charge of your emotions in a particular area and/or deal with a situation you’d rather not. Maybe you just need to keep putting one foot in front of the other, making healthy choices, and trusting things will get better even when you can’t believe it. 

While I’ll always be the one to tell you to get help if you need it, I’m also just as strong about warning you to not look for someone to fix what you need to take charge of. It’s frustrating that people who would benefit from medication won’t or can’t, while others run to their doctor for the quick fix of an antidepressant thinking a pill can make them feel better when what they need is to take responsibility for their own choices, and their choices consequences. 

So, yes, soap box moment… Antidepressants are not for feeling happy, but thinking clearly. 

It’s always the right time to make mentally healthy choices. Good food. Enough water. Exercise. Self careWhether it’s an emotional slump or clinical depression, believe me that you’re worth making the effort. 



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