Low Mood vs Depression: What's Going On?
Jun 19, 2023, 9 min read
It can be difficult to distinguish between low mood and depression, and often the two are discussed simultaneously, with little to no differentiation between them. Here, we’re breaking down what you need to know about low mood and depression, and making a clear distinction between the two so you can better understand your own mindset and seek the appropriate treatment.
At Augmentive, we aim to provide holistic, tailored mental health support to everyone so they can live their life to the fullest, so if you have questions about mood or depression, we’re here to help.
What is low mood?
Low mood is experienced at differing levels by almost everyone from time to time, and it is often a healthy, natural response to difficult life events. Anyone and everyone can feel anywhere from a few minutes to a few weeks of low mood. This could manifest as sadness, fatigue, trouble sleeping, low confidence or self-esteem, a negative mindset, and more.
Although low mood can be experienced for very short periods of time, it can sometimes last a few weeks which can make life harder to manage and less enjoyable.
Another characteristic of low mood is that, unlike with depression, by making some small changes in your life and routine, you could see big differences in your mood.
What is depression?
Depression can be thought of as a more persistent condition than low mood, and it has been found to affect people of all ages, ethnicities and genders. Women tend to be diagnosed with depression more often than men, but this could be because men are less likely to identify their symptoms, meaning they hold a higher risk for depression going untreated.
Although sadness is usually at the core of both conditions, the symptoms of depression are quite different to low mood; they typically last longer and are more varied and intense. They may also interfere with everyday life and cause you to feel sadness or anxiety most of the time, avoid activities you used to enjoy, feel guilty, worthless or helpless, have trouble focusing or remembering things, experience physical symptoms like pain, experience thoughts of hurting yourself or committing suicide, and more.
What are the different kinds of depression?
Depression is a very broad term which encompasses several different "sub-types" of depression. Some types of depression include:
- Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) — A period of depression most often experienced during the winter months due to lack of sufficient sunlight.
- Postnatal Depression — Some people experience this in the weeks and months after childbirth. Although it can be hormone-related, this type of depression can be serious if left untreated, and can also affect fathers and co-parents.
- Dysthymia (also known as Persistent Depressive Disorder or Chronic Depression) — A mild but continuous depression lasting for 2+ years.
- Psychotic Depression — A much more intense episode of depression that can sometimes lead to hallucinations.
- Manic Depression (also known as Bipolar Disorder) — A different condition from depression which is known to cause periods of extreme low mood.
- Reactive Depression (also known as Exogenous Depression) — A type of depression triggered by a traumatic event such as divorce or a death in the family.
- Endogenous Depression — Otherwise known as Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) or Clinical Depression, this can cause persistent and intense feelings of sadness which can negatively impact everything from behaviour to sleep to relationships.
Low mood can be thought of as a mild type of depression, even though it may not always feel mild to the individual. The NHS defines both low mood and depression by the following criteria:
- Feelings of sadness
- Feelings of anxiety or panic
- Feeling more tired than usual or struggling to sleep
- Feelings of anger or frustration
- Low confidence or self-esteem
Low mood can improve after a few days or weeks, and can often be improved through self-care practices and making life changes.
- Low mood lasting 2 weeks or more
- Experiencing no enjoyment and avoiding activities you would normally take part in
- Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
- Inability to focus on everyday things
- Experiencing physical symptoms such as pain, stomach issues, or headaches
- Experiencing suicidal thoughts or thoughts about hurting yourself
If you believe you have some of the symptoms mentioned above but are unsure which type of depression you have, speak to a healthcare professional with experience in treating multiple types of depression.
What is the difference between low mood and depression?
It’s the big question; how do you know if you are in a low mood or depressed?
The two factors that determine depression or low mood seem to be length of time and intensity of symptoms. If you have been experiencing mild to moderate low mood for longer than 2 weeks, you may have depression. Similarly, if your symptoms are more severe than the low mood symptoms mentioned above, you may have depression.
Mild depression can have some impact on daily life, while moderate depression will have a significant impact, and severe depression may make it almost impossible to function as you normally would.
One review of studies suggested risk-taking could also be a big factor in determining the difference. The model predicted those with good mental health are prepared to take big risks, but those experiencing low mood found the maximum riskiness of their behaviour declines until they become completely averse to risk. At the end of the spectrum, those with depression become highly risk-prone once again.
Can low mood turn into depression?
One of the main reasons to address low mood sooner rather than later is because of its propensity to turn into depression down the line. In a 2020 study involving over 58,000 participants from a mix of low, middle and high-income countries, mood homeostasis (an ability to regulate itself) appeared to be lower in participants with either low mood or with a history of depression.
The study suggested impaired mood homeostasis such as low mood for an extended period of time could lead to increased incidences and longer durations of depressive episodes.
“It starts as sadness then I feel myself shutting down, becoming less capable of coping. Eventually, I just feel numb and empty.” - anonymous, via Mind
How do I know the difference between the low mood vs depression?
As mentioned above, it is extremely difficult to distinguish what counts as low mood and what counts as depression, as every source seems to draw the line in different places — or not at all, as some sources consider low mood and depression to be one in the same. This can be a question of ‘how long is a piece of string?’ and can be very frustrating for those suffering who do not know where to draw their own line and seek help for depression.
All of us will experience periods of time (some longer than others) where our mood is low and we feel unhappy, irritated or have other negative emotions about our life. For most people these feelings will eventually pass and we will once again experience happiness and contentment.
Depression, on the other hand, is a type of low mood that can last for a while and impact daily life. The feelings associated with depression typically run much deeper, last longer, and are more overwhelming than low mood. An example may be to say that elation is more intense than happiness, just as depression is more intense than sadness.
It is important to specify that no type of depression is more real than another, and both low mood and depression can pose significant issues in life. However, ultimately, low mood can be thought of as a less severe and usually high functioning form of depression, and may even be caused by a specific issue such as life circumstances or situations (like divorce, job loss, death of a loved one, financial hardship, etc.). It could also be brought on by a medical condition, as a reaction to medicine, or due to hormonal changes (like one might experience during premenstrual stress (PMS), after giving birth, or something else).
The differentiating factor here is most of these situations will rectify themselves with the passing of time, and you may be able to see a potential end to your low mood. That said, significant life changes such as losing a loved one can still cause a deeper depression, so understanding the differences is key.
How can I identify low mood or depression in a loved one?
You may notice symptoms of low mood in a loved one such as general melancholy, increased worry about things, tiredness, being more irritable than usual, or perhaps speaking about themselves in a way that shows low self-esteem.
Knowing the person well may alert you to their low mood if they fall below their usual level of happiness, and in many cases you may be able to discuss it with them by asking how they are and what you can do to help.
In the case of depression, you may notice more severe symptoms or nothing at all. Common symptoms of depression you can watch for include an attitude of indifference and lack of care or enjoyment, an attitude of pessimism, loss of interest in usual activities, low energy, sleeping a lot or insomnia, lack of concentration, weight changes, and more.
Keep in mind, in many cases of depression people can maintain an outwardly ‘normal’ appearance while still feeling depressed inside, so check in with loved ones regularly and make sure they know they can talk to you about their feelings — this can be more helpful than you think.
How to feel better if you are experiencing low mood
It is important to note advice and support for those with low mood or depression should be bespoke and individualised, as what works for one person may not work for another. It is best to speak to a health professional who can listen to your unique experience and symptoms, and recommend the best ways for you to feel better.
If you are looking for some general ways to feel better while experiencing low mood, some of the below could help:
- Continue to take part in enjoyable activities, even if you don’t feel like it. Consider what would typically make you feel happy each week and commit to doing these things with the goal of lifting your mood.
- Talk to someone you trust about how you are feeling, and any life circumstances associated with your low mood.
- Improve your sleep in order to feel better. Often our sleeping habits dictate how much energy we have in the day, so create a better sleep routine to improve your mood long-term.
- If you aren’t already, be more physically active to boost your mood. Even something as low-impact as walking can help to get you out in the fresh air and increase your energy levels, which has a knock-on effect on your mood.
- If you can, take action to change life circumstances contributing to low mood. While this won’t be possible for everyone, you may be able to make changes to improve things. For example, if your low mood is related to a recently lost job, you might consider making a list of companies you would like to apply to and start working through them so you feel more in control of your life.
How to treat depression
As above, it is important for us to say that support for anyone with depression should be unique to each person, as what works for one person may not work for another, and a health professional will be best equipped to offer advice.
If you feel your depression symptoms are mild, you may think it best to wait to see whether symptoms improve with time without treatment. You do not have to do this alone, and should let someone know how you are feeling so you can keep a watchful eye on symptoms and monitor whether or not they are improving on their own.
If not, you may want to consider some of the below treatment options regularly recommended for depression by healthcare professionals:
- Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) tackles negative thought patterns that can exacerbate the issue, like self-doubt. This combines both cognitive therapy (based on the idea that problems are often caused by the importance we attach to situations rather than the situations themselves) and behavioural therapy (based on the idea that we can unlearn behaviours by identifying and changing destructive patterns).
- Analytical psychotherapy is based on the idea that unresolved, unconscious conflicts can cause depression, and aims to identify and work through these previously unknown issues with a therapist.
- Systemic therapy focuses on our relationships in our family, friends, at work or elsewhere, to improve communication and ultimately reduce symptoms of depression.
- Medications such as antidepressants can help to treat depression alongside various forms of therapy.
It’s OK if you are unsure which type of therapy is for you — it could be one of the above, or something else entirely. Our free 15 minute consultation is designed to help identify what could be best for you based on the issues you are facing and the experience of our practitioners. By speaking to us for free, you can be directed to the most relevant specialist to help work through your low mood or depression — both can benefit from therapy.
Whether you’re feeling off-kilter or want to shake up your routine, our state-of-the-art mental wellbeing platform gives you quick and seamless access to world-class support on your terms, from private psychiatric assessments and reviews to broader mental health care: join us today.