Grief and Depression Important Differences

November 8, 2021

Grief and depression share many symptoms. Those grieving a death may exhibit signs of depression. However, the feelings of someone mourning a death while suffering from severe depression shows important differences to grief by itself. As a result, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) by the American Psychiatric Association, an authoritative guide that uses criteria for healthcare professionals to identify and classify mental disorders published an updated 5th edition with improved recommendations for diagnosing grief and depression. So, let’s dig into the symptoms of grief and depression, identifying the differences, understanding the effects of misdiagnosis, and when to seek help for both.


What are the symptoms of grief?

Sometimes the grieving process will seem like a hurricane of emotions. It is complicated. Grief strikes everyone differently. The Mayo Clinic describes symptoms of grief as “a strong, sometimes overwhelming emotion for people, regardless of whether their sadness stems from the loss of a loved one or from a terminal diagnosis they or someone they love have received.” It is a natural reaction to any form of loss. Whether stemming from a job loss, a break-up, or a death, those mourning a loss typically feel these 5 common symptoms:

  1. Sadness
  2. Low energy
  3. Mild feeling of guilt
  4. Insomnia or racing thoughts
  5. Decrease in appetite

Grieving can be “bizarre” at times and disruptive to a family or the workplace. Over time, the feelings lessen, and individuals will find themselves returning to normal.

A Web MD survey from 2019 asked participants who went through the loss of a loved one in the past 3 years how they were affected. 84% said they developed sadness. Depression was a top effect for 41% of survey takers. What this shows is depression and grief can co-exist. It’s the small but serious differences that matter.


What are the symptoms of depression?

Symptoms of grief and depression can overlap. The emotions, thoughts, behaviors, and other symptoms can both be part of the symptoms of both grief and depression. Both are challenging emotional experiences. Still, depression is a major mood disorder that causes more severe symptoms. Symptoms that affect our thoughts, feelings, and day-to-day activities. Here are 8 common symptoms of depression:

  1. Feelings of worthlessness, low self-esteem
  2. Extreme tiredness, sleeping too much and low energy
  3. Loss of interest in hobbies and activities
  4. Irritability and anxiety
  5. Difficulty in remembering things
  6. Uncontrollable emotions, having angry outburst
  7. Changes in weight and appetite
  8. Suicidal thoughts

If these symptoms sound familiar to you, find a mental health therapist. An early diagnosis and effective treatment plan can help those with depression to help cope with these feelings.  Online therapy may be a natural start in identifying symptoms while maintaining privacy and comfort. ChatOwl is a free mobile app offering those wanting to learn valuable coping skills and acquire useful advice. With a few taps of your finger, you can simply download and register for an account. This will begin your journey to recovery. After completing an assessment, your scientifically proven therapy plan is ready. For more insight, here are 10 signs you should consider online therapy.


The differences of grief and depression

We now know symptoms of grief and depression can overlap. At the beginning of this article, we mentioned an authoritative guide to mental disorders. It is called The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) and is the go-to guide classifying mental health disorders. Previous volumes instructed healthcare professionals to delay diagnosing depression in patients within the first couple of months after a death of a loved one. Afterall, the symptoms of grief can be inaccurately diagnosed as depression. On the other hand, many in the medical community believed this can allow severe depression to go undiagnosed and overlooked. Today, the updated DSM version, version 5, changed its criteria to remove the “bereavement exclusion”.

The American Psychiatric Association created a fact sheet of these changes in Major Depressive Disorder and the Bereavement Exclusion. First, characteristics of grief present feelings of pain mixed with pleasant memories of the lost loved one. In turn, negative thoughts and moods come with depression. Second, a grieving person maintains their self-esteem while a depressed person typically has lower self-esteem and thoughts of worthlessness. Stressors like losing a family member, close friend, or co-worker can bring on grief and depression. Nevertheless, understanding the criteria for common grief episodes and major depression provides those suffering from either a correct diagnosis to whether one is undergoing a normal bereavement event and a mental disorder.


What happens when grief is misdiagnosed as depression?

What happens when someone takes anti-depressants but is not depressed? The University of New South Wales in Australia ran a study that showed an incorrect diagnosis of depression resulting in a treatment of anti-depressants “alter the brain architecture.” Since depression affects the brain, treatment plans can be more aggressive versus a treatment plan for grief.

If someone is experiencing clinically significant distress and is on a continuum of perceived grief to major depression, they should seek treatment. Depending on the severity of the symptoms, treatment can involve medication, therapy, or both. People experiencing depression should never suffer in silence because they will likely become more isolated and depressed as a result. It is likely that depression would get worse over time and create more depression symptoms.


When to ask for help

When grieving, it is important to be mindful of staying levelheaded. Extreme distress and sadness can feel out of control. Even so, if you are not aware of your emotions, are trying to hide them, are trying to be strong for the people around you or are focused on negative thoughts that tend to flood your mind, address it. It is not healthy to wallow in grief. Try to find a way to stop the negative thoughts from flooding the mind. If you want to work through your grief or depression, ask for help.


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