We all feel blue sometimes but how do you know if it'll pass or you're actually in a deep depression? Dee Marques explains the four key things that distinguish between feeling low and a more serious mental health issue. Plus, she suggests some key ideas to banish the blues.


Even under normal circumstances the New Year can bring contradictory feelings: it’s meant to be a time for new beginnings and positivity, but not everyone feels in good spirits. In reality, it’s rather the opposite, since January is actually known as a prime time for feeling blue and is the most depressing month of the year.

In a previous article I wrote about how the January blues is a real thing. Low morale can be a result of limited exposure to natural light, having fewer opportunities to spend time outdoors and recharge our batteries by being in contact with nature, financial pressure after heavy holiday spending, and the shock of having to go back to “normal life”. With all that in mind – and the continued restrictions and threat from COVID-19 – it’s hardly surprising that many of us have been feeling blue right now. 




This feeling is not new, and there are references to it that go back hundred of years. In fact, it seems that the expression “feeling blue” comes from an old sailing tradition. In the past, blue flags would be flown if a ship lost the captain or another crew member. This was to signal feelings of loss and sadness, similar to the main symptoms of the blues: demotivation, lack of energy, and being tearful or more sensitive than usual.


Feeling blue vs depression

I’ve struggled with occasionally feeling blue and down for years, and I’ve learned that in some cases it’s justified. In some ways, feeling blue may actually be a positive thing, in the sense that it’s a sign that we need to pay close attention to our habits, views and environment.

Ask yourself: are you just feeling blue or clinically depressed? 


Indeed, no one should be expected to feel happy when faced when losing a job or being stuck in a rut, so we can say that under certain circumstances, feeling blue is a normal reaction to certain life events and we shouldn’t fight it. Instead, it could be more productive to allow ourselves to listen to that feeling and take steps to make our lives more meaningful.

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However, the problem comes when feeling blue becomes the rule rather than the exception. Everyone can have a bad day, bad week, or bad month – especially since we are now living through a pandemic. But if the low mood persists and we do nothing to curb it, it may a slippery slope towards depression.


Indeed, it's essential to clarify that feeling blue is not the same as being depressed. Clinical depression is a mood disorder, a mental health condition that can affect mind and body. So, how do you know if you’re simply feeling blue or if it’s something more serious, like depression? Here are the four key factors that can help you distinguish between the two:


1. A specific cause

One of the main differences is that the blues usually has a specific cause, and you’re able to pinpoint your feelings of sadness to a specific event, such as losing a parent, missing out on an important opportunity, adult bullying, or a romantic break-up. On the other hand, people who are depressed can’t usually trace back their feelings to a concrete event. The low spirits are just there, and they linger on and on precisely because they don’t seem to have an identifiable cause.


2. Duration

This brings us to another important difference between feeling blue and being depressed, which is duration. Feeling blue is usually temporary and we know the sadness will pass, even when we’re in the middle of it. But people affected by depression see no end to their gloomy feelings: we can quite literally compare depression to not ever being able to see light at the end of the tunnel.




3. Intensity

It’s not hard to imagine how much of a burden this feeling can be to mental health, so the intensity of the symptoms is much stronger in depression. The intensity is such that the sadness takes over pretty much every thought and action. Unlike feeling blue, which usually improves when we do something we enjoy, a characteristic of depression is the distinct inability to find enjoyment – even in the things that used to bring us joy.


“In some ways, feeling blue may actually be a positive thing, in the sense that it’s a sign that we need to pay close attention to our habits, views and environment.”

From here it’s a vicious circle: if you can’t enjoy anything, there’s no point in doing anything. This is usually followed by feelings of numbness or emptiness, which reinforce the circle of hopelessness, negative thoughts and low motivation. In some cases, people may think that the only way to feel something and snap out of the numbness is self harm. This is a clear sign of depression.


4. Symptoms

Because the intensity of sadness in depression is so severe, it can disrupt everyday life and cause physical symptoms, including sleep disorders, an inability to concentrate, poor memory, headaches, digestive issues and appetite changes. These can happen with you are feeling blue too, but they’re short lived and don’t usually stop you from getting on with your day.

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The number of symptoms and their intensity can vary from person to person, but it’s generally agreed that someone can be diagnosed with clinical depression if a combination of these symptoms is present for more than two weeks or if suicidal thoughts are present, even if occasionally. Without treatment, depression can persist for several months or even years, so it’s essential to seek treatment as soon as possible.


Lifting your spirits when you’re feeling blue

Unlike depression, occasionally feeling blue doesn’t require treatment in terms of medication or CBT. But nobody enjoys feeling down, so there are many things we can do to lift our spirits during this phase of feeling low. Remember that our ability to enjoy the things we love isn’t usually affected by feeling blue, so the first suggestion is to make time to do those things.

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The old saying goes that laughter is the best medicine, and this applies to fighting the blues, too. Watching a comedy or trying a session of laughter yoga – yes, it really is a thing – can help improve your mood.

Beat the blues with laughter shutterstock/Flamingo Images

When affected by the winter blues, we may not feel particularly energetic, but physical activity is a great mood booster. Going for a walk, mindful running, swimming, cycling or kickboxing… whatever gives you an exercise high is worth trying. And if you can’t leave the house, you can still keep active: put on your favourite music and dance, do some yoga or stretching.


“Laughter is the best medicine, and this applies to fighting the blues, too. Watching a comedy or trying laughter yoga can really boost your mood.”

Furthermore, I’m a great believer in the power of creativity. Human beings are the only species capable of producing and enjoying forms of art like painting, writing, or photography, which says a lot about our creative nature. If you don’t have a creative hobby, it’s time to find one. Experiencing the power of creativity can change our mood, self-image and general outlook on life. What's more, you could discover your flow state and unlock one of the main keys to happiness


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Finally, one last suggestion to lift your spirits when you're feeling blue would be to make small changes to bring some novelty to your routine. Rearranging furniture in your bedroom, getting a new haircut or colour, trying a new recipe, or doing something you’ve never done before. Simply pottering around can do wonders for your mood!




Conclusion: feeling blue

Feeling in low spirits? You’re not alone. The blues can come at any time of the year but often hits in January and February. It can be an opportunity to review our goals, habits and views. If you’re affected by feeling blue, try some of the suggestions above and chances are they’ll brighten your mood. But if things don’t improve and you think you have depressive symptoms, seek help immediately. Your mental health is too important to postpone treatment. 
Main image: shutterstock/panitan photo

If you're experiencing any of the signs of depression make sure to reach out to your local mental health services. In the US, you can also contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline for free and confidential support. Use Lifeline Chat or call  1-800-273-TALK (8255). In the UK, call 116 123 to talk to Samaritans, or email: [email protected] for a reply within 24 hours. You can also text “SHOUT” to 85258 to contact the Shout Crisis Text Line, or text “YM” if you are under 19. 


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Written by Dee Marques

dee.jpgA social sciences graduate with a keen interest in languages, communication and personal development strategies. Dee loves exercising, being out in nature, and discovering warm and sunny places where she can escape the winter.




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