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How to Differentiate Between Depression and Exhaustion

If you feel like a fussy baby who needs a nap some days and a depressed adult who cannot find the energy to function other days, you’re not alone. That’s because there’s a very thin line between depression and exhaustion

These days, I often struggle to tell the difference between utter exhaustion and depression. And judging from countless posts on Twitter and Reddit, I’m not the only one. So, between all the extra long naps and feelings of helplessness, how are we supposed to figure out what’s clinical depression and what’s burnout from work/family/friends/life?

Unfortunately, the line between the two can be pretty thin. In fact, a 2018 study found that there’s often little distinction between them whatsoever. However, psychotherapists like Melissa Russiano say there are some key differences to look for that may better clarify your situation — and help get you out of bed. 

For one, exhaustion is typically caused by something circumstantial — a busy week, a bad night of sleep, work stress, etc. But with depression, there isn’t always such an obvious trigger. You could even see depression as really persistent burnout but without any spark that catalyzed it. This is partially why depression is among the “most misunderstood mental illnesses out there,” Russiano says. “Because even the most trained eyes cannot identify the true origin of a particular individual’s depressive state.”

Another hallmark unique to depression is low self-esteem. Many people with clinical depression struggle with feelings of worthlessness, whereas people who are exhausted may “feel the same loss in motivation, enjoyment and interest, but their sense of self-esteem remains largely intact.” 

Finally, therapist Patrick Turbiville agrees that while exhaustion and depression aren’t the same thing, the former can lead to the latter when you don’t try to get more sleep. Likewise, if you’re experiencing other symptoms of depression besides being tired — like a lack of interest in doing things you love or having anxious or sad thoughts — and start to think there may be more going on than just burnout, that in itself may be a sign that you’re depressed. “If a person is even asking themselves, ‘Could this be depression?’ it probably is — whether it rises to a clinical level or not,” Turbiville says.

Ultimately, differentiating between exhaustion and depression matters in the long-term because knowing what your situation is will help you figure out the tools you need to work toward a healthier, more balanced life. But in the short-term, the solution is usually the same: Go the fuck to sleep. “Sleep deprivation has cumulative effects, but it can also be addressed by catching up on sleep every few days,” says Turbiville. “I’m also a major proponent of naps.”

So if you’re still wondering whether you’re exhausted or depressed, it’s worth sleeping on it either way.