“Am I depressed or lazy?” Breaking down the differences and addressing the stigma

“Laziness” is a term that is often placed on “unproductive,” undesirable behavior, though it’s relatively rare that someone doesn’t want to be active or productive solely because they prefer not to. 

Rather, when someone avoids tasks or has a hard time getting things done, they may be experiencing symptoms from mental health issues like depression, anxiety, ADHD, autism, or a number of other disorders that make emotional regulation and executive functioning difficult. Because of this, “lazy” can be a shame-inducing and stigmatizing word for people who have additional challenges starting and completing tasks.

Today, due to an expectation of productivity and a lack of general knowledge about mental disorders like depression, many people see a “lazy” behavior as a choice rather than a possible symptom of a condition, and thus make fun of or punish the behavior.

If you regularly exhibit “lazy” behavior that is hard for you to control, it’s possible you could be dealing with depression, overwhelming emotions, or even a different mental health issue.

What Is the Difference Between Depression and Laziness?

Though the two are often conflated, “depression” and “laziness” are very different things. Depressive episodes and laziness both have a negatively correlated relationship with motivation and productivity, but there is a key difference between the two: Laziness is a chosen behavior, whereas depression is a diagnosable mental disorder that requires psychological treatment

Depression involves other symptoms besides a lack of productivity, such as changes in mood or emotions, thoughts (reasoning, judgment, or problem-solving), and functioning. People with depression have additional challenges in dealing with things like their energy levels, their ability to make decisions, ability to start tasks, or even their desire to take care of themselves.

Laziness is a term that is rarely, if ever, used in mental health. It is used colloquially to describe a person that one believes has the ability to carry out a given task but chooses not to. 

What Can Be Mistaken for Laziness?

There are many conditions that can be mistaken for laziness. Examples include:

  • Feeling apathetic or unmotivated: Having a lack of purpose or direction to help you behave “productively”
  • Feeling overwhelmed/overstimulated: Dealing with many strong emotions at once, making it more difficult to take action or make decisions
  • Inattention/forgetfulness: Not completing a task due to a lack of remembering or difficulty focusing
  • Low self-confidence: Lack of trust in your abilities, causing you to avoid the task altogether
  • Indifference/disinterest: Difficulty finding enough motivation to complete a task due to a perceived lack of importance or incentive
  • Lack of ability: Not having the skills required to perform the task
  • Substance use: Substances can dull your senses, ability to make decisions, problem-solving skills, and motivation, causing behavior that is perceived as “lazy” by others

The majority of the examples on this list can either be directly caused by or happen as a result of depression and other mental health issues, though most people can only see your behavior, not its cause.

When someone seems to be procrastinating or has little motivation, seeing them as “lazy” is often the first reaction many people have, when in reality, there is almost always an underlying reason why someone is reluctant or unable to be active or “productive.” People who are considered lazy are often looked down on and subjected to teasing or name-calling such as “couch potato” or “slacker.” These names and labels often imply that, because one’s actions seem lazy, they themselves are a lazy person, which is not always the case. 

How to Tell Whether I’m Lazy or Depressed

You can tell whether you’re lazy or depressed by considering the symptoms and effects of depression versus those of laziness. 

Depression is a group of symptoms that causes feelings of sadness and/or a loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyable. It also impairs one’s daily functioning, making it difficult to live the life that one used to. If your symptoms, such as laziness, are not affecting your daily life and your ability to function, it’s likely that depression is not what you’re struggling with.

If your behavior isn’t necessarily tied to depression, one way to help if you are feeling “lazy” is to take a mental inventory of how you’re feeling. Ask yourself:

  • Are you tired?
  • Are you hungry?
  • Are you in pain?
  • What’s going on in your life right now? Is there anything troubling you?
  • ​​Do you know what you’re supposed to be doing? 
  • Do you feel stuck, scared, or unable to complete a task? Why?

There are a number of factors that can impact your ability to start, continue, or complete tasks. Though it doesn’t always resolve the behavior, acknowledging what is affecting you is the best way to reach the root of the issue. Laziness can be due to sadness, fatigue, confusion, frustration, or a number of distracting emotions. Instead of letting shame or frustration with yourself creep in, assess the situation, attempt to address your needs, and be gentle with yourself. Shame can be just as debilitating as tiredness.

How to Tell Whether I’m Lazy or Unmotivated

Unlike laziness, being unmotivated is more like a source or cause, whereas being “lazy” is the visible symptom. Because of this, being unmotivated can cause you to feel lazy: a cause and effect. 

Though it’s unlikely for you to feel lazy without feeling unmotivated, you can feel unmotivated and still complete tasks. It’s often difficult, but some people can complete tasks and work despite feeling unmotivated.

A lack of motivation can be caused by many things, including depression. When considering mental health issues like depression, feeling unmotivated can be a result of feeling overwhelmed, anxious, stressed, or guilty by the tasks at hand, no matter how big or small they seem. 

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Is Laziness Always a Sign of Depression?

No, lazy behavior is not always a sign of depression. 

Depression involves a range of negative feelings and symptoms that interfere with functioning. Depression is likely to cause physical, cognitive and social changes, and can affect motivation, which can appear to the observer as laziness.

It’s important to note that being unmotivated due to depression and “laziness” are not the same thing. Depression’s symptoms are hard to shake and require treatment—they are not a choice made on a whim. If you or someone you love is showing signs of depression, consider speaking with a mental health professional. They can help lead you to a diagnosis and give you tools to and guidance to address your depression and get back on your feet.

What Is the Main Cause of Laziness?

Motivation, or a lack thereof, is the main factor that causes someone to be lazy. Motivation is the desire that causes a person to act, either consciously or unconsciously. If a person is not compelled to act due to low motivation, it’s unlikely that they will.

Motivation can be divided into two types: physiological and personal.

  • Physiological motives include behaviors that satisfy primary needs such as hunger, thirst, and need for sleep.
  • Personal, or secondary motives, include behaviors that satisfy social needs, such as affiliation, competition, and individual interests and goals.

Motivating forces can also be intrinsic or extrinsic.

  • Intrinsic motivation involves genuine interest or pleasure from the activity itself rather than any external benefit that may follow. For example, you might feel a drive to do something simply because you enjoy it rather than compensation.
  • Extrinsic motivation involves the engagement in an activity for an external incentive rather than the activity itself. For example, you might stay at a job you don’t like in order to keep getting paid.

When someone is depressed, their ability to enjoy things they used to do or find value in activities is often severely diminished or lost completely, which makes it much harder for them to find the motivation to do anything. 

Acting lazy means that someone decided that the potential motivation or incentive to do something is not high enough, and therefore they will not do it. With depression, though, there is instead a lack of motivation beyond their control. Though the behavior might look similar, the two are very different in causation, and should be treated accordingly.

In general, when considering the question, “Am I depressed or lazy?”, think about your behavior and what might be causing it. If many of the reasons you have for your behavior look like symptoms of depression, talk to a mental health professional about your symptoms. They’ll be able to give you a diagnosis and give you tools to heal from what you’re facing.

However, even if you aren’t depressed, it can be extremely helpful to speak with a mental health professional about your behavioral patterns and why they occur. By breaking down your actions and thought patterns, you’ll be able to piece together what’s causing you to act “lazy” and find ways to change the patterns that aren’t helping you. 

Table of contents

What Is the Difference Between Depression and Laziness?

What Can Be Mistaken for Laziness?

How to Tell Whether I’m Lazy or Depressed

Is Laziness Always a Sign of Depression?

What Is the Main Cause of Laziness?

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Laura Harris, LCMHC in Durham, NC

Laura Harris, LCMHC

Laura Harris is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor (LCMHC). She specializes in anger, anxiety, depression, stress management, coping strategies development, and problem-solving skills.

Kate Hanselman, PMHNP in New Haven, CT

Kate Hanselman, PMHNP-BC

Kate Hanselman is a board-certified Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP-BC). She specializes in family conflict, transgender issues, grief, sexual orientation issues, trauma, PTSD, anxiety, behavioral issues, and women’s issues.

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  • Ajilchi, B., & Nejati, V. (2017). Research Paper: Executive Functions in Students with Depression, Anxiety, and Stress Symptoms. Basic and Clinical Neuroscience, 8(3), 223–232. https://doi.org/10.18869/nirp.bcn.8.3.223

  • Lay, C. H. (1986). At last, my research article on procrastination. Journal of Research in Personality, 20(4), 474–495. https://doi.org/10.1016/0092-6566(86)90127-3

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