It’s natural to feel sad when something bad happens to you. It might be the death of a friend or loved one, finding out that you or someone you care about has a serious illness, losing your job, or even going through a divorce. The increased stress resulting from these situations can easily lead to situational depression, also known as reactive depression.
Categorized by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) as an adjustment disorder with depressed mood, situational depression is a usually short-lived type of depression that develops in response to stressors. It can feel overwhelming and, if not treated, can turn into more clinical, severe depression, also known as major depressive disorder (MDD).
Read on to learn what situational depression is and what characterizes it.
What Is Situational Depression?
Situational depression, also known as reactive depression, is a short-term mental health condition triggered by something that’s happened in a person’s life. As the name suggests, daunting or extremely stressful situations can result in this form of depression.
Situational depression can result when someone experiences great difficulty in coming to terms with an event or situation they’re faced with. However, once they accept their reality — for example, by accepting that they’re ill, that they aren’t going to work at their previous job again, or that the person they love won’t be coming home — situational depression symptoms most often will resolve.
Situational depression vs. clinical depression
Situational depression differs from clinical depression in that situational depression can usually be traced to a specific negative or traumatic event or increased source of stress. After some time has passed since the triggering and stressful event, or once the situation has been corrected, situational depression can go away. Clinical depression, on the other hand, is a mood disorder that is less reactive to events and is generally more chronic in nature.
“Situational depression seems to be triggered by environmental factors (ebbing and flowing with the triggers), whereas clinical depression exists independent from the environmental changes.”Talkspace therapist Meaghan Rice PsyD., LPC
Symptoms of Situational Depression
Situational depressive symptoms usually include things such as:
- Feelings of overwhelming sadness
- Lacking enjoyment in things that used to give someone pleasure
- Regularly crying
- Having little interest in food
- Finding it incredibly challenging to take care of important things (paying bills or getting to work on time)
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Having generally negative thoughts or feeling hopeless
- Finding it hard to focus
- Wanting to avoid social situations
- Experiencing sleep difficulties
- Suicidal thoughts or attempts of suicide
If you or a loved one is struggling with suicidal thoughts from depression symptoms, you are not alone. Help is available right now with the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Call or text 988 to speak to a trained crisis counselor today.
What Causes Situational Depression?
While we don’t know the exact causes of depression regarding situational depression, we do have an idea of potential risk factors. Stressful life events trigger situational depression. Surprisingly, these events can even be positive things in your life. Why one person will have an experience and suffer from situational depression while another can be in the same situation, yet not end up with it, remains a mystery.
Some of the things that can trigger situational depressive symptoms include:
- Death of a loved one
- Medical issues or concerns
- Job loss
- Eviction or foreclosure
- An accident or serious illness
- Social issues at work or school
- Financial problems
- Living in dangerous situations or areas
- Being affected by a house fire, theft, or natural disaster
- An event that makes you feel out of control, such as a pandemic or other community crisis
Even largely positive events, like retirement and relocating, can trigger situational depression since they represent major life changes, which are often stressful.
You’re at a greater risk of developing situational depression if you:
- Have an existing mental health condition
- Experienced abuse in your past
- Dealt with neglect or trauma as a child
- Are dealing with multiple negative events at the same time
“The situation that causes situational depression is different for everyone, but significant changes at work/school, changes with relationship status, or changes in where people reside can trigger situational depression.”Talkspace therapist Meaghan Rice PsyD., LPC
How to Diagnose Situational Depression
Situational depression is diagnosed using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5-TR) criteria for adjustment disorder. These include:
- Having emotional or behavioral symptoms within 3 months of a negative or stressful life event
- Having more than normal stress after a negative life event
- Having issues with personal and work relationships because of increased stress
- Having symptoms of depression that can’t be explained by having another mental health condition or as a part of the normal grieving process
As a part of the diagnostic process, a doctor, psychiatrist, therapist, or psychologist will meet with you and discuss your history and symptoms. They’ll also review your medical history and run diagnostic tests to see if they can find any medical explanation for your symptoms.
Treatment for Situational Depression
Treatment for situational depression can be very effective and help you learn to cope with your condition.
When it comes to how to treat depression, situational depression treatment often focuses on psychotherapy — usually cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) — instead of solely using medication (although medication can be sometimes helpful).
CBT seeks to help people come to terms with the negative situations or events in their lives, so they can change their thought patterns and behaviors and begin to heal and move on. This type of therapy for depression can also teach people ways to handle future negative events, so they’ll have the tools they need to avoid developing situational depression again.
Some types of depression medication prescribed for severe situational depression symptoms might include:
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Zoloft (sertraline) and Celexa (citalopram)
- Dopamine reuptake blockers like bupropion (Wellbutrin)
Learning coping methods can also be extremely effective in helping people resolve situational depression. Some effective natural remedies for depression might include:
- Eating a healthy diet
- Getting at least 7 hours of sleep each night
- Exercising regularly
- Practicing meditation and deep-breathing exercises
- Reaching out to your support network
When to Seek Help
While it’s normal to feel sad when negative things happen, it’s time to seek behavioral health help when you feel so overwhelmed by that sadness that you can’t function. If your sadness begins to get in the way of you being able to enjoy life as you did before the negative event, it might be time for you to consider professional help and guidance.
Three months is the APA’s benchmark for lingering sadness about an event or situation. However, it’s important to remember that every person’s situation is different, and some losses or negative consequences are greater than others.
It’s a good idea to find a psychiatrist, psychologist, or another mental health professional who has experience in situational depression. Not sure where to start? You can always check with your primary care physician for a referral. You can also reach out to a therapist through Talkspace, an online therapy platform.
The key to getting beyond situational depression is coming to terms with the negative or traumatic event, loss, or situation you experienced. Taking care of yourself, getting professional help, and reaching out to your friends and family for support are great first steps.