An Overview of Situational Depression

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Situational depression involves symptoms of depression that are related to stress. It is not a recognized clinical disorder but is an informal term used to describe what may be more formally diagnosed as a type of adjustment disorder.

These feelings of depression are usually triggered by a traumatic event, sudden stress, or major life change. Triggers can include such things as a serious accident, divorce, job loss, or death of a loved one.

Situational depression may be diagnosed as adjustment disorder with depressed mood. While this condition is characterized by mood-related symptoms, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) categorizes adjustment disorder as a type of trauma or stressor-related disorder.

Symptoms

Symptoms of situational depression include:

  • Feelings of low mood and sadness
  • Tearfulness; frequent bouts of crying
  • Hopelessness
  • Poor concentration
  • Lack of motivation
  • Loss of pleasure
  • Withdrawing from normal activities
  • Loneliness or social isolation
  • Thoughts of suicide

After a difficult life event, whether it is a change in a relationship, the loss of your job, or the death of a loved one, the stress of the situation can cause you to feel sad, helpless, apathetic, lost, irritable, or even hopeless. You might cry frequently, feel listless and unable to focus, or find yourself unable to cope with normal, day-to-day tasks. Things you are normally able to handle seem overwhelming or impossible.

Situational depression typically begins within the 90 day period following the stressful event. In most cases, situational depression tends to be short in duration, usually receding by six months after the triggering event.

While symptoms usually recede within six months, they may range in severity from milder cases to more severe.

Causes

Situational depression begins after some sort of major life change or trauma. Some of the events that may trigger the onset of this form of depression include:

There are certain factors that may increase the risk of situational depression. These include:

  • Having an existing mental health condition
  • Past childhood stress and trauma
  • Experiencing multiple traumas or stressors at the same time
  • A family history of depression

Situational depression differs from major depressive disorder (MDD) in a few important ways. Where situational depression is triggered by life stressors, MDD often has a range of causes. Situational depression is also shorter in duration, where MDD can be much longer-lasting. If an individual has symptoms that meet full criteria for major depression in response to a stressor, they will not be considered to have "situational" depression or adjustment disorder, but will be diagnosed with major depressive disorder.

Diagnosis

In order to be diagnosed with adjustment disorder with depressed mood, these symptoms must also cause marked distress and significant impairment in important areas of life functioning.

While situational depression tends to be less severe and not as pervasive as major depressive disorder, this does not make the condition any less "real." Situational depression challenges well-being and can make functioning in daily life difficult.

Treatment

Talking to your doctor can help determine whether you have situational depression. Fortunately, effective treatments can help you manage your symptoms. These often involve treating the symptoms as well as addressing the stressor that triggered these feelings.

Once the stressor has been dealt with, people will begin to adjust and cope as symptoms subside.

Situational depression can be a common and natural reaction to a very stressful or traumatic event. The symptoms are usually short-term and start to improve as:

  • Time passes
  • The individual recovers
  • The situation improves

Mild cases of situational depression can often be handled through self-care and coping strategies. More serious cases may require professional treatment and support.

Treatments for situational depression may include individual counseling, group support, and medications to address serious symptoms of depression. In some cases, a combination of psychotherapy and medications may be used to treat situational depression.

Psychotherapy approaches may include the use of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which is an effective treatment for depression. CBT helps replace negative thinking patterns with more adaptive ones. It also helps people develop better resilience to stress and improves coping skills, making it helpful for preventing future relapses of depressive symptoms.

Medications to treat situational depression may include antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs.

Coping

There are a number of lifestyle changes that may help you cope with situational depression:

  • Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet
  • Sticking to regular routines
  • Engaging in regular exercise
  • Joining a support group either in your community or online
  • Starting a new hobby or recreational activity
  • Talking to friends and family

Sometimes situational depression resolves on its own as time passes. People who have good coping skills and resilience may be more likely to recover on their own with adequate self-care and social support.

One coping strategy that can be helpful is to put energy toward solving a problem. No matter what sort of stress you are dealing with, looking for things that you can do to improve the situation can help keep you focused on the future. Analyze the situation, consider solutions that might help make things better, and then work toward achieving those goals.

This approach also keeps you focused on the aspects of the situation that you can control, rather than dwelling on the things that are out of your hands.

If you are having problems dealing with a traumatic event and are experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety, consider talking to your doctor or a therapist.

A Word From Verywell

Situational depression can be difficult, but it is important to remember that the things you are feeling are temporary. Good coping mechanisms and the support of your loved ones can often relieve symptoms and help you deal with stressful events. As you recover and the situation gets better, you will likely find that your mood improves over time.

If your symptoms seem to be getting worse, talk to your doctor or mental health professional.

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