Understanding Situational Depression

Depressed man
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Situational depression, also known as adjustment disorder with depressed mood, occurs when a person develops certain emotional symptoms that are more exaggerated than normal in response to a stressful life situation within three months of the situation occurring.

Situational Depression Versus Major Depression

If you have situational depression, you will experience many of the same symptoms as someone with major depressive disorder, such as a depressed mood, feeling hopeless, and crying.

The difference lies in the fact that your depressive symptoms are clearly in response to an identifiable stressor, do not meet the full criteria for a major depressive episode, and will be resolved when either the stressor no longer exists or you are able to adapt to the situation.

Stressors

Stressors can be many things. They might be a single event like a natural disaster or divorce or an ongoing problem such as a chronic illness or marital strife They can even be something that might be perceived as being a positive event like marriage, a new baby, or starting a different job. However, if the stress associated with an event exceeds a person's ability to cope, it can lead to a temporary state of depression.

Symptoms

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.

Situational depression can happen to anyone at any time in their lives. Males and females are affected equally. It usually does not last for more than six months.

Symptoms of situational depression include:

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

Symptoms of major depression include:

  • Depressed mood
  • Lack of interest in activities normally enjoyed
  • Changes in weight
  • Changes in sleep
  • Fatigue
  • Feelings of worthlessness and guilt
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Thoughts of death and suicide

Situational Depression Needs Intervention, Too

Even though situational depression is related to your circumstances, this does not mean that you should just blow it off or wait for things to get better. No matter what the cause, depression can increase your risk for suicide and substance abuse.

It can also complicate the treatment of other medical conditions by making you less inclined to take care of yourself and follow your treatment plan. In addition, there is a risk that it may progress into becoming a major depressive disorder. If your depressed mood is causing you significant distress or interfering with your daily functioning, it is a very good idea to visit with a mental health professional for assistance.

Diagnosis

A proper diagnosis is the first step toward feeling like yourself again. Telling your doctor that you believe that you might be suffering from depression will ensure you get you the help that you need.

Unfortunately, there isn't currently a definitive lab test to diagnose situational depression. Instead, your doctor will likely perform a physical exam, run several different blood tests to rule out any conditions causing your symptoms, and ask you some questions to determine whether you have any possible risk factors and to better understand your symptoms.

According to the DSM-5, to be diagnosed with this condition, you must:

  • Begin experiencing symptoms within three months of the stressful event or series of events
  • Have symptoms that cause marked distress and significantly interfere with daily life
  • Have symptoms that are not the result of another condition or related to substance or alcohol use
  • Have symptoms that are not a normal part of the grieving process after the death of a loved one

Treatment

If you experience symptoms of situational depression, there are a number of different ways to cope, including therapy, medications, and lifestyle changes.

Therapy

Psychotherapy is the preferred treatment for situational depression. Often, it will take the form of seeking solutions for your problems or guiding you in learning new coping skills. Therapy might also be aimed at helping you to better understand various issues in your life that are contributing to your distress. Family or couple's therapy may be most appropriate in situations where problems in interpersonal relationships are contributing to your feelings of stress.

Support groups can also be quite helpful to those suffering from situational depression. For example, a person who is struggling to cope with a chronic illness might find a degree of understanding and support from other people who are dealing with the same illness that he can't find elsewhere.

Medications

Medications may not be the first line of treatment for situational depression since you can often be better served by dealing with the underlying causes of the stress in his life. For some people, they do help and may include selective serotonin uptake inhibitors, like Celexa (citalopram) and Zoloft (sertraline), and dopamine reuptake blockers such as Wellbutrin (bupropion). 

Lifestyle Changes

In addition to medication and therapy, there are a few healthy lifestyle changes to help make you can help you or someone you love more resilient to stressful events.

  • Eating a well-rounded diet
  • Exercising regularly
  • Practicing good sleep habits
  • Managing stress
  • Making time for relaxation
  • Journaling or writing about how you're feeling
  • Spending time with trusted family and friends

Coping

Everyone feels sad or even depressed for a few days after a traumatic or stressful life event, but if these feelings persist you likely need help. Situational depression is very treatable, and with the right care plan, you can learn strategies to better cope with stressors and manage any symptoms of depression that interfere with feeling your best and living a hopeful, happy life.

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