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 vs. 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, the condition is not 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. Men and women 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, on the other hand, 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

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Situational Depression Needs Intervention, Too

Situational depression is related to your circumstances, but 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 use.

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 situational depression 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 other conditions that may be 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 situational depression, 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 treatment options, including therapy, medications, and lifestyle changes.

Therapy

Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, 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 experiencing 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 they can't find elsewhere.

Medications

Antidepressants are not typically used in the treatment of adjustment disorder with depressed mood. While medications may provide some symptomatic relief, treatment usually involves addressing the underlying problems and stressors that are contributing to the symptoms. 

Lifestyle Changes

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

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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