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Situational Depression: Signs, Symptoms, & Treatment

By Chesney Fowler, MD bool(true)
Medically reviewed
March 24, 2020

Depression is incredibly common: every year, more than 16 million American adults experience a major depressive episode. While most types of depression occur due to a chemical imbalance in the brain, situational depression—also known as adjustment disorder or reactive depression—is a type of depression that takes place after a traumatic or difficult life event.

Situational depression symptoms can mirror other kinds of depression, causing you to feel sad, anxious, or disinterested in normal activities. If these symptoms interfere with your everyday functioning, a doctor might diagnose you with situational depression and recommend medication, therapy, or lifestyle changes to help you cope.

Usually, situational depression resolves with time as you recover from the triggering event. But sometimes, situational depression can be more severe and persistent. That’s why it’s so important to seek medical care if you suspect you have situational depression.

What Is Situational Depression?

Situational depression, also known as adjustment disorder or reactive depression, is a short-term type of depression that occurs in response to a stressful or traumatic event. Usually, it resolves on its own as a person recovers or a situation improves.

Clinical depression, on the other hand is a mood disorder that’s usually caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain and requires treatment from a medical professional. For many people, clinical depression—also called major depressive disorder (MDD)—can last months or years. While an episode of MDD can be brought on by circumstances, in general, clinical depression is thought to be caused by genetics or a change in brain chemistry.

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Causes of Situational Depression

Any traumatic or difficult event in a person’s life can lead to the emotional state of situational depression. For example, someone might experience situational depression after:

  • The death of a loved one or friend
  • A divorce
  • The loss of a job
  • Problems at work or school
  • A serious accident
  • Relationship problems
  • A major life change like having a baby or getting married

Usually, people begin to have situational depression symptoms within 90 days of the initial event.

While situational depression generally occurs as a result of difficult life circumstances, you may be more at risk if you have:

  • Experienced childhood trauma or stress
  • Existing mental health problems like anxiety or depression
  • Multiple stressful situations occurring at once
  • Biological factors that predispose you to depression, like hormonal abnormalities or chemical imbalances in the brain

Symptoms of Situational Depression

Situational depression isn’t usually as severe as clinical depression, and it doesn’t always include the same symptoms. In response to stressful life events, you may experience situational depression symptoms such as:

  • Sadness or hopelessness
  • Anxiety and worry
  • Regular crying
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Feeling tired
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Loss of interest in normal activities

Situational depression does not commonly cause suicidal thinking or symptoms out of the blue like clinical depression typically does, though it is still possible. Generally, the symptoms of situational depression ease within six months of the inciting event.

How Is Situational Depression Diagnosed?

If a doctor thinks you may have situational depression or adjustment disorder symptoms, you’ll undergo a physical exam and answer questions about your medical and mental health history.

As with any mental illness, doctors diagnose situational depression using criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5).

Symptoms of situational depression emerge after a traumatic or difficult life event. If you experience five or more symptoms from the below list almost every day in a two-week period, after you experience something difficult or painful, then you may receive a situational depression diagnosis—as long as at least one of the symptoms is a depressed mood or a loss of interest or pleasure.

  • Depressed mood or constant irritability
  • Significantly reduced interest or feeling no pleasure in activities
  • Significant weight loss or gain
  • A decrease or increase in appetite
  • Insomnia or an increased desire to sleep
  • Restlessness or slowed behavior
  • Tiredness or loss of energy
  • Feelings of worthlessness or inappropriate guilt
  • Trouble making decisions or concentrating
  • Recurrent thoughts of death or a suicide attempt

Usually, these symptoms impact your life significantly, to the point where you’re not able to function normally.

Situational Depression Treatment Options

Since situational depression is a short-term type of depression, it usually resolves over time. If you have situational depression, your doctor may recommend supportive psychotherapy, specifically cognitive behavioral therapy, as the primary treatment for situational depression to help you cope with the emotions surrounding the difficult event you experienced.

Healthy lifestyle and stress-management strategies can also help you recover, including:

  • Regular exercise
  • A nutritious diet
  • Ample sleep
  • The support of loved ones
  • Mindfulness and meditation

If your situational depression symptoms are severe or persistent—which could be a sign of clinical depression—your doctor may recommend an antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication to help you cope with symptoms. Some people may experience temporary, more severe situational depression that doesn’t result in clinical depression, in which case a doctor might still recommend medication, or a combination of medication and psychotherapy.

It’s uncommon for people to develop complications from situational depression if they have support—for example, psychotherapy can help a person with situational depression develop the coping skills they need to recover.

If people are at risk for developing mood disorders, their situational depression can sometimes lead to major depressive episodes, which require medical intervention from a doctor, such as antidepressant medications.

Without support to cope with their situational depression, a person may be more likely to turn to alcohol or drugs to deal with sadness, stress, or anxiety.

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When to Seek Help

If your situational depression interferes with your everyday life, it’s important to talk with a doctor who can help you manage your symptoms. This is especially important if your situational depression persists more than six months after the triggering event.

Always talk with a doctor or call 911 if you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts. You can also reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-8255.

How K Health Can Help

Anxiety and depression are among the most under-reported and under-treated diseases in America. Nearly 20% of adults in the US suffer from mental health illness and fewer than half receive treatment. Our mission is to increase access to treatment for those suffering in silence.

You can start controlling your anxiety and depression and get access to the treatment you need with K Health. Starting at $19/month get prescriptions for mental health medications plus unlimited doctor visits through the K Health app. Start your free assessment to see if you’re eligible.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Chesney Fowler, MD

Dr. Fowler is an emergency medicine physician and received her MD from George Washington University. She completed her residency in emergency medicine at Christiana Care Health System. In addition to her work at K Health, Dr. Fowler is a practicing emergency medicine physician in Washington, DC.

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