Situational Depression: Signs, Symptoms, & Treatment

By Chesney Fowler, MD
Medically reviewed
July 24, 2021

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 form 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.

Situational depression vs. clinical depression

Clinical depression 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, unlike the shorter term of situational depression.

While an episode of MDD can be brought on by circumstances or events like situational depression, clinical depression is usually thought to be caused by genetics or a change in brain chemistry.

Situational and clinical depression are related, and people who are vulnerable to one may also be vulnerable to the other.

But it’s important to try to understand the root cause (or causes) of your sadness and anxiety, which can help you figure out the best course of treatment.

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Causes of Situational Depression

Any traumatic, difficult, or stressful event in a person’s life can lead to 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, injury, or illness
  • Relationship problems
  • A traumatic experience (such as a physical or sexual assault)
  • 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 despair
  • Anxiety and worry
  • Regular crying
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Feeling tired
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Loss of interest in normal activities

Generally, the symptoms of situational depression ease within six months of the inciting event.

But without treatment, situational depression can have residual effects, even leading to a diagnosis of clinical depression later in life. 

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 with time.

But being proactive about your care can help you get through this difficult time more quickly. 

Therapy

If you are suffering from situational depression, your healthcare provider may recommend supportive psychotherapy, specifically cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), as the primary treatment to help you cope with the emotions surrounding the difficult event you experienced.

CBT is the best research-backed method for treating anxiety and depression. It has been called the “gold standard of psychotherapy” and is endorsed by the American Psychological Association as an effective treatment for anxiety and depression among other mental health conditions.

CBT is based on the idea that our patterns of behavior and thought can contribute to our mental health in positive and negative ways, and we can train our brains into new and productive ways of thinking. 

In a CBT session, your provider will ask about the factors that contributed to your situational depression. They’ll want to understand as much as they can about your background, family history, and anything else that may be relevant to the person you are today.

Your provider will then ask probing questions about why you have certain thoughts and offer strategies for challenging those thoughts and creating new patterns.

It’s hard work, but it can dramatically affect the way you process situations and react to them.  Other treatment options like medication almost always work best in combination with some kind of psychotherapy like CBT. 

Lifestyle changes

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

Regular Exercise

This doesn’t have to mean training for a marathon or going to spin class five times per week. The simple act of moving your body, whether for a daily walk through your neighborhood or a 30-minute yoga session, can help reduce blood pressure, support brain health, improve sleep, and reduce feelings of anxiety. For most adults, the CDC recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every week, plus two days of full-body muscle strengthening.

A nutritious diet

Eating a diet rich in whole foods will help ensure your body is getting the nutrients it needs to be healthy. While you may not think there’s a connection between your mental health and your diet, research shows that consuming nutrient-rich, anti-inflammatory foods can help reduce symptoms of depression.

Ample sleep

People who sleep fewer than seven hours per night are more likely to be obese, abuse alcohol, and to suffer from a number of diseases, including diabetes, cancer, and stroke. But a lack of sleep can also affect your mental health: “Short sleepers” are more likely to be depressed. Aim for seven to eight hours of shuteye each night, and stick to a consistent routine if you’re able to. If you’re having trouble, start by improving your sleep hygiene: Set a consistent bedtime with a relaxing pre-bedtime routine, limit evening screen use, and avoid large meals, caffeine, and alcohol for a few hours before going to bed. You may want to try journaling, meditation, or listening to calming music as you prepare for bedtime.

The support of loved ones

You shouldn’t have to go through tough times alone. Humans are social creatures, and we need connection to others who can lift us up and validate our needs. Reach out to family members and friends, even just for a listening ear and a shoulder to lean on. You may also find a support group, either in-person or online, a helpful resource.  

Mindfulness and meditation

More and more research is showing that mindfulness practices can help you break out of cycles of worry and sadness. To begin incorporating meditation into your life, try an app like Headspace or Calm where you can find guided programs specifically for improving mental health, depression, or anxiety. 

Medications

If your situational depression symptoms are severe or persistent your healthcare provider may recommend a prescription antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication to help you cope. Often, they will recommend 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 $12/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.

FAQs

How long does situational depression last?
With the right treatment plan and support system, situational depression should resolve within a few months of the traumatic or stressful event. However, if left untreated, it can sometimes progress into long-term clinical or major depression. That’s why it’s so important to get the help you need.
Is there a test for situational depression?
To diagnose you with situational depression, a healthcare professional will perform a physical exam and ask questions about your medical and mental health history. They may then refer you to a mental health specialist who can work with you on a well-rounded treatment plan, including therapy, lifestyle changes, and medication if needed.
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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