What Is Situational Depression?

Medically Reviewed By Vara Saripalli, Psy.D.
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Specific life events, especially unpleasant experiences, may affect the emotions and moods of some people. Sometimes, sad experiences trigger depressed feelings and thoughts that influence how the individual copes with traumatic events. This depressed mood typically leads to a clinical condition known as situational depression. This condition is typically less severe than clinical depression, also known as major depressive disorder, and it is often possible to treat it with psychotherapy alone.

Read on to learn more about situational depression, including the symptoms, causes, and treatment options.

What is situational depression?

Female taking apart a bed
Felix Chacon/Stocksy United

Situational depression is the type of depression that occurs following stressful or traumatic events. Examples of trigger factors include losing a loved one or sudden significant life changes, such as unemployment or long-term illness.

Individuals with situational depression experience similar symptoms as those with clinical depression. However, the depressive symptoms are brief and typically improve after the person adjusts to the specific trigger. This is why some medical experts also refer to situation depression as an adjustment disorder.

What are the symptoms of situational depression? 

Individuals with situational depression may notice that they often feel irritable and unable to focus adequately. These symptoms may make it challenging for them to handle their previous daily routines and tasks.

Situational depression symptoms typically include:

  • unexplained sadness
  • loss of interest in previously pleasurable activities
  • loss of appetite 
  • frequent anxiety, fear, or worry
  • inability to focus
  • difficulty sleeping
  • frequent crying
  • feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
  • low levels of energy
  • lack of motivation
  • avoidance of social gatherings
  • suicidal thoughts

The presence and severity of these depressive symptoms vary from person to person. Consult your doctor if you have any of these symptoms following a stressful or traumatic event. 

If someone you know is at immediate risk of harming themselves or others, or at risk of suicide: 

  • Ask the question, “Are you considering suicide?” even if it is tough.
  • Listen without judgment.
  • Call 911 or your local emergency number. 
  • Stay with them until emergency services arrive.
  • Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful items.

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:

  • Call 988 
  • Chat with the lifeline

This service is available 24-7. 

What causes situational depression?

Several life events may trigger situational depression. Here are some common ones:

  • loss of a loved one
  • divorce
  • relationship problems
  • relocation
  • job loss
  • financial stress 
  • terminal illness
  • unstable employment
  • unstable living situation
  • serious accidents
  • natural disasters
  • school or work stress

Certain risk factors can also make a person more likely to develop situational depression. These include:

  • a family or personal history of depression
  • some medications
  • certain physical health conditions

Learn about the types of depression.

How do you treat situational depression?

The treatment methods for situational depression can help individuals cope with the triggers and manage their symptoms. 

Medications

Your doctor will typically prescribe antidepressants such as selective serotonin uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) for cases of severe situational depression. SSRIs act in the brain, blocking the reabsorption of a neurochemical called serotonin. This increases the serotonin level in the spaces between nerve cells and enhances the transmission of signals.

Common examples of SSRIs are fluoxetine (Prozac) and sertraline (Zoloft). However, doctors do not typically use medications to treat situational depression. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on how thoughts and beliefs affect feelings and behaviors.

CBT can help someone with depression develop coping skills for stressful life events. It teaches the person how certain changes to their thoughts and attitudes toward an event can positively affect their feelings.

A psychotherapist can help someone with depression identify the negative thoughts and beliefs responsible for their emotions. During psychotherapy sessions, the psychotherapist typically guides someone in changing their negative feelings and thinking positively.

A doctor or mental health professional may use CBT for individuals who cannot tolerate the side effects of medications. In other cases, they may recommend it in combination with medication.

Learn about psychotherapy.

 Situational depression vs. clinical depression

Situational and clinical depression have similar clinical symptoms, but there are a few differences between the two forms of depression. For instance, clinical depression symptoms are typically more severe than those of situational depression.

Differences in diagnosis

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) and the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, 11th Edition (ICD-11) provide specific criteria for the diagnosis of situational depression, which they refer to as adjustment disorder.

According to the DSM-5 and ICD-11, the symptoms occur within 1–3 months of psychosocial stressors. The presence of psychosocial stressors is critical in diagnosing situational depression.

The DSM-5 outlines the following criteria for a clinical depression diagnosis:

  • presence of at least five depressive symptoms that are persistent daily for 2 weeks, including:
    • depressed mood
    • loss of interest in activities
    • significant unintentional weight loss or gain
    • sleep disturbances
    • psychomotor changes, such as agitation
    • fatigue or low energy
    • a sense of guilt or worthlessness
    • difficulty thinking, concentrating, or making decisions
    • recurring thoughts of death or suicide
  • significant impairment in social or occupational situations
  • symptoms are not due to substance use
  • another medical condition does not better account for the symptoms

Differences in treatment

Generally, the symptoms of situational depression resolve following psychotherapy alone. However, doctors may prescribe medications for a short period for individuals with severe situational depression.

For people with clinical depression, a doctor may combine medication and psychotherapy due to the severity of the symptoms. Also, people with clinical depression may take medications for a longer time.

Hospitalized care is more common among people with clinical depression, especially those experiencing suicidal thoughts or behaviors.   

Tips for living with situational depression 

You can make certain lifestyle changes to help manage your symptoms and reduce the impact of situational depression on your daily life.

Eat healthy foods

Evidence shows that eating a nutritious, balanced diet can help boost your mood and decrease your symptoms of depression. Try eating regular meals that are rich in:

  • fruits
  • vegetables
  • fish
  • lean meat

Other ways in which changing your diet can help include:

  • staying hydrated
  • managing your caffeine intake
  • getting enough protein

Engage in exercise

Regular exercises and other forms of physical activity act as mood stabilizers. Daily exercise helps release specific brain chemicals that promote relaxation, and it reduces cellular oxidative stress. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend aiming for 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity per week.

Adequate sleep

Sleep disturbances can make it more difficult to cope with situational depression. To sleep well, eliminate distractions and stop the intake of stimulants that can distort your sleep pattern. Maintaining a regular sleep schedule is also often helpful.

Social interaction

Your social environment acts as a support system that can help facilitate your recovery. Interact with close friends and family members. Talk with those whom you trust about what you are experiencing and how you are feeling.

Summary

Situational depression, sometimes known as adjustment disorder, is a type of depression that occurs due to psychosocial stressors, such as the loss of a loved one or major life changes. Individuals with situational depression may have depressive symptoms that occur for a short duration. These symptoms can include a depressed mood, feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness, a loss of interest in previously pleasurable activities, and the inability to cope with daily tasks.

Doctors typically use medications or psychotherapy to help relieve the depressive symptoms. CBT is the most common form of psychotherapy for managing situational depression. CBT helps individuals with situational depression develop coping skills to reduce the impact of stressful events. 

Certain lifestyle adjustments, such as eating a nutritious diet, exercising regularly, and sleeping adequately, can also help you cope with situational depression.

Consult a doctor if you suspect that you are experiencing situational depression symptoms.

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Medical Reviewer: Vara Saripalli, Psy.D.
Last Review Date: 2022 Oct 3
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