(Content Notice: Suicidal Ideation. If you’re contemplating suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or dial 911. These services provide free, confidential support 24 hours/day and can assist you with finding the resources you need to get help. Also, reach out to a friend or family member for support—you don’t have to struggle alone or in silence.)
What is situational depression?
Situational depression is defined as an adjustment disorder with a depressed mood, and it is a common occurrence for many people as a response to a specific instance, such as job loss or the end of a relationship.
“Situational depression is encountered by virtually everyone. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t encountered a situation such as a relationship break-up or a job loss that can lead to depression. It can be a perfectly normal response to life’s difficulties,” says Bill Prasad, Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) and Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor (LCDC).
Moreover, situational depression is one of two types of depression, says Prasad. The first, which includes situational depression, is referred to as “exogenous” and is the result of an outside antecedent or source. The second, Prasad explains, is “endogenous,” which is caused by a brain chemical imbalance and includes major depressive disorder (MDD).
Ultimately, MDD is a common and serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think and how you act—fortunately, it’s also treatable. By comparison, those with diagnoses of major depressive disorder also can experience situational depression, but those with situational depression may not necessarily have major depressive disorder.
What are the symptoms of situational depression?
While situational depression is indeed common, the DSM-5 states that the stress associated with situational depression, along with other adjustment mood disorders, exceeds expected reactions to the stressor, and that symptoms must be clinically significant, impairing a person’s functioning at home, work, or school.
Symptoms of situational depression can include:
- Constant worrying
- Feelings of being overwhelmed
- Changes in eating habits (eating less or overeating)
- Changes in sleeping habits (too much or too little)
- Thoughts of suicide
- Excessive crying
- Inability to concentrate or make decisions
- Anhedonia: Inability to anticipate joy and difficulty comprehending that the day will bring some happiness
Prasad, who works with Contemporary Medicine Associates, a private practice in Bellaire, Texas, also notes a loss of interest in activities as a sign of situational depression.
“In my private practice, I always ask patients to tell me about activities that they enjoy,” he says. “Once the question is answered, I ask if they are still participating. If they aren’t…this can be a major red flag.”
What causes situational depression?
Per the DSM-5, symptoms of situational depression often correlate to a three-month period following the onset of a new, life stressor. For most people, situational depression should resolve within six months after the stressor has been removed. If a case of situational depression is sparked by a move to a new location, you should experience relief within six months of adjusting to your new surroundings.
Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Milkelis Martinez Walker, who runs a private practice in Tampa, Florida, also notes that situational depression presents as a result of nature and nurture, as opposed to one or the other.
“[Situational depression] is brought upon by outside stressors, yet a person’s stress response is influenced by genetic markers that influence personality, your predisposition to depression and anxiety, and by what you learn in your environment,” she says, adding that identifying situational depression in oneself or others is not always easy.
It’s important to know, Martinez Walker says, that situational depression is common enough to be considered normal and is more likely to affect those with a genetic predisposition that makes them more susceptible to experiencing heightened reactions to transitions.
How is situational depression treated?
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“Mostly through psychotherapy,” says Martinez Walker. “There are many modalities a therapist can utilize…but a very common approach is through CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy). In CBT, the therapist helps the client learn the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, as well as recognize and change patterns of distorted thinking that is contributing to these more than bothersome symptoms.”
Medication management is also an option, says Martinez Walker, but it works best when combined with psychotherapy. “If you or someone close to you is experiencing this, it is not a character flaw to be ashamed of or a sign of weakness,” says Martinez Walker. “The best thing one can do is be educated on [situational depression], so if it happens to you, you can recognize it and ask for help. It is very treatable.”
Additionally, Prasad offers these tips for getting through a bout of situational depression:
- Get proper rest, improve sleep hygiene, or temporarily use a medication to get enough sleep. Lack of sleep exacerbates the symptoms of situational depression.
- Improve your diet—food can improve your mood.
- To avoid setting yourself up for failure, take one, small action step at a time. If you’re suffering from situational depression, it’s best to move forward at a reasonable pace.
- Setting and accomplishing small goals is more manageable and can also be rewarding.
- CBT is extremely beneficial against the war on depression. CBT teaches a person to examine their perception of reality and their thought patterns and whether those patterns are serving them. Finding a therapist who is properly trained in CBT can be a highly effective treatment tool. Finding a therapist who uses a holistic approach can be most effective.
The good news? “The trek is tough, but situational depression is highly curable!” says Prasad.
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or may be at risk for suicide, seek help immediately. Please remember that you aren’t alone. Resources to obtain help include:
- Calling the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-TALK (8255)
- Calling 911
- Calling a friend or family member to stay with you until emergency medical personnel arrive to help you.
Cirino, E. (2017, May 3). Understanding Situational Depression. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/depression/situational-depression.
Prasad, B. (2018, May 28) Email interview.
Peterson, Tanya, J. (2016, August 30). Adjustment Disorder DSM-5 Criteria. Retrieved from https://www.healthyplace.com/ptsd-and-stress-disorders/adjustment-disorder/adjustment-disorder-dsm-5-criteria
Parekh, R. (2017, January). What is Depression? Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/depression/what-is-depression
Martinez Walker, M. (2018, June 2). Personal Communication.