How Is Reactive Depression Different From Other Depressions?

By: Sarah Cocchimiglio

Updated November 02, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC

Have you ever experienced an event that caused significant emotional trauma?  Did it leave you feeling like it was impossible to move forward with life?  Perhaps you're tired, can't eat, are constantly fatigued, and just have an overall sense of emptiness. You don't want to feel like this, and others think you should have moved past it by now, but you just can't seem to care anymore. Is it grief, or could it be something more?

Even in what some may call its simplest form, grief can be overwhelming.  It can leave you feeling paralyzed or unable to respond emotionally to life.  When the pain associated with grief or the loss of a friend or family member becomes great and the sadness does not seem to lift, this could be the sign of a condition known as reactive depression.

Reactive depression, also known as situational depression, is a type of clinical depression.  It occurs when a person’s ability to cope with a traumatic event is not effective and they are unable to overcome the sadness or depression. 

What Is Reactive Depression?

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illness (DSM), reactive depression is an adjustment disorder triggered by a specific stressful event that involves depressed mood. This could be anything that changes or threatens to change someone's everyday routine or expectations.

"In therapy, you can express your feelings about the event, and you can learn about sleep and stress management techniques to improve your symptoms."

Other types of depression are different because they may occur for any number of reasons, including a family history of depression. Unlike most other types of depression, which can last for years if not properly managed, reactive depression is a type of clinical depression that typically lasts a few months. However, symptoms can be traumatizing, acute, or severe during this time. Some events that can trigger reactive depression may include:

  • The death of a loved one
  • The end of a relationship
  • The loss of a job
  • A car accident
  • Some kind of rejection

There's no way to predict which events will cause reactive depression in any one person because everyone identifies and handles stress differently.

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How Reactive Depression Differs From Grief

Some of the situations that cause reactive depression, such as the death of a loved one, are also situations where it's normal to suffer from grief. Therefore, it's not surprising that the symptoms of depression and grief overlap. This can make it difficult to tell when you're experiencing normal grief and when it's become something more problematic.

The symptoms of normal grief include numbness, bitterness, detachment, irritability, digestive problems, sore muscles, headaches, and fatigue. These are also symptoms that a person with reactive depression can experience. So how do you know if you're experiencing an appropriate level of grief or if you've become depressed in response to an event?

Normal grief can make it difficult for you to go on with your daily activities for a time. However, normal grief also adapts and generally lessens as time goes by. If you've been living in a state of grief for a long period of time, then it's likely that you've moved from grief to depression. Fortunately, there are things you can do to cope and move forward.

Symptoms of Reactive Depression

Though the cause of reactive depression differs from the causes of other types of depression, all types of depression have similar symptoms. According to the definition of Reactive Depression, its symptoms include:

  • Hopelessness, sadness, anxiety, and agitation
  • Weight fluctuations
  • Headaches and digestive issues

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This is not by any means a comprehensive list of symptoms. When you're dealing with reactive depression, it can feel like nothing in life matters. You might not care about your normal routine, so it might be hard to clean your house, go to work, or pay the bills. You just don't see a purpose to it. You also lose interest in activities that you used to enjoy.

There are more serious symptoms of reactive depression; some people turn to substance abuse or have suicidal thoughts. As such, reactive depression is not something you should try to self-diagnose, and it's not something that should be taken lightly. After a few therapy sessions, a qualified counselor can determine whether or not you have reactive depression. Then you can work together to develop a treatment plan.

Treatment Options for Reactive Depression

If you're experiencing signs and symptoms of reactive depression, it's important to seek help. Depression of any type is very treatable, and there is no reason to suffer silently. Typical treatment options include psychotherapy, self-care, social support, and antidepressants. The best treatment plan might involve more than one treatment option. For example, self-care should be a part of every person's plan, but medication may or may not be a good fit. It's also likely that you'll benefit from other coping techniques, such as getting exercise, eating better, establishing good sleeping habits, and designating time for rest and relaxation.

What to Expect from Counseling for Reactive Depression

During counseling sessions of any kind, you'll be assessed first. It may not be clear that you're suffering from depression when the sessions begin. When you meet with your therapist, you will talk about your experiences with depression or emotions similar to it.

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It's also important to mention your mental health history, your genetics, and any family connections to depression because this information will help your therapist identify your condition. If you've had multiple experiences with depression or have had family members who have struggled with depression, you may not have reactive depression.

However, if you can identify a specific stressful event that occurred around the same time your depression began, you may be diagnosed with reactive depression. Talk therapy can be part of your treatment plan. In therapy, you can express your feelings about the event, and you can learn about sleep and stress management techniques to improve your symptoms.

Seeking Help

If you're looking for support with any type of depression, consider talk therapy with a licensed counselor. Sometimes people who are depressed struggle with the idea of leaving the house to meet with a stranger, but you can also schedule online counseling sessions with a licensed therapist through BetterHelp. They're available anytime or anywhere via messaging, phone, or video chat, so you can get help whenever and wherever you need it. Read below for some counselor reviews, from people experiencing similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

"Ryan came into my life when I was lost, depressed, anxious and stressed. His help was available straight away which is exactly what I needed when the situation felt hopeless, and I could access it from the comfort of my own home... Ryan responds back quickly, really listens and is non-judgmental, compassionate and warm. He doesn't do the work for you but rather gives you the best tools possible for you to tackle the issues and ideas to think about."

"Buddy is a complete professional, as somebody who has always been skeptical of therapy, Buddy immediately made me feel at ease and was able to help me articulate my exact concerns. I would highly recommend Buddy to any of my friends. Everybody needs a Buddy."

Don't Ignore Your Feelings

If you don't feel like yourself or if someone you know has expressed concerns about your situation, you can get help. Reactive depression (situational depression) is a treatable condition. Even if you're experiencing normal grief, there are treatment options that can help you recover in a healthy way.

Reactive depression, also known as situational depression, is very similar to other forms of depression, but it's caused by a specific situation. It shouldn't last long, but you don't have to suffer alone. Take the first step today.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is reactive mood?

Reactive mood is evidenced by an improvement in mood when something positive happens.  Unlike major depression, in which positive events do not improve mood, reactive mood is a symptom of atypical depression.

What are the two types of depression?

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM), there are two types of depression, unipolar and bipolar depression.  Unipolar depression includes major depressive disorder, dysthymia (depressed mood for most days during the past two years) and depressive disorder not otherwise specified.  Depressive disorder not otherwise specified involves symptoms that do not meet the DSM criteria for other depressive disorders.  Bipolar depression involves symptoms of both mania and depression, that occur in an alternating pattern. Types of bipolar depression include bipolar type I, bipolar type II, cyclothymia, and mixed state.

What is dysphoric mood?

Dysphoric mood is a mental health condition that causes one to feel chronic sadness, depression, anxiety and loneliness.  Dysphoric mood may exist on its own but is not recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disease (DSM) as a stand-alone diagnosable mood disorder.  Rather, it is a state of being that is often the result of other mental imbalances.

What is atypical bipolar?

Atypical bipolar disorder is a mental health condition that is a form of bipolar disorder that is characterized by atypical symptoms, such as increased appetite, increased sleep, being extremely sensitive to rejection and being able to experience improved mood when you experience something positive. 

How do depressions start?

Many resources on depression have differing opinions regarding how depressions start.  Some studies indicate that chemical changes in the brain may contribute to the development of some depression.  A person’s ability to cope with life events may also influence whether they develop depression, as well.  Genetics, gender, age, health conditions and the history of trauma and grief are also believed to contribute to one’s risk of developing depression.

Why do they call depression the black dog?

"Black dog” was the term Winston Churchill used to describe his own depression.  In 2014, the World Health Organization launched a YouTube video called, “I have a black dog and his name is depression” to raise awareness for depression.  In the video, the narrator was constantly followed by a black dog that stopped his efforts to do anything productive.  The more the narrator gave in to the black dog, the worse his mood became.  When he could no longer bear the turmoil that the black dog caused, he sought professional help (which is the first step in recovery) and, with time, he began to see the black dog shrink in size and to have less of an impact on his daily life.

Why do I cry easily all of a sudden?

Sudden crying can be a sign of several things.  Emotional responses to fear, anger, or anxiety are all causes of crying and it may occur suddenly.  Additionally, if you are experiencing any form of depression, it can increase the likelihood of frequent crying.  While this is a normal response to emotional changes, if you are experiencing frequent bouts of crying, especially if they are uncontrollable, it is a good idea to seek medical advice from your primary care provider and/or a mental health professional to see if any treatment options are necessary to help reduce the periods of crying or feeling of emotional imbalance.

What are 5 emotional signs of stress?

Stress can have a profound impact on everyday life and relationships.  Five emotional signs of stress include:

  1. You feel irritable or angry: If you find yourself becoming easily frustrated with tasks, or responding to others in a harsh way, you may be experiencing stress.  Stressful emotions have a way of making one feel as if they have no emotional balance.  When a person feels emotionally drained, it is easy to respond with negative emotions or behaviors.
  2. Difficulty making decisions: Decision-making can feel like a hard task when stress levels are elevated.  Stress can make you second-guess your own feelings and overthinking things to prevent making bad decisions.  When stress levels are elevated, clarity of thinking is often hindered.
  3. Feeling impulsive or lacking judgment: During times of stress, the brain seems to have difficulty regulating behavior.  Many people act more on impulse than they would in other circumstances.  They may also use poor judgment, rather than taking the time to think things through.
  4. Feeling exhausted: The brain is not always able to tell the difference between physical and emotional stress.  Although you may not be engaging in any physical activity, prolonged stress can make you feel like you are exhausted and emotionally overwhelmed.
  5. You have trouble remembering things: Stress can cause slowed brain responses which may lead to difficulty comprehending and recalling information. 

If you are experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety, seek medical advice from your primary care provider or a mental health professional.

What are the 6 types of anxiety disorders?

  1. Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is an anxiety disorder that is characterized by exaggerated worry and tension and chronic anxiety.
  2. Panic disorder is an anxiety disorder that results in unexpected and repeated episodes of intense fear. This fear is often accompanied by physical symptoms such as chest pain, rapid heart rate, dizziness, gastrointestinal discomfort and shortness of breath.
  3. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder that is characterized by unwanted, recurrent thoughts and/or repetitive behaviors, known as compulsions. Individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder may exhibit behaviors such as repetitive handwashing, counting, cleaning, or checking things.  These ritualistic behaviors may provide temporary relief of anxiety, but when the behavior stops or when they are not performed, it generally causes a spike in anxiety.
  4. Social Anxiety Disorder, also known as social phobia, is an anxiety disorder that causes extreme anxiety and excessive feelings of self-consciousness in social situations. People with social anxiety disorder may experience symptoms in one specific situation, such as public speaking, or may experience symptoms in any situation that requires social interaction.
  5. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that is caused by exposure to a traumatic event. The traumatic event may include abuse, assault, a tragic accident, natural disaster or exposure to combat. 
  6. Specific phobias include anxiety symptoms that occur when exposed to a specific object or situation, such as a fear of heights or a fear of flying. Specific phobias generally result in avoidance of the thing that causes anxiety.

What are stress triggers?

Stress triggers are any feeling, thought, or event that causes a person to feel overwhelmed or to experience anxiety.  While everyone experiences stress triggers, some people have a heightened response to stress and may require the help of a professional to identify the source of stress and anxiety and to learn how to reduce the effect the triggers have on them.

What does a mental breakdown look like?

The symptoms of a mental breakdown typically vary from one person to another and may include the following:

  • Feeling helpless, hopeless, depressed, or continuously irritable
  • Difficulty concentrating or remembering things
  • Feeling emotionally and/or physically exhausted, even without an apparent cause
  • Feeling unable to enjoy things that normally bring a sense of happiness or satisfaction
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Withdrawing from or avoiding normal social situations or experiencing situational depression
  • Having nightmares or extreme fear when there is no threat of danger

Which type of depression is the most common type of mood disorder?

Major depressive disorder is the most common type of depression.  Symptoms typically last for at least two consecutive weeks.  It is characterized by negative impacts on daily activities, social interaction and physical manifestation of symptoms.  Physical symptoms may include weight loss or gain, fatigue or reduced energy.  Feelings of worthlessness or guilt, difficulty concentrating, and suicidal ideation may occur.  If you or someone you know is experiencing signs of depression and are having thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).  The Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers free and confidential support to people who are in emotional distress or experiencing suicidal crisis.  It is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

What are the 7 types of mental disorders?

There are several types of mental disorders.  The most common types include the following:

  1. Bipolar and Related Disorders: Bipolar disorder is a mental disorder that is characterized by mood episodes that shift from high or excited moods, known as mania or hypomania, to lows of depression.
  2. Anxiety disorders typically involve a feature that involves excessive anxiety and fear.
  3. Depressive disorders involve the presence of irritable, empty or sad mood that is often accompanied by physical and cognitive changes. These changes typically have a significant impact on an individual’s ability to function within a normal capacity.
  4. Trauma and stress-related disorders are disorders that involve some type of exposure to a stressful or traumatic event. PTSD is a type of trauma related disorder that some people develop in response to a traumatic event such as an accident, assault or exposure to combat or a natural disaster.  Adjustment disorders are a type of stress-related mental disorders that may occur after a more common stressor such as the loss of a job or divorce.  Adjustment disorder symptoms are usually shorter in duration that the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. 
  5. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and related disorders. OCD is characterized by the presence of obsessions (intrusive thoughts or urges) and compulsions (repetitive behaviors).  These may include counting, checking to make sure doors are locked or things are turned off, hoarding or picking at the skin. 
  6. Personality disorders are mental disorders that are characterized by unhealthy patterns of thinking and behaving. Individuals with personality disorders often have trouble understanding and relating to people and situations, which may lead to significant problems in relationships, work and school.  A few examples of personality disorders are borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder.
  7. Schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders: This type of mental health disorders involve abnormalities such as delusions and hallucinations and paranoia.  Many people with this type of mental health condition experience disorganized thinking and speech, have difficulty feeling or expressing emotions, may struggle have odd movement or speech patterns.

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