How is reactive depression different from other depressions?

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated June 17, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

It can be hard to adjust after experiencing significant emotional distress. Traumatic events or major life changes can occasionally cause us to feel sadness, a lack of motivation, or fatigue. If this has happened to you, you may be experiencing reactive depression, a mental health condition marked by depressive symptoms that follow a specific stressor. Also called situational depression, reactive depression has features that are similar to depressive disorders. It also, however, has important differences. In this article, we’re discussing what reactive depression is and the ways it diverges from other forms of depression. 

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Depressive symptoms can arise out of widely varying circumstances

What is reactive depression?

Reactive depression, also called situational depression, refers to depressive symptoms that typically occur when a person struggles to cope with the emotional changes and other impacts of a stressful or otherwise significant event. Reactive depression is generally characterized by low mood, fatigue, loss of interest, reduced energy levels, and trouble focusing. 

Reactive depression can be categorized as an adjustment disorder with a depressed mood based on the criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-V). According to the DSM, adjustment disorder is marked by “emotional or behavioral symptoms in response to an identifiable stressor(s) occurring within 3 months of the onset of the stressor(s)” and lasting less than six months. The stressors can be anything from difficult life circumstances to traumatic events, such as physical assault or a natural disaster. 

Some events that can trigger reactive depression may include:

  • The end of a relationship

  • The loss of a job

  • A serious accident

  • Moving cities

How reactive depression differs from depressive disorders

Depressive disorders are a distinct class of mood disorders in the DSM. They include major depressive disorder, persistent depressive disorder, premenstrual dysphoric disorder, and others. While the primary characteristics of these conditions are similar, they can vary in their duration and causes. 

Major depressive disorder (MDD), also called major depression or clinical depression, is one of the depressive disorders often contrasted with situational depression. Unlike MDD, reactive depression typically has an identifiable trigger.

Major depression, however, does not require a specific source. Major depression also usually lasts longer than situational depression. Though the diagnostic criteria for MDD only require symptoms to have been present for two weeks, it often persists for over six months; and, for many people, it becomes a recurrent condition. 

Though situational depression is not considered a depressive disorder, it is a serious mental health condition that can significantly affect an individual’s emotional well-being, ability to function, and social life. Reactive depression can also turn into major depression if it is severe and persistent enough.

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Treatment for reactive depression

If you’re experiencing the signs and symptoms of reactive depression, it’s important to seek help. Depression is a highly treatable mental health condition. Treatment for depression typically comprises psychotherapy and medication. 

A therapist can help you better understand how the stressor you experienced led to the development of depression, potentially helping you process your feelings surrounding the event. They can provide you with emotional support, help you develop useful coping techniques, and address comorbid mental health conditions you may be experiencing.

There are several different types of medication for depression, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), and tricyclic antidepressants. Always consult with a healthcare provider prior to starting or stopping any medication. If you believe you’re living with reactive depression or a similar concern, a mental health or medical professional can provide you with screenings and determine whether further testing, diagnosis, and treatment are necessary. 

Coping Strategies For Reactive Depression

In addition to treatment, there are also several techniques you can utilize on your own. The following are proven coping strategies for depression.  

Exercise

There is a strong connection between physical activity and improved depression symptoms. The endorphins the brain releases when you exercise can help boost your mood and relieve pain. Exercise can also take your mind off the stressful events and subsequent challenges you may be experiencing. Additionally, physical activity can alleviate physical health concerns that may be contributing to symptoms of depression. Consider practicing yoga, starting an at-home workout routine, or going on regular walks. 

Engage in self-care

Reactive depression may make it hard to tend to your own needs at times. Self-care can help you focus on your mental and physical well-being as you work to address depressive symptoms. You can practice self-compassion by maintaining a balanced diet, getting plenty of high-quality sleep, taking time to relax, and participating in activities you enjoy. Self-care can include everything from taking a warm bath to drinking a cup of tea to taking a mental health day off work. 

Seek support

There is a well-established link between social support and mental wellness. By interacting with family members, friends, and other loved ones frequently, you can avoid isolation, which may exacerbate symptoms of depression. Your support system can also be a source of compassion, encouragement, and care. They can provide a listening ear and emotional support, allowing you to process your feelings. 

If you’d like to add to your support network, consider attending a support group for people experiencing depression, where you can connect with people who are experiencing similar challenges. You may also want to add a mental health professional to your support system.  

Managing reactive depression with online therapy

Studies show that online therapy can help individuals alleviate symptoms of situational depression. For example, in one randomized controlled trial, researchers found that online cognitive behavioral therapy led to significant reductions in depressive symptoms and improvements in quality of life in participants living with adjustment disorder, the primary diagnosis for reactive depression. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a widely utilized modality that can help individuals reframe negative thought patterns—such as those related to a major life change or other stressor—that may be underlying depressive symptoms. 

If you’re experiencing symptoms of depression following a significant, stressful event, online therapy can help. With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can work with a therapist remotely, which can be helpful if reactive depression makes leaving home difficult. BetterHelp works with a team of qualified mental health professionals who have diverse areas of expertise, so you’ll have a good chance of matching with someone who can address your specific concerns regarding situational depression. Continue reading for reviews of BetterHelp therapists from those who have sought help for similar challenges. 

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Depressive symptoms can arise out of widely varying circumstances

Therapist 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 avail it from the comfort of my own home… Ryan responds quickly, really listens, and is non-judgmental, compassionate, and warm. He doesn’t do the work for you but gives you the best tools possible 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.”

Takeaway

It's natural to experience emotional changes after a traumatic event, but experiencing serious distress and depressive symptoms may mean you’re living with reactive depression. Knowing how situational depression may affect you—and how its symptoms differ from those of depressive disorders—can help you manage this treatable mental health condition. If you’d like the help of a professional as you work through reactive depression, consider getting matched with a licensed therapist online. You deserve support and guidance as you navigate life’s challenge and continue down the path to mental wellness.
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