Situational Depression – What It Is And What To Do About It

By: Julia Thomas

Updated August 25, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Dawn Brown

Bad things happen to everyone at some point in their lives. If you're resilient, you get over these unhappy or stressful situations quickly and get back to living your life. If not, your sadness may linger and begin to affect your daily functioning for a while. Anyone who faces difficult life changes may benefit from learning about situational depression.

What Is Situational Depression?

In a way, the name "situational depression" speaks for itself. It refers to a kind of depression that happens after a traumatic event, a stressful situation, or a major life change. The depression is directly related to the trauma, stress, or change.

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Situational depression is also a common name for a specific type of adjustment disorder. "Adjustment disorder" is also somewhat self-explanatory. If you have it, that means you are having trouble adjusting to something that's recently come into your life. There are many kinds of adjustment disorders, but the one that most closely relates to situational depression is adjustment disorder with depressed mood.

Is Situational Depression Real Depression?

Although situational depression is medically termed as adjustment disorder, it can still be a significant mental health problem that feels very much like clinical depression. It can affect your personal life, your job, and your relationships. Even if it resolves quickly, you may be left with troubles that built up while you were feeling sad and overwhelmed.

What Triggers Situational Depression?

Unlike other forms of depression, the situational kind is always triggered by some recent event or situation. The one thing all situational depression triggers have in common is that they're all major life changes. Triggers can be positive or negative life events, but they're typically dramatic. Some triggers include:

  • Losing your job
  • Getting a divorce
  • The death of a loved one
  • A major illness or injury
  • Going away to school for the first time
  • Having a baby
  • Relationship problems
  • Being assaulted
  • Retirement

What Are the Symptoms?

The symptoms of situational depression usually manifest within three months of the triggering event. Situational depression may come with one or several of the following symptoms:

  • Feeling sad and crying frequently
  • Listlessness
  • Feeling hopeless and helpless
  • Losing interest in things you used to enjoy
  • Feeling worried or jittery
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Problems concentrating
  • Losing your appetite
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Impaired daily functioning
  • Withdrawing from your support system
  • Avoiding things that seem hard, like going to work
  • Suicidal thoughts

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How Long Does It Last?

Situational depression often only lasts a very short time, but it can last much longer in some cases. Nearly all cases of situational depression can be classified as acute or persistent adjustment disorder. It can also develop into a more serious mental illness.

Acute

If you have acute adjustment disorder, your symptoms will typically last six months or less. If your situational depression is related to an ongoing stressor, the symptoms will ease up when that stressor is eliminated.

Persistent

If you have persistent situational depression, the symptoms hold on and last more than six months.

What Happens if It Doesn't Go Away?

In some cases, situational depression leads to major clinical depression. Although you may or may not need treatment for adjustment disorder if it resolves quickly, you most certainly do need help if you have major clinical depression.

If you feel you have situational depression and it's hanging on or even getting worse, your condition may be developing into a major depression. Watch for these symptoms of major depressive disorder:

  • Weight loss or gain
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • No appetite or eating too much
  • Restless or irritability
  • Tiredness
  • Low energy
  • Feeling worthless
  • An inappropriate feeling of guilt
  • Trouble making choices and decisions
  • Finding no pleasure at all in any activities
  • Recurring thoughts of suicide
  • Delusions or hallucinations

Treatment for Situational Depression

Getting treatment for situational depression can help you recover faster and avoid long-term mental health problems. Generally, treatment for adjustment disorders is relatively short, usually only a few months. The two main types of treatment are psychotherapy and medications.

Doesn't Situational Depression Go Away on Its Own?

In some cases, situational depression does go away without treatment. People who suffer from this disorder because of a stressful situation often get better quickly once they're out of the situation or the situation improves. Or in the case of a traumatic event, they may recover as time passes. However, situational depression doesn't always go away so easily. That's when treatment becomes most important.

Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy can help with situational depression. Just getting a chance to talk about the traumatic event or stressful situation can help. This emotional support may prove critical in helping you recover. As you explore why the event affected you so deeply, you can come to a greater understanding of yourself and your situation. This helps you heal faster. Your therapist can also help you find your way back to your normal routine. In addition, you can learn coping skills to deal with the stress.

Talking to a therapist may make the difference between having a short-term adjustment disorder and sinking into a major long-term depression. Counselors may be available to help where you live. Or if you would like the convenience and comfort of online therapy, you can talk to a therapist through BetterHelp. Either way, getting help from a therapist can improve your condition significantly.

Medications

Medications aren't always needed for situational depression. However, your physician or psychiatrist might suggest a short course of antidepressants to lift the depression faster. If anxiety is a part of the problem, they may prescribe anti-anxiety medications as well.

One thing to remember is that once you're taking a psychiatric medication, it's crucial that you don't stop taking it abruptly. Before you stop, talk to your doctor about it. They may want to reduce your dose gradually to avoid discontinuation syndrome, which can cause symptoms like nausea, insomnia, balance problems, and flu-like symptoms. This doesn't mean you'll have to stay on it forever. It only means that you need to continue taking it in the right way while still under the care of your doctor.

What You Can Do for Yourself

Whether you seek treatment or not, there are many ways you can help yourself recover from situational depression.

Taking good care of your physical health can help you fight the effects of situational depression. Get the right amount of sleep, eat the right amounts of healthy foods, and get enough exercise every day. You'll feel both mentally and physically stronger and better able to deal with your emotional problems.

Social support is more important than ever during this difficult time. Seek out healthy support from friends and family members who are positive and helpful. Connecting with other people can give you opportunities to talk about your feelings. Talking to a close friend or family member about the issue may make you feel heard as well as give you ideas about how to feel better. Being with other people may also offer a way to get your mind off your troubles and enjoy the company of other friendly people.

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Another thing you can do is to occupy yourself with something every day that makes you feel happy and fulfilled. Accomplishing something that matters to you can help improve your mood and get you back into the swing of things. As you focus on something positive, you may regain the feeling of power that you had before the stressful situation made you feel out of control.

Be positive and hopeful whenever you can. Although any kind of depression can make this harder, you always have a certain amount of choice in how you view the world. Try to get into a positive mindset, and you're more likely to see the situation as something you can manage effectively.

Now is also a good time to recognize and build on your strengths. Focus on the actions you can take to improve your situation or recover from your traumatic event. Given who you are and the strengths you have as an individual, how are you best equipped to handle it? Once you focus on that, you can do what works for you.

One thing you can do to keep the depression from getting worse and possibly avoid mental health issues later on is to stop avoiding your problems. Instead, think about how you can address any problems that come up as they happen. Remember that avoiding a problem usually doesn't make it go away. In fact, it may compound the problem. So, it's important to face your problems when they occur.

Your friends and family provide a casual social support system that can be very beneficial to you. However, when you're facing a difficult problem, it's often helpful to talk to others who are or have been in similar situations. In that case, you might want to get involved with a support group that focuses on problems like the one you're facing. For example, if your situational depression is related to the death of a loved one, it might help if you go to a grief support group.

Situational depression can be difficult to live with. Even though it often resolves fairly quickly, it can be extremely painful while you're in it. If it lasts longer, it can lead to a major depression. You may be able to recover from an adjustment disorder without any additional help. However, if you do need help, there are many ways to get it both in your community and online. All that matters is that you do what works for you to regain your mental well-being as quickly as possible.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is situational anxiety?

Situational anxiety is nervousness or fear that is related to specific, well-defined triggers. If you have situational anxiety, you only feel anxiety at certain times, such as before a job interview, when you are preparing for an exam, or when you are contemplating speaking up about a controversial subject. You may feel this type of anxiety at certain events, such as a first date, when you have to use public transportation, or when you have to sleep away from home. If you have a substance abuse disorder, you may feel situational anxiety whenever your "stash" is running low.

Situational anxiety comes with distinctive physical symptoms. You may be shaky, have sweaty hands, a rapid heartbeat, chest pain, a headache, or feel flushed. You may be extremely irritable, nervous, or even embarrassed.

Mental health treatment can help you with situational anxiety. You can learn calming techniques to use before events that always make you nervous. In mental health treatment, you can also identify your anxiety triggers and bodily reactions. You can assess the thoughts behind your fears and learn to practice self-compassion. With the right mental health help, you can learn to manage your anxiety in any situation.

What is situational stress?

Situational stress is the stress that happens when you are in a situation that is not only frightening, but you also have no control over it. It might be getting laid off, running into an abusive ex-partner, getting into a conflict with your parents, or making a major social mistake. Stress is the feeling of being overwhelmed and unable to cope because of these pressures. Mental health treatment can help you deal with situational stress better.

How are substance abuse and depression related?

Substance abuse and mental health issues like depression often go hand in hand. Substance abuse affects the chemistry of your brain, which can lead to depression and even suicide. If you are worried that substance abuse or depression is reaching the level of suicidal thoughts for a loved one, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or get mental health treatment with suicide prevention in your local community immediately. Suicide prevention is critical and must be attended to immediately. Whether it is you or a friend who is feeling severely depressed, suicide prevention may save their life.

Mental health treatment for substance abuse can help you deal with the cravings for the substance, avoid or manage the triggers, and calm yourself as needed. General health services can help you deal with the physical damage the substances might have done to your body. Getting support when you struggle with substance abuse is also critical, whether you get it from friends, family, a substance abuse support group, local mental health services, or an online counselor. Effectively deal with your substance abuse and mental health problems, and your situational stress will be much easier to overcome.

While substance abuse can lead to mental health problems, the reverse is also true. If your mental health is lacking, and you don't know how to deal with life's difficulties, you may turn to substances to feel better or numb the emotional pain. Many people turn to substances when it would have been better to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. But suicide prevention is just one reason why mental health treatment is so necessary. Mental health treatment can not only help you avoid substance abuse, but it can increase your happiness and satisfaction with life. Once you deal with past issues and current problems, you can cope with life without the crutch of substance abuse.

Is depression a permanent condition?

No. Depression is not a permanent condition unless you don't get the mental health treatment that you need. Situational depression only shows up during specific stressful circumstances. Then, it goes away. In major depressive disorder, even with mental health treatment, the depression may continue to come back over and over throughout your entire lifetime. However, you will likely still have good times when there's no evidence of the depression at all. If it seems like your depression will never go away, get mental health treatment as soon as possible. And if your mind is filled with thoughts of death and harming yourself, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline immediately. They can deal with your immediate suicide prevention needs and point you to mental health services for follow-up.

How do depressions start?

It can take a few weeks to several months for depression to develop from the early stages to full-blown depression. A depressive episode might start with a depressed mood, loss of interest in once pleasurable activities, trouble concentrating, feelings of hopelessness, decreasing self-esteem, irritability, or worrying and obsessing about your problems. If any of these warning signs remind you of how you're feeling right now, the best thing you can do is go into mental health treatment before it gets worse. But if you're thinking of harming yourself, start with suicide prevention by calling a helpline or going to the nearest emergency room.

What are the levels of depression?

The levels of depression run from brief situational depression to persistent depressive disorder, in which depressive symptoms can last for years. There are several different types of depression, including:

  • Major depression
  • Persistent depression
  • Bipolar depression
  • Depressive psychosis
  • Perinatal depression
  • Premenstrual dysphoric disorder
  • Seasonal depression
  • Situational depression
  • Atypical depression.

Mental health treatment can be beneficial if you have any of these types of depression. Suicide prevention is always the first order of business. Then, you can take longer to deal with underlying issues, maladaptive behaviors, and negative thought patterns through a longer-term course of mental health treatment.

What happens to the brain during depression?

The effects of depression on the brain involve three parts of the brain. First, the hippocampus, which stores memories and regulates the chemical cortisol, releases cortisol. This increased cortisol can slow down the production of healthy neurons. The neurons in the hippocampus shrink, and you may begin to have memory problems.

Second, the prefrontal cortex, in the front of the brain, which has the jobs of regulating emotions, helping you make decisions, and creating memories, also begins to shrink, also due to the increased cortisol.

Third, the amygdala, which makes emotional responses happen more easily, becomes enlarged because of the increased cortisol. This makes sleeping more difficult and changes your activity level. It also causes your body to release other hormones and chemicals, which can cause further damage to your mental and physical health. It's essential to get mental health help as soon as possible to minimize the effects on your brain or help you recover your brain's normal functioning.

The way the nerve cells communicate with each other is also affected during depression. The neurotransmitters, which are the chemical messengers in the brain, help different parts of your brain communicate with each other. These transmitters facilitate learning, mood, movement, and sense experiences. But when the messages are weaker, the neurons don't have what they need to do their jobs effectively.

If you are dealing with substance abuse, the effects of the substance abuse add to the effects of depression to cause even more dysfunction in your brain. For this reason, as well as others, getting general health services and mental health treatment for substance abuse is vital. And again, if the brain becomes hugely affected by depression, suicide prevention is the first issue you need to address.

How long does it take to develop depression?

It can take from a few weeks to nearly two years to go from normal mental health to severe depression.

What percent of the population has depression?

About 7.1% of the U.S. population aged 18 and over have depression in any given year.


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