What is Situational Depression?

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Situational depression is a short-term form of depression that can occur in the aftermath of various traumatic changes in your normal life, including divorce, retirement, loss of a job and the death of a relative or close friend. Doctors sometimes refer to the condition as adjustment disorder. A person with situational depression may have symptoms that are more or less identical to someone with clinical depression; however, there are certain key differences between the effects and treatment of these two disorders.

Situational Depression Basics

As we go through life, we all have experiences that stretch the limits of our normal ability to cope and continue our daily routines. In addition to the experiences listed above, situations that can potentially overwhelm your normal coping mechanisms include surviving a hurricane or other major disaster, surviving a serious accident, experiencing a major illness, and even marriage or the birth of a child. Situational depression occurs when you haven’t yet adapted to the changes brought about by these situations and incorporated them into your overall life experiences.

Most people with situational depression develop symptoms within roughly 90 days following the event that triggers the condition. Depending on the individual, these symptoms can include:

  • Listlessness
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Sleeping difficulties
  • Sadness, guilt or worthlessness
  • Recurring bouts of crying
  • Unfocused anxiety
  • Unfocused worry
  • Loss of concentration
  • Fatigue
  • Significant weight loss or weight gain
  • Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or getting out of bed
  • Withdrawal from normal work or leisure activities
  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Suicidal thoughts

Differences Between Situational and Clinical Depression

Clinical depression is also known as major depression or major depressive disorder. Doctors define the condition according to criteria outlined in a document called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM. Many of the symptoms of clinical depression are more or less interchangeable with the symptoms of situational depression. However people with clinical depression have at least five depression symptoms at the same time, and also have forms of these symptoms that are severe enough to seriously degrade their ability to participate in their normal routines. In addition, the disorder can produce symptoms not typically found in people with situational depression, including delusions, hallucinations and other forms of psychotic disturbance. While you can receive a clinical depression diagnosis for symptoms that last for as little as two weeks, many people with the disorder have bouts of symptoms that recur or reappear over extended periods of time.

People with clinical depression often have noticeable chemical imbalances in their brains, and in some cases, tendencies for the disorder run through family bloodlines. However, environmental factors and external situations commonly play a role in the onset of major depressive symptoms, even in people with a known chemical or genetic predisposition. Many of these factors and situations – including divorce, serious illness and death of a loved one – are identical to those associated with the onset of situational depression. In addition, some people with clinical depression develop symptoms in connection with chronic sleeping difficulties or the abuse of drugs and/or alcohol.

Different Treatment Approaches

In many circumstances, mild cases of situational depression will disappear on their own if you take certain steps to limit their effects. Potentially helpful steps include getting regular exercise, eating a nutritionally well-balanced diet, establishing regular sleeping habits, discussing your situation with close friends or loved ones, joining a formal support group and participating in a hobby or other pleasurable leisure activity. If your symptoms seriously disrupt your life and/or last for extended periods of time, you will likely need to seek the help of a trained psychotherapist who can help you in a group, family or one-on-one setting. If you have severe situational depression symptoms, your doctor may also choose to treat your condition with medications such as antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs.

People with relatively mild cases of clinical depression also typically benefit from psychotherapy or the use of antidepressant medications. In more serious cases, they may require treatment with a combination of these two approaches. In addition, some people with severe symptoms of clinical depression require hospitalization in a psychiatric facility, or require treatment with a form of controlled electrical stimulation known as electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT.

A Final Word

Some people with situational depression continue to experience symptoms for longer than six months. This is especially common when another emotionally or physically traumatic event occurs during the normal recovery period. If you or a loved one experience ongoing depression in the aftermath of a major life change, don’t hesitate to contact a trained professional who can help you deal successfully with your situation and overcome your symptoms of depression.

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