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Situational Depression: Symptoms, Triggers, and Advice

Anchor Light Therapy Collective

Oct 21, 2022

Have you ever wondered whether your depressed mood is normal? Situational depression occurs when someone experiences emotional or behavioral symptoms after a stressful event. This article will address the symptoms, triggers, and treatment options for situational depression and how it differs from clinical depression.

What is situational depression?

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders written by the American Psychiatric Association, a mental health professional may diagnose an adjustment disorder if someone is experiencing emotional or behavioral symptoms that began within three months of experiencing stressful events. The type of adjustment disorder diagnosed depends on the most common symptoms.

Situational Depression is a type of adjustment disorder involving a depressed mood and other symptoms. However, if anxiety or behavioral symptoms become more problematic than depressive symptoms, different types of adjustment disorders may be diagnosed instead.

Symptoms of situational depression include

  • Depressed mood
  • Tearfulness
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Anxiety
  • Behavioral health challenges
  • Self-harm
  • Loss of energy or motivation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty with sleeping
  • Isolating or withdrawing from normal activities

Situational depression triggers and how to address them

Situational depression is different than clinical depression because situational depression symptoms happen in response to stressful events. Situational depression may follow a variety of different triggers, including a significant loss or a major life change.

Trigger #1: Death of a loved one

After the death of a loved one, it is typical to experience a grieving process. Everyone responds to death in their own way. Some individuals may experience normal bereavement responses, while others develop situational depression.

Addressing situational depression after the death of a loved one

When it comes to grieving the death of a loved one, it is important to allow yourself time to truly grieve this loss. However, spending too much time thinking about it can contribute to increased depressive symptoms. Spending time with others can be really helpful in distracting you from the loss when it is time to take a break from thinking about it. Many people find success by scheduling time to participate in grief-related activities, whether it be individual reflection time or planned events with other friends and family.

Trigger #2: Job loss

Loss of employment can trigger situational depression for multiple reasons. With so many aspects of daily life being impacted by employment status, it can be challenging to know where to start. Some reasons job loss can be triggering include

  • The possibility of experiencing a financial crisis
  • Loss of health care coverage
  • Loss of purpose
  • Uncertainty about the future

Addressing situational depression after a job loss
After experiencing job loss, it’s likely that many factors that are out of your control. It can be helpful to identify which parts of your life are within your control and can be changed, given the resources available to you. See if you can find meaning and purpose in other areas of your life. Also, remember this is likely a temporary situation and the crises will not last forever. Finally, it is okay to seek help, especially if you are not able to meet your basic needs.

Trigger #3: Health conditions

Receiving negative medical news about a physical health condition can cause significant stress, especially if the diagnosis was a chronic condition or terminal illness. For example, a global pandemic, which is considered a health crisis, can either cause or exacerbate mental health symptoms.

Addressing situational depression related to health conditions
Receiving a life-altering diagnosis can be a traumatic event. Going to a support group can be really helpful in processing the experience of learning the diagnosis, navigating a new disorder, and learning ways that others have gained coping mechanisms.

Additionally, peer-reviewed studies are showing a connection between physical and mental health, meaning mental illness can exacerbate a physical condition and vice versa. Therefore, it is important to seek professional medical advice about your new diagnosis to take care of your physical health.

Trigger #4: Change in relationship status

Relationship status may change for a variety of reasons, whether it be an ending of a relationship or an increase in commitment. Humans have a need for social connection and belonging. Given this basic need, it makes sense that a change in relationship status might cause emotional distress. Examples include

  • Breakups
  • Divorce
  • Engagement
  • Marriage
  • Transitioning from monogamy to polyamorous relationships

Addressing situational depression after a change in relationship status
No matter who ultimately made the decision to change the relationship status, it is likely the decision was made for a reason. It can be helpful to take time to reflect on how this life event impacts your overall mental health. Whether the change resulted in less connection or more commitment, this is an important time for increasing your connection to your larger support system.

Trigger #5: Family separation

Family separation can happen for a variety of reasons. In some cases, the separation was deliberate; one family member voluntarily decided to discontinue being in a relationship with other family members. In other cases, it may be the result of specific trauma, such as separation due to deportation or immigration-related issues.

Addressing situational depression caused by family separation
No matter the reason for family separation, a significant loss has occurred. Family separation is unique because individuals still experience grief, but with the additional uncertainty of whether or not they will see their family member(s) again.

Rebuilding a sense of community can help increase a feeling of belonging. Depending on the severity of your traumatic experiences and the resulting symptoms, professional help may be needed to recover from this considerable life change.

Trigger #6: Relocation

Relocation is a major life event. After moving, it takes time to re-develop a connection to the local community. This can create a sense of isolation and disconnectedness, which can cause situational depression.

Addressing situational depression after a relocation

If possible, take a proactive stance before the relocation happens. Maintaining long-distance relationships is an important proactive step to promote well-being while you work towards establishing new connections at your new home. If you are able to establish a routine of regularly connecting with others, this will help you continue to remain connected with loved ones via phone, video, or the internet after the move.

Trigger #7: Retirement

Retirement creates a significant change in everyday life. Even when retirement is planned, it can be surprisingly challenging to adjust to your new lifestyle away from work.

Addressing situational depression after retirement
When adjusting to retirement, it is common for people to struggle to find meaning in life. One of the remedies to this challenge is to seek out meaningful ways to engage with the community, such as volunteer work. This can also be a time to increase connection with friends, family, community events, or hobbies.

Situational vs. clinical depression

Situational and clinical depression have similar symptoms, but the cause and length of symptoms are different. Symptoms of situational depression arise after being exposed to a significant stressor. While clinical depression is an ongoing experience where symptoms are usually present before a life stressor.

The most commonly diagnosed forms of clinical depression are Major Depression and Persistent Depressive Disorder. Major Depressive Disorder is diagnosed when someone experiences at least one major depressive episode when symptoms of depression happen nearly every day for a two-week period. This depression can be episodic in nature, meaning a person experiences symptoms for some weeks, while being asymptomatic for others.

Persistent Depressive Disorder, on the other hand, is when mild cases of depression are ongoing for two years or more.

So, when is situational depression diagnosed? Someone is likely experiencing situational depression if the depression is a direct result of a stressor, and they have otherwise not experienced other mental health symptoms.

When to seek help for situational depression

Situational depression resolves when someone gets proper treatment. It may be time to seek treatment for situational depression if symptoms persist despite making lifestyle changes. Those who have experienced a traumatic event may be at higher risk of developing problematic symptoms, which may need treatment sooner.

Medical Disclaimer: if you are reading this and have been experiencing suicide ideation, please call your local emergency number. Seek help now if you are at immediate risk of harm. 988 is a mental health lifeline you can call any time.

Therapy will help you manage situational depression

Individual counseling is the most common treatment for situational depression. It can also be treated using online therapy, support groups, medication, or other treatment options recommended by your health care provider. When engaging in active treatment, people may focus on finding ways to increase their quality of life, creating safety plans for suicide prevention, increasing coping abilities, and managing risk factors for developing another mental health disorder.

If you’ve been struggling with situational depression, don’t hesitate to seek the help you need. Going to therapy for situational depression can significantly improve your life, getting you back on track to the life you deserve.

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