You’ve heard people complain that they’re depressed after a breakup, a layoff, or an overall terrible week. But are these people really experiencing depression?
When a stressful situation is particularly hard to cope with, we react with symptoms of sadness, fear, or even hopelessness — a type of reaction that’s often referred to as situational depression. Unlike major depression, when you are overwhelmed by depression symptoms for a long time, situational depression usually goes away once you have adapted to your new situation.
Actually, situational depression is usually considered an adjustment disorder rather than true depression. But that doesn’t mean it should be ignored: If situational depression goes untreated, it could develop into major depression.
"Situational could lead to major depression or simply be a period of grief,” explains Kathleen Franco, MD, professor of medicine and psychiatry at Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine in Ohio. "If emotional and behavioral symptoms reduce normal functioning in social or occupational arenas, it should be treated."
"Situational depression means that the symptoms are set off by some set of circumstances or event. It could lead to major depression or simply be a period of grief,” explains Kathleen Franco, MD, professor of medicine and psychiatry at Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine in Ohio. However, she adds that situational depression may need treatment "if emotional and behavioral symptoms reduce normal functioning in social or occupational arenas."
Who Gets Situational Depression and Why?
Situational depression is common and can happen to anyone — about 10 percent of adults and up to 30 percent of adolescents experience this condition at some point. Men and women are affected equally.
The most common cause of situational depression is stress. Some typical events that lead to it include:
* Loss of a relationship * Loss of a job * Loss of a loved one * Serious illness * Experiencing a traumatic event such as a disaster, crime, or accident
What Are the Symptoms of Situational Depression?
The most common symptoms of situational depression are depressed mood, tearfulness, and feelings of hopelessness. Children or teenagers are more likely to show behavioral symptoms such as fighting or skipping school. Some other symptoms include:
* Feeling nervous * Having body symptoms such as headache, stomachache, or heart palpitations * Missing work, school, or social activities * Changes in sleeping or eating habits * Feeling tired * Abusing alcohol or drugs
How Is Situational Depression Diagnosed and Treated?
A diagnosis of situational depression, or adjustment disorder with depressed mood, is made when symptoms of depression occur within three months of a stress-causing event, are more severe than expected, or interfere with normal functioning. Your doctor may do tests to rule out other physical illnesses, and you may need a psychological evaluation to make sure you are not suffering from a more serious condition such as post-traumatic stress disorder or a more serious type of depression.
The best treatment for situational depression is counseling with a mental health professional. The goal of treatment is to help you cope with your stress and get back to normal. Support groups are often helpful. Family therapy may be especially important for children or teenagers. In some cases, you may need medication to help control anxiety or for trouble sleeping.
Situational depression and other types of depression are a common problem today, notes James C. Overholser, PhD, professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "Many people are struggling with social isolation, financial limitations, or chronic health problems," says Dr. Overholser. "A psychologist is much more likely to view depression as a reaction to negative life events. Many people can overcome their depression by making changes in their attitudes, their daily behaviors, and their interpersonal functioning."
If you have situational depression, you should know that most people get completely better within about six months after the stressful event. However, it is important to get help, because situational depression can lead to a more severe type of depression or substance abuse if untreated. For many people with situational depression, the coping skills they learn in treatment can become valuable tools to help them face the future.
By Chris Iliades, MDMedically reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH