What is situational depression?

Situational depression is a short-term, stress-related type of depression. It can develop after you experience a traumatic event or series of events. Situational depression is a type of adjustment disorder. It can make it hard for you to adjust to your everyday life following a traumatic event. It’s also known as reactive depression.

Events that can cause situational depression include:

  • problems at work or school
  • illness
  • death of a loved one
  • moving
  • relationship problems

Symptoms of situational depression vary from person to person. Situational depression can magnify the intensity of stressful life events. This stress can cause severe disruption to your daily life.

Common symptoms of situational depression include:

  • sadness
  • hopelessness
  • lack of enjoyment in normal activities
  • regular crying
  • constant worrying or feeling anxious or stressed out
  • sleeping difficulties
  • disinterest in food
  • trouble focusing
  • trouble carrying out daily activities
  • feeling overwhelmed
  • avoiding social situations and interaction
  • not taking care of important matters like paying your bills or going to work
  • thoughts or attempts at suicide

Stressful events, both positive and negative, can cause situational depression. Stressful events include:

  • relationship or marital problems, such as fighting or divorce
  • situational changes, such as retirement, going away to school, or having a baby
  • negative financial situations, such as money problems or losing a job
  • the death of a loved one
  • social issues at school or work
  • life-or-death experiences such as physical assault, combat, or a natural disaster
  • medical illness
  • living in a dangerous neighborhood

Previous life experiences can affect the way you deal with stress. You are at higher risk of situational depression if you have:

  • gone through considerable stress during childhood
  • existing mental health problems
  • several difficult life circumstances occurring at the same time

Biological factors can also increase your risk for depression. These include:

  • abnormalities in brain structure and chemistry
  • hormonal abnormalities
  • changes in genetics

You are also more likely to experience depression if a person in your family has also experienced it.

In situational depression, symptoms appear after you experience a stressful event or series of events. According to the new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), you may have situational depression if:

  • you have emotional or behavioral symptoms that develop within three months of a stressful life event
  • you feel more stress than normal after a stressful life event
  • stress causes severe issues in your interpersonal relationships or at work or school
  • you have depression symptoms that are not caused by another mental health disorder or part of the normal grieving process after the death of a loved one

You should see a doctor if your symptoms are making it difficult for you to take care of your everyday responsibilities and activities. Treatment can help you better cope with stressful events.

Treatment includes medications, including:

  • selective serotonin uptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as sertraline (Zoloft) and citalopram (Celexa)
  • dopamine reuptake blockers, such as bupropion

However, supportive psychotherapy is generally the preferred treatment for situational depression as the treatment can help enhance coping mechanisms and resilience. This is important because it can help you cope with future challenges and potentially avoid future bouts of situational depression. One type of therapy that may help is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Once treatment is helping you address your depression, you can also make some lifestyle changes that can help you cope. These include:

  • getting exercise
  • establishing healthy sleeping habits
  • getting more rest and relaxation
  • eating more healthfully
  • strengthening your social support system

Keep reading: A self-help guide to dealing with depression »

Online therapy options

Read our review of the best online therapy options to find the right fit for you.

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What is the difference between situational depression and clinical depression?

Anonymous patient


As the name implies, situational depression is generally brought on by a stressful situation. In this case, the person feels overwhelmed by a situation that also exhausts their coping abilities. The symptoms often subside as the situation comes under control or becomes more manageable. This is much different than clinical depression where there is no identifiable “cause.” Sometimes, people will start with a situational depression that develops into a clinical depression. Similarly, people with clinical depression may experience an overwhelming situation that worsens their depressive symptoms.

Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PsyD, CRNPAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.
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If you think someone is at immediate risk of self-harm or hurting another person:

  • Call 911 or your local emergency number.
  • Stay with the person until help arrives.
  • Remove any guns, knives, medications, or other things that may cause harm.
  • Listen, but don’t judge, argue, threaten, or yell.

If you think someone is considering suicide, get help from a crisis or suicide prevention hotline. Try the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

Sources: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration