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What is the Definition of Situational Depression?

written by: BettyHolt • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 9/6/2010

Situational depression, unlike clinical depression or dysthymia, has an easily identifiable external trigger and only lasts a few months. It is very common among all age groups and sexes, and may occur more often when people are going through life transition phases.

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    Situational Depression

    The definition of situational depression is just what you would expect--depression arising from one's situation or circumstances in life. Compared to clinical depression, also called major depressive disorder, situational depression is less severe and has an identifiable external cause. Compared to dysthymia, a type of chronic low-grade depression in which the person has learned to adjust to a less enjoyable life, situational depression is more intense.

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    Causes

    The types of circumstances which can bring on situational depression include things like the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, or a serious illness, either of oneself or a family member. Being exposed to trauma such as a natural disaster, violent crime, or an accident can also be a trigger. Even major life transitions such as marriage or a move to a different part of the country can be factors in situational depression.

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    Symptoms

    This type of depression is very common and affects men and women equally. Ten percent of adults and up to thirty percent of teenagers have reported experiencing it. Both groups may manifest symptoms such as feelings of hopelessness, tearfulness or crying, and generally depressed mood, while children and teens are more apt to exhibit behavioral symptoms such as skipping classes, fighting or getting into trouble at school.

    Other symptoms can include agitation or anxiety, sleeping too little or too much, eating too little or too much, and somatic complaints such as headaches, stomachaches, or heart palpitations. Often people withdraw from normal social activities and feel helpless to do anything about their situations. This can sometimes lead to alcohol or drug abuse as coping mechanisms.

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    Adjustment Disorder

    The definition of situational depression is the same as adjustment disorder with depressed mood because it generally comes about when the person hasn't yet adjusted to a new set of circumstances. For instance, maybe they are having trouble eating, sleeping, or working. Once the person starts the adjustment process, the symptoms begin to abate. Symptoms usually start within three months of a triggering event and go on for six months afterwards, sometimes longer. Depending on the severity and the disruption of normal functioning, situational depression can turn into other types of depression if left untreated.

    The term adjustment disorder is also used when the symptoms interfere with the person's ability to function normally in their day to day activities. For example, they could miss work because of not sleeping or being excessively tired. In any event, their emotional or behavioral response toward the precipitating event is greater than normal or what one would expect.

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    Prevention and Help

    There is no way to prevent situational depression. Life happens and people respond according to their emotional makeup. What is helpful is to have a good system of family and social support to help cushion the effect. It's also important to remember that it won't last forever. The duration of situational depression is usually short. Sometimes a positive by-product is that people acquire new coping skills which can help them in other situations and areas of their lives.

    If you feel that you or someone you know is suffering with this, seeing your family doctor would be a great place to start. They might run some tests to rule out possible physical causes before suggesting a treatment plan or referring you to a counselor.