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If things haven’t been going your way recently, and you’re feeling down, fatigued or disengaged from everyone around you, you might wonder if you have reactive depression.
Whether it’s you, a parent or a spouse, any person can become vulnerable to deep feelings of sadness after a stressful life event. Mental disorders can be the result of these feelings.
If you recently lost a loved one, a pet, a job or a friendship, you know how painful those feelings can be. But if those same feelings come out of nowhere without a particular trigger, you’re likely wondering what caused them.
Was it just a case of genetics, are other factors playing a role in a mental health disorder, or was there some specific cause of this depressive disorder flare-up? Could it be reactive depression, and if so, what is reactive depression, exactly?
Things become less scary when we understand our mental health condition better. So, let’s start with the basics: what reactive depression is, how it works and what might cause it.
Then we can talk about how you can tell if you fit the criteria — and what to do next.
Depression is a mood disorder. Clinical depression, major depression, bipolar disorder and various other types of depression are typically characterized by a period of frequent or chronic negative thoughts, a lack of motivation or hope, disrupted sleep, changes in eating habits, weight gain or weight loss and some depressed mood changes like increased irritability.
There are many suspected causes of depression, including childhood experiences, family history, genetics, eating and sleeping habits, physical activity and sunlight (or lack thereof).
But one of the causes we often talk about is something called a “triggering event.” This means the source of the depressive disorder is a result of a specific event, action, conflict, trauma or loss.
Reactive depression is a type of depression. It may be a new term for veterans in the world of mild to severe depression, partly because it’s not really an official term for depression resulting from a stressful situation (though you’ll find it in some Google searches).
Also known as situational depression, this mood disorder is a point of conflict among experts. In 1981, one study explored whether there was a difference between depression and situational depression. While it found that some depressive symptoms were heightened among the situationally depressed patients, there were no discernable differences in risk factors.
Medically speaking, and in current terms, reactive depression now really falls under the umbrella of an adjustment disorder. This means it’s a condition with many telltale symptoms of depression, but with the key distinguishing trait of having a specific root cause due to a major change.
The symptoms of reactive depression may vary between anxiety and depression, but for the context of this article, we’ll focus on depressive disorder traits. You can read more about the bigger picture of adjustment disorders in our blog.
With regard to mental and physical symptoms, adjustment disorders or situational depression can manifest in familiar ways, namely:
Feelings of hopelessness
Elevated levels of stress
Difficulty functioning in daily life
Reduced quality of life
All of these symptoms can occur either immediately after the change in question. However, they can also begin to manifest days, weeks or as long as three months later.
And the symptoms can persist for some time, especially if treatment and support aren’t available to help the person cope.
We mentioned a variety of life changes that can trigger reactive depression, but the list of potential causes is actually much, much longer. Risk factors and potential triggers for reactive depression can include:
The death of a loved one or family member
Losing a job
The end of a romantic or platonic relationship
Moving to a different city, state or country
Major life milestones like going off to college or becoming a parent
Chronic diseases or injury
Traumatic events like accidents and natural disasters
Sexual assault, physical assault or violence
Adjustment disorders can be triggered by vulnerabilities as well. For example, financial hardship, cultural aspects, gender-based factors, demographic characteristics and other contextual risks can increase someone’s risk of suffering from reactive depression.
Here’s where things get complicated. Because the effects of adjustment disorders aren’t always immediately clear, it can be hard to pinpoint the trigger. As a result, the depressed person might hold out on treatment for some time before signs of depression affect their quality of life.
For instance, your kid could seem perfectly fine changing schools in September, only to show signs of depression a few days before Thanksgiving. Or your friend who lost their father could go months without showing symptoms, and then boom, it hits them.
Luckily, reactive depression in the form of an adjustment disorder can resolve itself over time. Many recover within a few months, and usually, an adjustment disorder doesn’t last more than six months — unless the stressor in question continues to be present (like repeated violence or a chronic illness).
But depression is still depression, at the end of the day. And even if you think you might “come out of it” on schedule, it’s always best to get care, which can help shorten the length of symptoms and speed recovery.
Regardless of what caused your depression, there are several treatments that may benefit all depressed people: lifestyle changes, therapy and medication.
Your mental health can be impaired with poor eating, exercising and sleeping habits, so giving those things some extra time and attention isn’t just good for your body but for your mind as well.
Therapy (in particular, cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT) is a great way to learn to reject your own negative thoughts and become skeptical of that depressed voice inside your head with practice.
It’s one of the most recommended first-line therapies for people who’ve experienced trauma, stressful events or confounding factors that caused an adjustment disorder. The response to treatment from CBT can be very positive.
If the situation doesn’t improve, however, and the depression persists or grows into another form of chronic depression, it might be time to explore your response to antidepressants.
Antidepressant medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are considered a first-line treatment. They’re known to be the safest and most effective antidepressant drug on the market today compared to tricyclic antidepressants and others. And SSRIs can help if things get out of control.
Unfortunately, depression doesn’t care who or what brought it into your life. It’s a disorder focused solely on reducing your joy, quality of life and ability to function.
Whether your depression is reactive, genetic or caused by something else entirely only matters once you’ve begun the treatment process. But before starting, you need to find support in the form of professional help.
Before your adjustment-based reactive depression becomes something worse (or less temporary), it’s best to take a proactive approach to treatment. How do you do this? Ask for help.
You can discuss your current situation, past trauma, life stressors and health history with a mental health provider. These are often difficult and complex things to talk about and work through, which is why it’s best accomplished with a professional’s support and guidance.
As for our part, we offer remote therapy through our online therapy platform. It’s a fast and convenient way of getting in touch with someone who can help.
With Hers, you can also try therapists until you find the right one with that certain X-factor that makes you feel safe and comfortable.
Not ready to commit to therapy yet? Our mental health resources can help you get the momentum to move forward.
In the end, reactive depression and other depressive disorders aren’t going to wait for you to do your part. So, do something proactive: take on reactive depression today.
Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.
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