What Is Situational Depression?

Published 06/21/2022

When you're feeling depressed, it's normal to face a lot of questions. This is often the case if someone is not diagnosed with a depressive disorder or if it's their first time experiencing pervasive sadness or other depressive symptoms. You might wonder, "will things stay this way forever?" "how do I know if I have clinical depression?" and "when should I seek help?" In this article, we will answer those questions and go over what situational depression is as well as when it might be something more. 

Defining Situational Depression

Situational depression is exactly what it sounds like. It is depression that occurs on a situational basis. Someone might experience situational depression in a variety of different scenarios. For example, situational depression may occur when someone goes through:

  • Grief or loss
  • A personal diagnosis of a medical condition or someone close to them being diagnosed with a medical condition
  • Stress-related to work, school, events, and life decisions
  • Separation or divorce
  • Moving to/adjusting to a new geographical location

This is not an extensive list. Rather, it is a list of common causes for situational depression. Situational depression is an informal term rather than a diagnosis or medical term. It may be diagnosed, in some cases, as an adjustment disorder.

Adjustment Disorders In The DSM

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM is a manual that is used by medical and mental health professionals to diagnose mental health conditions. The most recently updated version of the DSM is the DSM-V. Here are the criteria for the diagnosis of an adjustment disorder in the DSM-V:

"A. The development of emotional or behavioral symptoms in response to an identifiable stressor(s) occurring within 3 months of the onset of the stressor(s).

  1. These symptoms or behaviors are clinically significant, as evidenced by one or both of the following:
  1. Marked distress that is out of proportion to the severity or intensity of the stressor, taking into account the external context and the cultural factors that might influence symptom severity and presentation.
  2. Significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
  3. The stress-related disturbance does not meet the criteria for another mental disorder and is not merely an exacerbation of a preexisting mental disorder.
  4. The symptoms do not represent normal bereavement.
  5. Once the stressor (or its consequences) has terminated, the symptoms do not persist for more than an additional 6 months."

Click here for a comparison of the diagnostic criteria for adjustment disorders in the DSM-IV and DSM-V, as well as the full current diagnostic criteria for adjustment disorders and codes.

Situational Depression Vs. Depressive Disorders

Situational depression is circumstantial. It will go away when the circumstances causing your feelings of depression or low mood dissipate, where, although there are treatments for depressive disorders that help tremendously, depression has no known cure. There are a variety of different depressive disorders that one can experience. Learning about different depressive disorders can help you to distinguish if you could potentially have a condition that falls under the category of depressive disorders.

Major Depressive Disorder (MDD)

Major depressive disorder or MDD is a very common mental health condition. It is characterized by periods of depression marked by a number of symptoms (one of which must include loss of interest in activities one used to enjoy or a low or depressed mood) that lasts for two weeks or more. Here are some of the potential signs of MDD: 

  • Low or depressed mood
  • The loss of interest in activities when used to enjoy
  • Feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, or disproportionate guilt
  • Fatigue or tiredness
  • Difficulty concentrating or focusing
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Withdrawal from others
  • Changes in appetite
  • Irritability
  • Excessive crying
  • Emotional numbness

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Seasonal affective disorder is a form of major depression that occurs on a seasonal basis. Many people with seasonal affective disorder experience major depressive symptoms during the winter months of the year. The symptoms will look exactly like those listed above under the diagnosis of major depressive disorder, but they will occur seasonally. This disorder can be treated in a number of ways, including counseling or light therapy*.

Persistent Depressive Disorder (PDD)

Persistent depressive disorder is a chronic, low-level type of depressive disorder. To be diagnosed with persistent depressive disorder or PDD, you have to experience symptoms for two years or more. Here are some of the potential signs of persistent depressive disorder to look out for:

  • Persistent low mood or sadness
  • Feeling tired or having low energy levels
  • Feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, or disproportionate guilt
  • Difficulty with self-esteem
  • Trouble concentrating or focusing
  • Trouble with or avoidance of social activities

Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD)

Premenstrual dysphoric disorder or PMDD is a disorder where someone experiences severe premenstrual symptoms that impact their life in areas such as relationships, work, and education. Someone may become so depressed the week before their menstrual period that they are unable to engage in daily activities and may not feel like themselves at all. It's more severe than typical PMS is. Here are some of the potential signs of PMDD to look out for:

  • Low or depressed mood
  • Lack of interest in activities one would typically enjoy
  • Severe PMS symptoms, such as bloating or cramping
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Trouble concentrating or focusing
  • Excessive fatigue
  • Anger or irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Anxiety or panic attacks

If your depressive symptoms occur only the week before your menstrual period and dissipate when it starts or soon after, you may have PMDD.

When it comes to differentiating depression that one experiences on a situational basis from a diagnosable mental health disorder, it comes down to how your symptoms persist or cease to persist. 

Facts And Statistics On Depression And Depressive Disorders

  • The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) indicates that 17.3 million individuals aged 18 and above experienced a depressive episode in 2017.
  • One out of every three heart attack survivors experiences depression.
  • Over 20% of those with a mood disorder also struggle with substance use.
  • About one-third of people diagnosed with diabetes experience depression.
  • Major depressive disorder or MDD is more likely to be diagnosed in women than it is in men.
  • Comorbid conditions are common in those with depression. One of the most common comorbidities in those with depression is anxiety disorder.

Can Therapy Help Situational Depression?

Therapy can certainly help those with situational depression. People attend therapy for many different reasons, and you do not have to have a mental health diagnosis to attend therapy or counseling. Here are some of the many reasons that people seek counseling:

  • Relationship issues
  • Stress or worry related to world events
  • Stressors related to work, school, or other facets of life
  • Life transitions such as separation, divorce, career shifts, or aging
  • Grief, loss, or trauma (with or without the diagnosis of a bereavement disorder or trauma disorder)
  • Trouble with intimacy or sex
  • Familial issues
  • Self-discovery

This is by no means an extensive list, but it does show that there's really no limit when it comes to what you can seek therapy for. If you want to talk to an unbiased third-party for any reason, whether it's an adjustment disorder, depressive disorder, relationship problems, or life circumstances, therapy or counseling is an excellent option. If you are experiencing depression on a situational basis, if you have a depressive disorder, or if you think that you might have a depressive disorder or an adjustment disorder, consider reaching out to a mental health professional such as a counselor or therapist. You can start by making an appointment with your primary care provider or general doctor to talk about your symptoms, or you can search for a therapist who works in your local area or remotely. If you're not sure where to start, you can use the provider search tool in the upper right-hand corner of the Mind Diagnostics website.

When To Seek Help

If you're wondering when to seek help, the answer is that you can reach out for help at any time. You don't have to wait for things to get worse, and it's important that you never brush your problems aside or believe that they aren't bad enough for you to deserve support. In the case that depressive symptoms start to impact your life or ability to function, make sure that you talk to your doctor or see a mental health professional immediately. The first line of treatment for depression is often cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT*. Interpersonal therapy is another form of counseling or therapy that can be beneficial for those with depression. Both of these are non-invasive forms of therapy that could be incredibly beneficial for a variety of concerns. 

Take The Mind Diagnostics Depression Test

Could you be depressed? Take the Mind Diagnostics depression test to gain insight into your symptoms and what you're going through. Although it isn't a replacement for a diagnosis of evaluation from a medical or mental health professional, taking the test might just be the first step to getting the help you need. While depression can impact people of all ages, the Mind Diagnostics depression test is for those aged 18 and above. The Mind Diagnostics depression test is free, fast, and confidential.

Click here to take the Mind Diagnostics depression test.

*For all information regarding specific treatments, please consult a medical or mental health professional.