Have you ever gone through a period when you felt unusually down? You may have been experiencing symptoms of the disorder known as “major depression” or “major depressive disorder.” It is also possible that your depressive symptoms were a form of “reactive” or “situational” depression in response to stress, trauma, or a major life event. This is a shorter-lived form of depression, and while some would question its status as a legitimate diagnosis, many experts recognize it as a valid psychiatric condition.
The signs and symptoms of reactive depression can vary dramatically from person to person, and it can be quite daunting for people who have never dealt with a depressive episode before. Nevertheless, it is possible to effectively manage a case of reactive depression and prepare yourself should it ever occur again.
Triggers and Causes of Reactive Depression
You may have already experienced episodes of reactive depression without realizing what they were. The causes of reactive depression are usually stressors that overwhelm our usual coping mechanisms. Even positive events can trigger a period of depression, if there is enough stress involved. Circumstances that might trigger reactive depression include:
- The death of a friend, family member, or pet
- Divorce or other major relationship changes
- Career or education changes
- Family trouble
- Getting pregnant or giving birth
- Experiencing natural disasters, crime, or similar traumatic events
- Car accidents
- Financial challenges
Some people are more prone to developing reactive depression following stressful events due to certain inherent risk factors. Having a history of mental health issues, even if they’re not related to depression, is a major one. Others include having physical illnesses or conditions, as well as having experienced traumatic events in the past, such as abuse.
Symptoms and Manifestations
Reactive depression manifests differently in each person, though there are usually certain similarities. For ease of understanding, it helps to group the symptoms under a few umbrella categories.
These characteristics are the most prevailing and involve general feelings of low mood. At their core, these are feelings of sadness or grief that feel “deeper” than usual. People with these symptoms describe ongoing feelings of hopelessness, as well as a lack of pleasure in things they would typically enjoy. Regular or even frequent crying is also common.
In many ways, anxiety and depression are sister conditions—often occurring alongside and feeding into each other. Anxiety symptoms involve a pervasive sense of worry, along with trouble concentrating, feeling lost or overwhelmed, and physical issues like jitteriness. Depending on when these issues occur, they could also impact a person’s sleep or diet.
Because reactive depression can affect people who have never felt depression before, they may have difficulty describing how they feel. Instead, their mental state could be reflected in behavior or conduct changes. Fighting, skipping school, or damaging property are all common signs of depression in children and young adults. Other people may have relationship troubles, difficulty at work, or simply seem more irritable than usual.
Differentiating Reactive Depression from Major Depressive Disorder
Because they are both manifestations of depression, it can be difficult to differentiate between reactive depression and major depressive disorder. There are a few key differences, however.
As the name implies, reactive depression is most often a reaction to a stressful or traumatic event that someone is struggling to come to terms with. Because of this, it usually develops within a few months of the event and does not persist for longer than a few weeks.
Major depressive disorder is a far more persistent issue that involves having feelings of low mood almost every day for many weeks. Due to the severity and long-term nature of this mental disorder, it often leads to thoughts of self-harm or suicide.
While this may seem quite straightforward, there are some complications to consider. Most notably, mental health conditions are complex and still not fully understood. Reactive depression can sometimes persist long after the triggering event, leading to major depressive disorder. This is why, though it is usually temporary, it can be helpful to receive treatment for reactive depression.
Treatment Approaches and Coping Strategies
Because reactive depression can be so tied to personal circumstances, the treatments are quite varied. Additionally, as a short-lived disorder, reactive depression doesn’t usually require ongoing treatment with a counselor.
Here are some actions that may help combat periods of depression:
- Eat well. Gut and brain health are intricately linked in many ways. Depression often drives people to eat poorly, either consuming far too little or overindulging. This helps form a vicious cycle where poor nutrition leads to feeling bad, which worsens depression symptoms, driving people to have worse eating habits. Healthy fruits, veggies, nuts, and grains provide energy to the body and brain and keep you feeling good physically.
- Exercise. Many studies have proven how exercise helps limit feelings of depression, even in major depressive disorder. This doesn’t necessarily require a back-breaking trip to the gym. Even a simple walk can get endorphins flowing and boost mood.
- Sleep. Depression and anxiety often disrupt sleep. Poor sleep quality can dramatically worsen nearly every aspect of a person’s health, including symptoms of depression. Following a nightly routine can help you get to sleep, boosting your mood and fighting fatigue.
- Meditation and breathing exercises. One of the best lifestyle changes a person can make for their mental status is practicing meditation. What this entails is different for everyone. Some people benefit the most from actual meditation—sitting with eyes closed and focusing on breathing. Others find that saying a simple mantra a few times helps. Activities like listening to music, reading, or even exercising can also work as meditation for certain individuals.
While it is not typical to pursue therapy for reactive depression, many people choose to do so because they are not accustomed to managing those feelings. Counseling for reactive depression is usually some form of talk therapy, like cognitive behavioral therapy. Talk therapy, as the name describes, involves a discussion about reactive depression and the triggering incident. Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on learning to target and stop negative self-talk, replacing it with positive thoughts. Both treatments equip the patient with the tools they need to manage mental health issues outside of counseling sessions.
Should your feelings of depression persist beyond a few days or if you or a loved one needs help with reactive depression, consider reaching out to a mental health professional. Our experts at Restore Mental Health would be glad to help.