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“When people think of situational depression, they are often thinking of adjustment disorders,” said Steven Bartek, clinical instructor of psychiatry at Michigan Medicine. “An adjustment disorder is a reaction to a stressor that is more intense than a typical emotional response, but not as severe as a full depressive episode.”
“I hear people use the phrase ‘situational depression’ quite a bit, and I honestly have mixed feelings about it,” he added. “It captures something valuable for many people, in that it seems to provide an explanation for the sadness they are experiencing. That can also be a risk, though, since people often minimize the severity of their depression when they think of it as just a reaction to a situation.”
Bartek emphasized that it’s perfectly normal and understandable to experience low moods, especially amid the challenges of 2020.
“People sometimes feel pressure to ignore negative emotions ― particularly in a world of perfect Instagram photos ― but during a year with a worldwide pandemic, economic uncertainty, a nationwide referendum on racial violence, and families divided along political lines, experiencing strong and sometimes negative emotions is normal and does not need to be a source of shame,” he said.
“People usually experience low mood or anxiety that is intense enough to impact their functioning, such as not being able to focus at work or neglecting relationships,” Bartek said, adding that you shouldn’t allow the “situational” moniker to prevent you from seeking treatment when you need it.
Bartek noted that these symptoms tend to go away about six months after the stressor ends. Although disorders like situational depression usually don’t require medication for treatment, they can be serious and are associated with an increased risk for suicide.
And if the situation triggering the symptoms is a severe trauma, you also may experience other symptoms, such as nightmares, flashbacks or other problems associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. Talking to a professional can help determine the best course of action for your particular circumstances.
“The best ways to resolve an adjustment disorder are to stop the stressor (if possible) and to engage in therapy,” Bartek said.
“Throughout this year, the stress, uncertainty, and isolation that has come from the COVID pandemic have led to many people feeling symptoms of depression that are new to them,” he added. “If these symptoms are persistent and do not go away as they normally would, if they are impairing someone’s ability to function, and especially if someone develops thoughts of suicide, treatment should be sought. There are good, evidence-based treatments that can bring relief, even while this stressful situation persists.”