The Symptoms of Reactive Depression

Psychotherapy by Balanced Life Inst, Santa Monica, CA

There are moments in our lives when terrible things happen. It might be the death of a loved one, a financial crisis or the end of a relationship. We grieve these events for some time, feeling sadness and pain. Our reactions to those moments reflect the depth of our loss. There are times, however, when the pain becomes too great and the sadness doesn’t ebb. That is when we might be experiencing reactive depression.

Reactive depression, also called situational depression, is a form of clinical depression that occurs when our ability to cope with a painful event is insufficient to bring us out of the grieving process and the depression we experience becomes deeper and more long-lasting than it should. It is not the same thing as post-traumatic stress, because it doesn’t have anxiety as a factor, and there are no flashbacks. The DSM IV identifies reactive depression as an adjustment disorder with depressed mood.

How it Starts

We are all subject to loss in our lives. The loss of someone we love, a financial loss, career setbacks, serious illness or even national losses to which we all respond (like the 9/11 tragedy) are all painful in their own way. Each of us responds differently when these events occur. For most, the grief we feel is both manageable and temporary. For others, the sadness and loss can become extended and deep, leading to disruption in our daily lives. Persistent sadness, loss of interest in daily activities, changes in sleeping or eating patterns, inability to function at normal levels in the workplace – all of these are evidence of depression.

How it is Diagnosed

Reactive depression is, by definition, the reaction to a stressor. To be diagnosed as such, the symptoms need to begin within three months of the identified stressor and the impact must be out of proportion to the stress incurred, or cause impairment in functioning in a social, work or personal arena. It is generally limited to no more than six months, although it may go longer, becoming a chronic disorder, particularly in the absence of treatment.

How it is Treated

As with any other form of depression there are different treatments available.
Psychotherapy is a very effective treatment for reactive depression. The first step is for the patient and the therapist to identify the stressor. The therapist and the patient can then talk out the impact of the loss and can together work on improving coping strategies for dealing with the stressor. In addition to one-on-one therapy, the patient might also benefit from group therapy or family therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy is also effective.

Antidepressants might also be part of the treatment plan if psychotherapy does not succeed in lifting the depression. Antidepressants are sometimes the needed treatment to provide temporary relief while the therapy process is underway.


Reactive depression usually responds well to psychotherapy or cognitive behavioral therapy. Seeking treatment generally results in the episode of depression being limited to a relatively short span of time.

Sources: and

Image courtesy Balanced Life Institute, Santa Monica, CA


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