Reactive Depression: What Is It and How to Treat It

April 6, 2023
Reactive depression
Reactive Depression: What Is It and How to Treat It

When talking about depression, people usually mean major depressive disorder that affects about 21 million U.S. adult population. This mental health condition affects a person’s thoughts, mood, and behavioral patterns. It is characterized by lethargy, anxiety, anger, guilt, changes in eating or sleeping habits, and suicidal thoughts.

However, such a diagnosis is made if the above-mentioned and other signs persist for at least two weeks. On the other hand, there are several more types of depression, including disruptive mood dysregulation disorder, persistent depressive disorder, prenatal and postpartum depression, and reactive depression. The latter one may develop in response to serious life challenges and other factors. Below, we’ll review this condition in detail.

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What is Reactive Depression?

Reactive depression is also known as situational depression. It is defined as a mood reactivity to external stressors. The condition occurs if a person experiences a negative response to stressful circumstances, especially if the stressor is beyond the coping abilities of the individual. Some situational depression symptoms mimic the signs of major depressive disorder though the two conditions are quite distinct.

If reactive depression is mild, the symptoms disappear if the circumstances improve. In case the signs persist despite the positive changes in the root causes, the disorder can transform into a major depressive disorder.

How to Diagnose Reactive Depression

According to the International Classification of Diseases, ICD 10, the definition of reactive depression is an adjustment disorder with depressive emotions. ICD-10 classifies it under the code F43: Reaction to severe stress, and adjustment disorders. This code also covers acute stress and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The disorder is diagnosed if an apparent external stressor is identified as the root cause of the symptoms. The symptoms have to be observed when a person undergoes a stressful event or series of challenging experiences. Typically, the symptoms resolve once the circumstances improve. Still, it can last up to several months.

Causes of Situational Depression

The leading cause of situational depression is external stressors that exceed the capacity of an individual’s coping mechanisms. The causative circumstances can either be positive or negative, including:

  • An accident or a major health condition.
  • Natural calamities such as an earthquake.
  • Relocation.
  • Pregnancy and childbirth.
  • Financial challenges.
  • A break up of a relationship.
  • Grief caused by major losses such as divorce, death, or job loss.
What is reactive depression

Characteristics of Reactive Depression

Symptoms of situational depression vary from one individual to another. Most of the characteristics are similar to the general depression symptoms, including social isolation, lethargic feelings, self-neglect, and changes in daily routine. People’s reactions to external stressors depend on their ability to cope with the challenges.

Some of the common characteristics of depression symptoms include:

  • Anxiety or restlessness
  • Changes in the menstrual cycle in women
  • Eating or sleeping disorders
  • Feelings of lethargy
  • Digestive system complications
  • Significant weight changes
  • General body aches
  • Irritability and regular mood swings
  • Listlessness and apathy
  • Mental and physical fatigue
  • Sadness and feeling tearful
  • Social isolation
  • Suicidal thoughts

Situational depression characteristics should, however, not be of significant concern since they are either mild or short-term.

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Treatment and Management of Reactive Depression

There are three options for reactive depression treatment and management: pharmacology, psychotherapy, and lifestyle changes.

Pharmacological Treatment

  • In case reactive depression is severe, a medical professional can prescribe medications such as:
  • Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors such as Effexor ER (Venlafaxine) and Cymbalta (Duloxetine).
  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors like Celexa (Citalopram) and Zoloft (Sertraline).


Situational depression may be treated with talk therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy:

  • Talk therapy. The discussion focuses on the situation that is the genesis of the disorder. The process empowers a person with skills to deal with stressors to alleviate negative responses.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy. The therapeutic process addresses an individual’s irrational or faulty mental processes toward self or external stressors. The client replaces the faulty cognitive mindset with a positive attitude. As a result, the individual can adopt healthy behavioral patterns.
Reactive depression treatment

Change of Lifestyle

A healthy lifestyle can aid a person to manage mild reactive depression. Some healthy lifestyle changes include:

  • Taking balanced and healthy meals.
  • Doing regular physical exercises.
  • Establishing healthy routines and sleep hygiene.
  • Using physical and mental relaxation techniques such as yoga and meditation.
  • Establishing a social support network.


Reactive depression, or situational depression, is caused by negative responses to stressful external circumstances. The external stressors can either be positive or negative. The condition is diagnosed as an adjustment disorder with depressive moods. Situational depression may be treated or managed through therapy, lifestyle changes, or medications. If you notice that depression symptoms disrupt your normal well-being, consider consulting a mental health professional.


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