Feeling Down Lately? It Might Be Situational Depression

From global pandemics to other life stressors
Depression, Pandemic, Stress, COVID-19, Situational Depression

The coronavirus pandemic has caused an array of negativity, but perhaps one of the biggest has been the collective, underlying feeling of grief.

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People are sad about the state of the world, losing loved ones, restrictions and mask rules. We’re grieving our old sense of normal, long lost routines and all of the changes this year has brought.

With all this considered, it’s no wonder that a global pandemic is the perfect storm for situational depression. But unlike clinical depression, this type of sadness is often triggered by a traumatic or stressful event or change in your life.

Behavioral health therapist Jane Pernotto Ehrman, MEd, RCHES, ACHT, discusses what situational depression is and how to treat it.   

What is situational depression?

You might have already experienced episodes of situational depression in the past without even knowing what it was. Triggers can include: 

  • The death of a friend, family member or pet.
  • A divorce or other relationship problem.
  • The loss of a job (or even getting a new job).
  • Moving.
  • An illness or difficult diagnosis.
  • Family problems or fights.
  • Retirement.
  • Having a baby.
  • Experiencing a natural disaster or crime.
  • Work or school issues. 
  • A car accident.
  • A global pandemic.

“Many people are experiencing situational depression right now because of COVID-19 without even realizing what’s actually happening to them,” says Ehrman. “You might be asking yourself ‘why do I feel so sad or angry?’ or ‘why am I so exhausted all the time?’ or maybe you’re having a hard time focusing on work or school.”

Depression and anxiety can be scary for everyone, but especially if you’ve never experienced it before. To these people, the feelings can be daunting and they might feel like they’re losing control.

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Ehrman says situational depression varies from person to person, but it can include:

  • Sadness and grief.
  • Feeling hopeless.
  • Constant fear or worry.
  • Trouble focusing or sleeping.
  • Anger.
  • A change in appetite.
  • Loss of interest in normal activities.
  • Trouble carrying out usual tasks.
  • Feeling overwhelmed by stress or anxiety.
  • Frequent crying.

Can situational depression become clinical depression?

Situational and clinical depression are similar, but not the same.

  • Situational depression stems from a traumatic or stressful event and the person is struggling to come to terms with changes relating to it. This type of depression usually manifest within three months of the event or change.
  • Clinical depression (or major depression) is more severe than situational depression, but it’s important to point out that no type of depression is more “real” or easier to handle than another. Every type of depression is a mental disorder that involves complicated emotions and struggles. With clinical depression, the main symptom is a depressed or low mood on most days for a long period of time. A depressed mood often interferes with a person’s ability to work, sleep, eat and enjoy themselves by any means. 

Typically, people with situational depression will notice mood improvements a few days or weeks after the stressful event has ended or enough time has passed. However, it’s possible that if the event triggering the situational depression continues, or if the person never fully addresses it, it could turn into clinical depression later down the road.   

Can situational depression be treated?  

The good news is that situational depression is an adjustment disorder, which usually makes it somewhat short-lived. Many times, the event or stressor that is triggering your depression will end or enough time will pass that it will resolve on its own.

Some people can manage situational depression themselves. Often times learning to cope with the situation involves making a deliberate plan and lifestyle changes.

Ehrman recommends these actions:

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  • Eat well. Focus on lean protein, fruits, veggies, nuts, beans and whole grains.
  • Make sleep a priority. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Keeping some sort of routine will make you feel more structured and in control.
  • Move your body. From weight loss, to brain health and happiness – there are many reasons to be active and exercise. But don’t think you need to spend hours in the gym to reap the reward. Sometimes a brisk walk is enough to get those endorphins flowing. 
  • Spend time in nature. Being outdoors can help you feel more relaxed and recharged. Plus, immersing yourself in fresh air and sunshine can help regulate your wake-sleep cycles.
  • Find a healthy way to express anger. If rage rooms aren’t your thing, Ehrman recommends learning how to throw a healthy, adult temper tantrum. From blasting loud music, to writing, to punching a pillow – find what works for you.   
  • Write down your thoughts. Try using the “hot pen” method, which means that when you sit down to write, write whatever comes to mind for however long you need. Don’t worry about grammar, spelling or even if it makes sense. Afterwards, keep it or shred it up. 
  • Practice meditation and breathing exercises. Did you know your brain can adapt to what’s going on around you? The concept is called neuroplasticity. Unlike a computer that has specific hardware and abilities, we can rewire our brains to be more responsive and less reactive to situational depression. A powerful way to do this is through meditation and breathing exercises. Repeating and meditating on a mantra, like “I am peaceful and calm” for just 15 minutes, 4 to 5 days a week is enough to make you more aware and combat negative thoughts.
  • Try a gratitude journal. Do you realize that if you wrote down three good things that happened to you every day, at the end of a year you could look back on 1,095 positive experiences? There’s plenty of science backing up why gratitude journals are so good for our mental health.
  • Take time to sit with your feelings. Make space to express uncomfortable feelings. Our emotions aren’t right or wrong, says Ehrman. If you feel sadness, think about where you feel it. Maybe it’s a heaviness in your chest or on your shoulders. You might not know exactly what’s causing your sadness or you might have an idea why, but it’s important to acknowledge our feelings and honor them. 

How long is too long to feel sad?

Sadness is a normal human emotion. We all feel sad from time to time, especially when unfortunate events happen or things change.

So if you’re still sad, but able to get up, get dressed and go to work every day – how do you know when it crosses the line and you should seek help?

Ehrman says that if you’re noticing that your situational depression seems to be lasting for several weeks with no real breakthroughs, it might be time to talk to someone who can help you cope better.

Talking about your problems or feelings with someone who isn’t personally involved can ease your recovery and help you identify triggers. A professional therapist understands that it might be hard for you to talk about what you’re going through, but they won’t judge you or rush you.

Often times a therapist can help you determine if what you’re experiencing is just a funk, or if it’s something much more serious. And just because the world is going through a global pandemic doesn’t mean you should suffer in silence. People go to therapy for reasons big and small.

“Depression is a lot like looking at life through a keyhole,” explains Ehrman. “If all you can see is your problem or your struggle – you lose sight of perspective and everything else that’s going on around you. People with really strong depression have lost the capacity to imagine a future. If you start to feel that way and like your sadness has started to affect everything, it’s a red flag to get help.”  

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