There’s a fine line between grief and reactive depression disorder. One is a natural reaction after a trauma and the other may need a little more intervention.

A rose by any other name

As the name implies, reactive depression disorder is a reaction to some outside stimulus. It’s a type of exogenous depression—it comes from outside forces—in contrast to endogenous depression, which comes from biological changes inside your body.

By definition, reactive depression disorder isn’t usually associated with major depression. In fact, it’s also referred to as an “adjustment disorder with depressed mood” to highlight the fact that the person isn’t able to adjust to the outside stress. The afflicted person manifests that inability to adjust with mild to moderate depression.

The situational depression should go away within six months after the trigger ends, otherwise it would be considered more serious form of depression.

Triggers

Causes of reactive depression vary widely. They can be one-time events like the death of a loved one, being a victim of a crime, or the loss of a home due to a fire. Reactive depression can also be caused by recurring events like stress at work or financial hardship. Or the trigger can be a combination of the two—the end of a marriage where you still have to deal with the other person, for instance.

Symptoms

The symptoms of reactive depression mirror the feelings of other depressed states, but are often highlighted by feelings of hopeless or being overwhelmed by the situation. The depression can manifest itself through changes in appetite, inability to sleep, or frequent crying.

Someone with reactive depression may be unable to work or go to school, may withdraw from social activities, and may even increase their use of alcohol or drugs.

Solutions

Depending on the severity of the depression, it may be possible to deal with the depression on your own, or therapy may be the best solution.

If situational depression is caused by ongoing problems, getting out of the situation can improve your mood, but it may not be necessary.  Some people become depressed because there doesn’t seem to be a solution to the problem. In that case, simply developing a plan to get out of the situation can help. For instance, if a stressful job is causing the depression, developing a plan to find a new job can help empower you and make you feel more optimistic long before leaving the job.

It may be helpful to chart your mood over time so you know whether the actions you’re taking to alleviate the stress are working. It’s also helpful to catch yourself becoming more depressed, since it’s easier to make changes when depression is minor. Enlisting the help of a friend or relative to monitor your mood may be useful, as it’s sometimes hard to recognize your own mood. Expanding your support system can go a long ways towards helping you cope with the stress.

While slightly more severe than ordinary grief, reactive depression should go away after the trigger is removed. If it doesn’t, counseling should be sought. There’s no shame in seeking outside help, and a therapist may even be able to help you develop coping skills that will prevent you from slipping into a depressed state the next time a traumatic event occurs.