What’s the Difference Between Situational and Clinical Depression?


Depression is a complicated illness that may come from various causes; it can feel and look different depending on the person.  More than 25 million Americans per year are estimated to meet the criteria for a depressive disorder.  Yet, the media often portrays depression as simply sadness, which does not do justice to suffering on such a large scale. 

The symptoms of depression are as varied as those who experience it.  Let’s take a look at what depression looks like, according to scientific literature.

Depression is:

  • Uncontrollable irritability.
  • Losing interest in things you love to do.
  • Eating a lot or not eating enough.
  • Sleeping too much or very little.
  • Moving or speaking slowly, or feeling that you are moving or speaking slowly.
  • Feelings of guilt or hopelessness.
  • Unexplained body or mental fatigue.
  • Difficulty concentrating or sitting still. 
  • Decreased motivation. 
  • Feelings of emptiness or apathy.
  • Negative thinking and sensitivity to negative situations.

A person may experience all or only a few of these symptoms.  However, feelings of sadness slowed motor movement, limited emotional affect, apathy, and hypersomnia are more common than their opposite counterparts.


What is Situational Depression?

Depressed behavior may be due to a single event.  For example, a job loss could result in a person not getting out of bed in the morning.  The positive reinforcement of laying in bed instead of facing the anxiety of looking at job postings makes the behavior more likely to continue. While this stimulus-response explanation is justified by research, many scientists don’t like to categorize situational depression as different from clinical depression that persists through several episodes.

According to a 1983 article published in Psychoneuroendocrinology titled “Situational Depression and the Dexamethasone Suppression Test,” situations that create the conditions for clinical depression are the same as those for situational clinical depression:  hereditary components, the severity of symptoms, and the presence of psychosis. Other studies have had difficulty determining if a difference exists and if there truly is a cause for situational depression.

In clinically depressed patients, there is a cycle of depression (depressive episodes come and go several times throughout the year).  The onset of the cycle may be a stressful situation, which may be the only difference between the two. 


What is Clinical Depression?

Clinical depression significantly inhibits a person’s daily life; they cannot function on a day-to-day basis without intervention from a therapist or medication.

Unfortunately, in the 1990 article “Vulnerability to Depression: Personal, Situational, and Family Aspects,”  Constance Hammen suggests that those who experience situational depression may be more inclined to experience cycles of depression that can lead to clinical depression. The leading indicator that depression will occur is the history of depression.


5 Techniques to Cope With Situational Depression

Situational and clinical depression are similar processes with similar treatments.  If situational depression occurs, it is important to seek and sustain treatment, to avoid slipping into a clinical cycle.


Here are some techniques to help cope with the depression that stemmed from a negative situation:

#1 Seek therapy specific for the feelings associated with the adverse event.  For example, seek grief counseling to cope with the loss of a loved one.  Seek therapy to focus on the feelings of sadness, fear, and hopelessness that may occur with job loss.  In addition, consider learning new job skills and increase your marketability.

#2 Journal frequently about your journey through the depressive event.  According to the 2018 article “Online Positive Affect Journaling in the Improvement of Mental Distress and Well-Being in General Medical Patients With Elevated Anxiety Symptoms: A Preliminary Randomized Controlled Trial,”  the authors found that analyzing your emotions and self-correcting through journaling increases your emotional resilience, which may decrease your chances of another bout of depression. 

#3 Create tangible goals and challenges for yourself.  In the 2008 article published in Practice: Social Work in Action, author Stewart Collins found that perceived control of a situation, and small achievements that increase confidence and self-satisfaction, are proven ways to improve your ability to bounce back from hardship.

#4 Love something. There is evidence that pets may provide benefits for those suffering from depression and trauma. 

#5 Exercise several times a week. Not only does exercise provide short-term and immediate relief, but it may also provide long-term benefits to reduce depression.


Learning coping mechanisms and techniques to prevent future episodes of depression is a significant factor in recovery from a depressive episode.  However, seeking the help of a professional who can help make your results long-lasting is perhaps more critical. 


Situational and clinical depression have long been perceived to be different disease processes. However, recent scientific studies have had trouble identifying distinguishing differences between the two, besides an inciting event. People who have been depressed are more likely to be depressed again; this poses a risk to people who have experienced situational depression. A depressed individual, whether situationally or clinically, should learn coping techniques to build their emotional resilience and understand their emotions to lessen their symptoms. Therapy, journaling, goal-setting, caretaking, and exercise are all proven methods to decrease depression. Here at Casa Recovery, we can help you to make positive strides in your mental health.  We offer coping skills training, life skills training, holistic treatment, and many different therapeutic modalities to help you avoid a future depressive episode or mitigate the effects if one occurs. Call or text (888) 928-2272 to talk to a professional about treatment options today.

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