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Reactive Depression: Symptoms, Causes, & Treatment Options

Reactive depression is depression that is caused “in reaction to” an external event or circumstance. In other words, it is a state of depression that people experience in response to a major stressor such as a break up, death of a family member, divorce, workplace harassment, etc. Any psychosocial incident that causes an individual to react in a state of depression is considered a trigger. Since everyone is different a single stressful event may cause someone to react with depression while another person may not have as severe of a reaction.

This is evidenced by individuals that experience death in the family – certain family members may be able to successfully rebound from feelings of depression while others may “react” with significant depression. Most people that struggle with reactive depression can usually recover from their condition within a period of 6 months through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

What is reactive depression?

Reactive depression is a type of clinical depression that should be distinguished from PTSD – in which a person experiences more significant symptoms. Reactive depression is typically characterized in relationship to the events that caused it. For example, someone who is victim to a burglary or “break in” may experience depression associated with getting robbed.

This depression becomes a concern and needs to be addressed if it persists for an excessive period of time and the individual does not recover.  Eventually this feeling of depression fades and the person will return to normal behavior and emotional outlook. In other words, reactive depression is temporary as opposed to major depression which is generally long term.

If a person isn’t treated with proper therapy for this condition, symptoms may persist and significantly interfere with daily functioning at work, school, and relationships.

Reactive Depression Symptoms

There are a variety of symptoms that people with reactive depression may experience. Everyone reacts differently to stressful events and everyone’s experience with reactive depression is unique. Some people may experience appetite changes and crying spells while others may experience intense anxiety and turn to drugs and alcohol for relief. Below are some of the common symptoms that people experience.

  • Anger: Certain individuals may feel angry as a result of the stressful event that occurred. This anger is typically accompanied with sadness and anxiety.
  • Anxiety: You may feel fearful and or anxious in situations that used to feel relaxing and/or normal. It is common to experience anxiety as a strong comorbid symptom of your depression.
  • Appetite changes: Some people cope with their depression by either eating a lot of food or avoiding food altogether. You may notice yourself not wanting to eat or turning to food as an emotional coping mechanism.
  • Confusion: Sometimes all of the stress and emotional depression can cause people to feel somewhat confused. You may experience memory issues, trouble focusing, and a general confusion about why you haven’t recovered.
  • Crying Spells: Some people experience major crying spells because they are not able to get over the event that caused them to feel depressed. Crying may occur on a daily basis, multiple times a day, or less frequent such as a couple of times per week.
  • Drug abuse: When many people are faced with reactive depression, they don’t know how to cope with the emotional pain so they turn to alcohol and drugs. These are typically not safe or sustainable ways to cope with the condition.
  • Feeling hopeless: Reactive depression can make people feel hopeless about life and the future. It can be tough to pull yourself out of this state, so usually outside intervention via therapy is what is necessary to recover.
  • Headaches: Many people with depression can experience somatic symptoms – headaches are one of the most common. Additionally, stress itself can lead to headaches if not properly dealt with.
  • Insomnia: If you have reactive depression, you may have difficulty sleeping. You may constantly think about how you feel and/or the condition that caused you to react with depression.
  • Irritability: It is common to become irritable when you are depressed. You may become impatient and/or get angry at minor things. Every little thing may get on your nerves or “set you off.”
  • Palpitations: If you have heart palpitations, you may notice that your heart is fluttering, beating rapidly, or irregularly. This is not a major medical condition – rather a symptom of the stress and depression that you are experiencing.
  • Sadness: The sadness that you experience in reaction to an event or circumstance may be intense. When we don’t treat this intense sadness, we stay stuck in a rut.
  • Self-destructive behavior: People may end up engaging in self-destructive behavior such as not taking care of themselves, abusing drugs, not eating, cutting, and/or other reckless behavior.
  • Sleep problems: Many people experience problems staying asleep at night. They may experience broken sleep and/or possibly sleep too much.
  • Social isolation: For certain people, the only way that they can cope with their reactive depression is to isolate themselves from other people. This isn’t a good idea and can actually lead to further depression.
  • Somatic symptoms: People may experience physical symptoms such as pain, gastrointestinal problems, etc. as a result of reactive depression.
  • Suicidal thoughts: It is not uncommon for the depression to become so intense that someone contemplates taking their life. If this is the case, it is important to get yourself in to professional psychologist or psychotherapist for help.
  • Worry: Many people can experience intense worry about the way they feel and the future.

Reactive Depression Causes

There are a variety of triggers for reactive depression. What causes one person to react with intense depression may not have the same effect on another person. Below are some common causes of reactive depression.

  • Abusive relationships: If you are trapped in an abusive relationship and feel as if there is no way out, you may react with extreme depression.
  • Accident: The fact is that people get into accidents all the time. Some people are not able to control their emotional response and end up getting very depressed.
  • Break ups: Breaking up with your significant other is no fun. Although it may be necessary to break up, it may also be emotionally painful – which can trigger reactive depression.
  • Burglary: If you fall victim to a burglary, robbery, and/or theft, you may experience depressive symptoms.
  • Changing jobs: Some people may experience this reactive depression as a result of changing employment.
  • Death in the family: If one of your parents and/or close family members dies, it is common to react feeling depressed. If the depression persists longer than normal, this could be classified as reactive depression. Certain people may also experience this when a close pet passes away.
  • Divorce: Just like break ups, a divorce can lead to extreme emotional reaction, which may be stressful enough to cause reactive depression.
  • Financial problems: Anyone that is in debt, experiencing bad credit, or having difficulty paying off loans can become very depressed.
  • Fire: Losing all of your belongings in a house fire could cause someone to experience this type of depression.
  • Getting fired: Getting laid off or fired from your job can certainly be a trigger.
  • Harassment: This could be a result of harassment at work or school.
  • Loss of a friend: If a close friend moves away, dies, or the relationship is terminated, you may end up not being able to get over the depression.
  • Moving: Change of environment or moving to a new city, moving homes, or something as simple as switching apartments can result in reactive depression.
  • Natural disaster: If you fall victim to a natural disaster such as a hurricane, tornado, flood, etc. you may lose your home and possessions. In this case, you may experience a state of reactive depression until you come to psychological grips with your situation.
  • Retirement: Although retirement tends to have a generally positive connotation, certain people end up depressed because they don’t know how to live without the structure of a job and socialization from their employer.
  • Struggling in school: Getting bad grades or even a bad report card can make certain individuals feel as though they are a total failure. Certain people can get really depressed over a bad report card.
  • Work: Simply being at a job that you hate or getting harassed could lead to depression.

Reactive Depression Treatment Options

There are a few different treatment options for reactive depression. Most people respond best to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Any trained psychologist or psychotherapist will likely be able to help people come to grips with this condition and help them get over the hump. If the person isn’t recovering, then antidepressants may be recommended.

  1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – Cognitive behavioral therapy works by addressing the underlying depression and helps the individual by suggesting behavior changes as well as changes in thinking. This technique involves using rational thinking in combination with behavioral changes to overcome the “reactive” behavior.
  2. Psychotherapy – Other psychotherapeutic approaches may be beneficial to individuals with this type of depression. Simple talk therapy can help people express their emotions and come up with a plan to overcome the way they are feeling.
  3. Self-Care – It is important to take good care of yourself while experiencing this type of depression. Make sure that you are eating as well as possible, getting adequate sleep, utilizing relaxation techniques to reduce stress, and getting exercise.  For more information, read about natural cures for depression.
  4. Social Support – Sometimes something as simple as having a good social support network can help people bounce back from their depressive state.
  5. Antidepressants – Sometimes if CBT and/or psychotherapy doesn’t seem to be working, a person may be prescribed antidepressants to help them cope and bounce back from their condition. Typically if someone is on antidepressants to treat reactive depression, it is only a temporary stint just to help them get over the emotional hump.

The prognosis for this condition is very good. Most people end up responding to treatment relatively quick once the underlying problem is addressed and the person is given tools to help them cope. Most people recover within months of ongoing professional treatment.

Have you ever had to deal with reactive depression? Most people have.

If you have had to deal with reactive depression and/or are struggling with it right now, feel free to share your comments and/or experiences in the comments section below. This is a common condition that many people have to deal with as a result of life stressors. Not everyone may admit that they have this condition or even know that they have it so often times it goes unreported.

However, if you know that you are depressed in response to a certain circumstance such as an abusive relationship or recent loss of a family member, this is reactive depression. Feel free to share your thoughts and/or successful ways of coping below.

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{ 16 comments… add one }
  • zencat June 28, 2014, 5:03 pm

    Excellent article and summary.

  • Tina October 17, 2014, 1:57 am

    I have reactive depression and it’s killing me. I’m writing a book about it because I want to help others.

    • Kim March 8, 2016, 3:26 am

      Can you help me?

  • Rebecca May 15, 2015, 6:34 pm

    I am not sure if what I have is reactive depression. I have always had a hard time with interpersonal relationships. Not so much friendships. I have difficulty communicating and can become angry very easily. I grew up in an alcoholic household. My father was very cruel verbally and occasionally he would lash out physically. I was the family scapegoat, and eventually turned to drugs and alcohol at a young age. Starting around 11 years old.

    I am over 25 years sober and have still always struggled to have a healthy, supportive, and loving relationship. I was extremely close to my mother, and she recently died (18 months ago). I have been a wreck. My current relationship is crumbling…and of course I am taking it all on. It’s hard to know if my anger, impatience, and anxiety is mainly due to my reaction to the grief or if it’s a combination of things. (I think I just answered my own question!! Ha!)

    I am experiencing every symptom mentioned above except the somatic and destructive behavior. I want to have love in my life and don’t know if I’ll ever have the lasting kind. I wish I knew which treatment would be best for me. With or without a relationship. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Thank’s so much. Great article.

    • Lauren June 13, 2015, 8:23 pm

      I didn’t get support from my family. They’re not evil, or abusive. They’re normal. They just thought because my symptoms started when I was 11 I was a moody teenager. Like everyone else. They didn’t know that “moodiness” would lead to 3 years of my life being stolen from me, because I didn’t know what depression was. And then when I finally understood, a further 5 years to pluck up the courage to ask for help.

      The fact that YOU are asking, shows how far you’ve come. You should be proud of that kind of strength. I’m no expert, just have personal experience. But I would suggest a GP. Go see your doctor. Tell them everything you have written above. Explain you are asking for help. And most importantly, let them. It’s hard accepting help when you feel you don’t deserve it. Much easier to push them away. But everyone deserves happiness. Everyone deserves to feel safe.

      Your GP should speak with you and discuss your options, whether that be anti depressants, CBT or any other kind of therapy. It can be a little daunting at first, but it’s worth it. The only way I can describe it was like finally being able to breathe. I had been taking my tablets like clockwork for 3 days, and one day I woke up and BAM! – I felt normal. My mind was calm, I was looking forward to the day.

      I climbed out of bed and there was no rush of anxiety, forcing me catch my breath. I could breathe easy. I wasn’t treading water anymore. I was swimming. Nothing prepares you for that feeling, but it’s the best in the world. And you deserve that. Good luck, I hope you get the help you deserve, but you’ve taken the hardest step. You’ve asked for help. You should be proud :-)

  • Paula July 31, 2015, 11:52 pm

    I was “diagnosed” with this type of depression. My dad wasn’t very aware and my mom always called me out and said “stop crying” or “nothing gets solved with crying” and stuff like that. She’s more supportive now but I still feel like I can’t tell her much. Whenever something happens to me that triggers my depression I feel like I’m in a dark hole and I can’t get out of it.

    This became I bit worse when I moved to the U.S. (I’m originally from Chile) and it’s been very difficult to make friends, I may have 2 and I got married 4 years ago but I feel like my husband doesn’t like the emotional part of me so I constantly feel like I have to hide my feelings and then something small happens that upsets and I explode and things get worse.

    I don’t know what to do now. I’ve tried to find a therapist but I feel like even doing that is difficult for me. I’m also trying to get pregnant and haven’t been successful. You can only imagine how many rivers I’ve cried. Well, if you read this, thanks in advance for taking the time. Same if you respond.

  • M October 23, 2015, 7:38 pm

    Yes, going through it right now. First time in my life I can’t stop crying. Breakup is not the cause it’s just a trigger. Been dealing with anxiety for some amount of time, and didn’t get talk therapy I needed, so I went on my own. I did try SSRIs but they numb me, and I get awful side effects. So when I got out of dissociation, I feel real pain regarding the break-up. This is just the tip of the iceberg, because life has not gone well the last few months. An my whole life I took care of others while dismissing my needs. So in that state right now, and have no problem admitting it. This is a way of my body showing me that it is time to straighten things out and work on myself.

  • Mel January 13, 2016, 12:15 pm

    I feel this may be what I’m dealing with, but feel like I’m a fool as my life is on the whole wonderful, but recently something has upset me and I can’t let it go. I think about it all day and most days I’m either upset or angry over it. I cry a lot over it and this has been going on for 10 months now. The incident itself shouldn’t upset me to the length it has so I can’t understand what’s going on. And I’m not sure what to do from here!

    • J February 27, 2016, 11:59 pm

      Hi Mel. I hope you’re feeling a little better since writing this. I just wanted to say that I felt the same as you, I didn’t know where to turn as I was used to people leaning on me rather than the other way round and have always been the strong one. My life is wonderful too, but I had reactive depression last year caused by a number of triggers; I withdrew from everyone and didn’t know where to turn.

      I can’t recommend counseling enough – it has literally changed my life. Having someone to talk to who understands has freed me from all the sadness and I’m finally able to see my life for how wonderful it is again. I wish you happiness.

  • Lil' March 14, 2016, 6:49 am

    I have read the article. I have read comments from other people here. I was told of this reactive depression two days ago. I do not like it! Quite frankly I detest it. A person stepped out of my life today as a friend because they were able to bring someone (counselor) to my attention I would agree to sit with a moment. I have had multiple reasons to have a diagnosis of sort put upon me.

    My reactions to life have never improved since being an youth which has been a long time. “Reactive depression is depression that is caused “in reaction to” an external event or circumstance.” I am seen as an inspiration to many as I am told because of all the things I have survived through. The only thing I see through my eyes is I have to move forward no matter what people think. When I am in uncomfortable situations I acclimate.

    I did this acclimation this week with some people because I saw where it was necessary for someone else to gain some information from me. That is what took place two ago. My friend thought (assumed) that since I had acclimated to a needed situation outside of me. The thought (assumed) was I was already making an improvement since I had seen this counselor just 15 minutes prior to me seeing my friend.

    I can raise my hands to too many causes of reactive depression; “in reaction to.” This is a mere article on what the two words together define. My reaction to it is there is truth on the matter. I just wish I did not have to lose a good friend on a lack thereof of information in two directions.

  • Iris Walls April 12, 2016, 8:04 pm

    I lost my only brother in Jan 2015, and got extremely stressed because I couldn’t get back to the UK for his funeral. Then in July 2015, I had blood clots in my lungs, was twice resuscitated, and very fragile. I was beginning to function better when in November 2015, my daughter got stressed out re her marriage, came to my house, said some dreadful things, and we neither met or spoke for 3 months until the end of Feb this year.

    She invited me to lunch two days before Mother’s Day, and it was all I could do to stifle back my tears. For a few weeks after I cried daily wondering why all this had happened, and why she had treated me this way. Now I feel very tense in the tummy region and very anxious too. Is this reactive depression, and can it happen after the issue has been resolved? I feel emotionally drained, burnt out.

  • rannbo April 13, 2016, 1:55 am

    No, I don’t want to hurt anyone. I just want to be free of this and not be afraid of it coming to bite me in the ass.

  • erica m June 6, 2016, 2:26 am

    Just learned that I may have this, going through some crazy stuff right now… feels like I’m falling apart. All I want to do is cry or sleep, I start therapy tomorrow. I hope it helps.

  • Jason July 4, 2016, 6:49 pm

    I have reactive depression, and it’s not surprising considering I lost a brother late in 2015, am out of work and getting by on a pension, abused psychologically and emotionally by my mother, grew up in a poor family where my parents fought constantly until violence erupted, was physically abused and constantly intimidated by my brother. Have a severe eating disorder, turned to drugs and alcohol for years and quit, parents separated and a few years later, divorced, can’t hold down a job, failed at School and walked away from the woman I should have married because I couldn’t handle the situation.

    Had a psychotic episode and pumped up on medication which took me from 90 to 205 kg and climbing! What has sustained me is faith in Jesus Christ. You can say, “well, whatever gets you through”, and dismiss me as a nong, but it was God’s love that stopped me from walking into a dam, putting my head under the water and breathing it into my lungs! His love stopped me from blowing my brains through the top of my head!

    My troubles aren’t over, but my relationship with God sustains me and He’s healing me all the time. He’s recovered my relationships with family members through prayer and I’m going to have weight loss surgery and I’ll recover the rest of my life beyond that. I’m not certain so far, but I’m sure God is calling me into Christian ministry/ pastoral care role. Do not write yourself off!

    A noted Christian minister wrote that when Satan attacks you, take heart because it’s a sure sign that God has great blessing in store for you and he’s trying to keep you from it. Keep ploughing, you’ll get there!

  • Iris Walls July 15, 2016, 11:47 am

    Is this reactive depression? Lost my brother last year… I was in NZ and couldn’t get back to UK for funeral. Then I had pulmonary embolisms, followed by vertigo. I had a few winter months feeling better, but in April I started feeling anxious/depressed again. This was followed by pneumonia and labyrinthitis. Will the labyrinthitis leave residual anxieties? I’m not coping well with things I was quite happy doing beforehand. Thanks, Iris

  • Amber August 29, 2016, 6:23 am

    My dad was recently diagnosed with DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder/Multiple Personality Disorder). My parents have been married for 20 years now and I don’t think it’ll last much longer. Sadly because of my dad’s diagnosis and because my mom has been madly dependent on him for the 20 years, she has lost who she is and now shows all the symptoms of Reactive Depression.

    Both my parents now have to learn how to survive without each other and my dad is doing well but my mom is freaking out! She is perfectly fine in the day and says hopeful things (probably because she is on anti-depressants) then all of a sudden at night she will throw a fit and cry uncontrollably saying she isn’t going to survive without my dad and she is completely hopeless.

    My dad is also emotionally stunted so his job at the moment is to work on maturing himself, which means that he can’t actually be there for us or my mom. This makes my moms condition worse. We have a very good support system and my mom is seeing a psychologist but I haven’t seen any changes yet and I worry about our future because of how hopeless she is.

    I don’t quite know what to do at his point.

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