Differences Between Situational Depression and Clinical Depression

Depression has several typologies and the most serious is major or clinical depressive disorder. Knowing its characteristics helps you know when it is important to act. We explain it in the following text.
Differences Between Situational Depression and Clinical Depression
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 11 June, 2024

Situational depression and clinical depression look alike, but they’re not the same. While both exhibit high emotional suffering, feelings of hopelessness, and sleep disturbances, clinical depression manifests in a more serious way. In fact, it configures what we know as major depressive disorder. Indeed, the psychosocial exhaustion that the clinical depression sufferer experiences is immense.

However, all patients diagnosed with major depression will previously have suffered from a situational depressive state. And, if they don’t possess adequate coping mechanisms to face the stressful events of life, this results in far more severe states.

Any traumatic experience can trigger situational depression.

Differences between situational depression and clinical depression

The main difference between situational depression and clinical depression is that the former develops in direct response to an adverse event. Losing a loved one is the most common example. It’s important to bear in mind that we all, at some point, can find ourselves going through this type of unforeseen emotional pain.

Life isn’t easy. Difficult situations and twists of fate can suddenly place us in states of great emotional vulnerability. This is when the substrates of milder depression can be formed. If they’re not addressed, they outline a severe clinical picture. Therefore, it’s important to know the differences between situational depression and clinical depression. They’re as follows:

1. Triggers: situational depression has clear causes

When we look back, most of us will be aware that we’ve been through some really hard times. Some of us will have faced them adequately. However, others will have found them to be more difficult. Situational depression appears after a traumatic or highly stressful experience. It results in a state of understandable suffering.

Psychologists define this characteristic as adjustment disorder because it appears as a response to a specific and identifiable psychosocial stressor. These are extremely harsh and unexpected experiences that exceed the psychological resources available to the individual.

Research conducted by the University of Melbourne (Australia) mentioned the following triggers for adjustment disorder:

  • Loss of a job.
  • Interrelational conflicts.
  • The death of a loved one.
  • Financial problems.
  • Witnessing a violent act.
  • Seeing their own life threatened by an attack.
  • Experiencing really stressful, but not traumatic situations.
  • Dealing with an illness (their own or of someone extremely close).

On the other hand, with regard to clinical depression, it’s not easy to clarify a specific origin. In fact, it’s the combination of many accumulated stressful events and suffering that’s not been adequately managed. A study published in Neuroscience Bulletin also alleges the involvement of biological and neurobiological variables.

Clinical depression is often accompanied by suicidal ideation. This doesn’t occur with situational depression.

2. Severity: clinical depression manifests in major depressive disorder

When a person goes for three to six months without addressing their situational depression (adjustment disorder), clinical depression can develop. In these cases, emotional, mental, and behavioral exhaustion is extremely pronounced. Moreover, the sufferer finds it hard to carry out their daily tasks.

To better understand the differences between situational depression and clinical depression, let’s see how they manifest.

You might be interested to read Useful Activities for Sufferers of Depression

Situational depression

  • Anxiety.
  • Feeling like crying.
  • Sleep disturbances.
  • Constant worry.
  • Need for isolation.
  • Changes in eating patterns.
  • Problems making decisions.
  • Feeling overwhelmed by circumstances.
  • Struggling emotionally in the face of a specific situation the sufferer finds overwhelming.
  • A temporary condition that resolves after one to three months.
  • Feelings of sadness and hopelessness combined with nervousness.

Clinical depression or major depression

  • Desire to cry.
  • Lack of energy.
  • Persistent feelings of hopelessness.
  • Irritability and bad mood.
  • Musculoskeletal pain.
  • Alterations in eating, sleeping, and digestive patterns.
  • Cognitive problems. For example, lack of attention, memory failures, etc.
  • Apathy and anhedonia (difficulty feeling positive emotions).
  • A general malaise of unknown origin.
  • Suicidal ideation. A study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry confirms this fact, along with the need for early detection of clinical depression.

Situational depression is a normal reaction to an adverse life event. It usually goes away on its own without the support of drugs.

3. Treatments for situational depression and clinical depression

One of the main differences between situational depression and clinical depression is the fact that the former can go away on its own without professional intervention. After all, stressful life events are frequent and it’s normal to develop adjustment disorder in response to these kinds of situations. We all find it difficult to process unexpected twists of fate.

However, the most emotionally vulnerable people with fewer coping skills are at risk of developing major depression. In fact, this is the main characteristic that can’t be ignored. If an individual feels unable to face an adverse event, they should request specialized help. Let’s take a look at the most appropriate treatments for these two different types of depression.

Treatment for situational depression

Situational depression doesn’t always require therapy or drug treatment. In fact, the sufferer simply needs to live through the pain and accept their emotions.

A study conducted by the Hannover Medical School (Germany) claims that metacognitive therapy is useful in patients suffering from adjustment disorder. It’s a brief approach aimed at working on dysfunctional thoughts. The following strategies can also be useful:

  • Social connection.
  • Yoga and mindfulness.
  • Practicing new hobbies.
  • Adequate rest time.
  • Techniques for regulating stress.
  • Methods of emotional regulation.
  • Good psychosocial support.
  • Getting involved in new projects and personal goals.
  • Understanding that the pain is temporary and won’t last forever.

Treatment for clinical depression

  • Psychosocial support.
  • Behavioral activation.
  • Self-care techniques.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy.
  • Treatment with psychoactive drugs.
  • Acceptance and commitment therapy.

Not all of us face adversity in the same way. Some people have a neurobiological predisposition to handle stress better. Others are overwhelmed by circumstances such as a job loss or a relationship breakup. There’s a fine line between situational and clinical depression.

Risk factors

Now you know the differences between situational depression and clinical depression, you might be wondering what factors contribute to an individual moving from suffering adjustment disorder to major depression.

In fact, there’s a rather fine line between one sphere and the other. Consequently, there are subtle variables that should be taken into account, both to prevent the condition and take action.

People with an adverse and difficult childhood are at higher risk of suffering from clinical depression or major depression. This will cause any stressful event to overwhelm them and they’ll be unable to handle it effectively. Indeed, an article published in Frontiers in Psychology suggests that difficult experiences in childhood are elements of risk. Some more risk factors are as follows:

  • Not having a good support network.
  • An extremely rigid, inflexible, and negative mental approach.
  • Difficulty regulating stress and anxiety.
  • Exhibiting a neurotic personality or emotional instability.
  • Suffering from other psychological disorders. For instance, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, etc.

Help in coping with depression

To conclude, regardless of whether or not we present these risk components, we mustn’t ignore the fact that psychological therapy is an ideal and effective resource, both in preventing and treating depression.

Finally, it’s worth remembering that asking for help when dealing with challenging circumstances doesn’t make us weak. On the contrary, it means we’re responsible people who want to take care of our health.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.