Reactive Depression

Do you suffer from reactive depression?

You can think of depression as an umbrella term that covers a range of depressive disorders.

The term reactive depression refers to an event related depression that has been brought on in reaction to an event in one’s life.

The symptoms of reactive depression may take time to develop, sometimes coming on months after the trigger event.

  • It is not just bad things that can trigger reactive depression,
  • It can be a reaction to a happy event such as childbirth.

When depression is a reaction to a particular stimulus

Whereas some kinds of depression are thought to have an organic, or genetic component, a reactive depressive episode can be traced to a particular stimulus.

The question you have to find a way to engage with is; what is the event that triggered this reaction?


Seeing the link that has triggered a reactive depression

A lot of my work involves helping people to make links between their depressive experiences and the events that have triggered them.  It is common to find that we deal with certain kinds of shocks by trying to put them out of our minds.  We can be very good at doing this.  We find a way to forget the thing that has shocked and upset us.

This can make it hard for us to trace our way back to the trigger event.  Instead we become distracted when we try to think about it.  As this happens, symptoms start to develop. In time we become more caught up in the depressive symptoms that have developed and lose touch with the event that triggered them.

Freud and repression; when defensive reactions obscure the cause of depression

Freud referred to this kind of phenomena as repression.  For Freud, it is possible for us to repress the disagreeable part of our thinking and experience.  The act of repression makes these things unconscious.  In Freud’s model the unconscious is made up of all of the things that we have repressed.

The problem is that though they are repressed, they return via slips of the tongue and accidental acts.  Freud referred to this as the return of the repressed.


Reactive depression; a clinical example

A 47 year old man developed a depressive illness six months after a problem in his marriage.  He had become involved with a woman he worked with and spent the night with her while on a business trip.

His wife knew that something had taken place while he was away and quizzed him about it.  Finding himself under pressure, instead of finding a way to admit what had happened, he denied everything.  Later he said that he had forgotten what had happened on the trip.

Quite quickly, in the same way as he had denied his wife’s questions, he denied the events had taken place to himself as well.

The denial provided him with a water tight defense against any wrong doing and his own guilt, but the price of maintaining this fiction was that he developed symptoms of depression.

He became increasingly stressed and anxious, became quick to anger, and developed problems sleeping.

In time he came to see me to get help with these symptoms.

When he came to see me there was no acknowledgement of the underlying story of infidelity, he simply wanted me to help him find a way to sleep.

As we started to work together our conversation arrived back at his business trip and his anger with his wife’s questions and allegations.  Initially he put the same defense to me that he had done to his wife.  Then, one day, he stopped denying it and told me about the night he had spent with his colleague.

The strength of his depressive symptoms lessened as he admitted to himself the facts of what had happened.  It was as though another person had entered the room.

He began to see that his depression was a reaction to the whole episode. It left him with a problem in his marriage, but now he was more aware of the truth of the matter.

Treating reactive depression

Currently the dominant approach to these types of reactive depressive symptoms is by trying to jog the sufferer away and out of his symptoms, to change the way he behaves and acts.

We are encouraged to think that if we can change our thinking our problems will disappear. This approach may not be helpful, particularly when it is important to trace the depression back to the thing that it has been formed by reaction to.

Sometimes it is necessary to get at the root cause, to treat the underlying problem rather than just focussing on the presenting symptoms.


The symptoms are important and need attention, but they can be a reaction to something which needs to be addressed.

If you are suffering from a reactive depression

you may find it more helpful to take time to go over the history of the depression, to look beyond the symptoms and to, as it were, give yourself the chance to pinpoint the events that have triggered the depressive reaction.

If you can understand that the depression is a reaction to something that has happened, it can make it much easier to know how to treat it.

Otherwise you can be left thinking that the depression is perhaps something you were born with, perhaps a faulty genetic psychological constitution.

There may be something in these ideas, but they can make it harder for you to spot the fact that your depression is a reaction to something that has happened to you.

Contact me

I have twenty years experience of helping people find ways to engage with issues like these. Contact me to arrange a free telephone consultation to discuss how my work might help you.