Reactive depression: 3 signs that you have Experienced an emotional shock

Young girl covering her face with her hands

Difficult life events put our psyche to the test: if the solidity of our personal construction is a determining factor in holding up to the shock and avoiding collapse, we must be able to show flexibility in order to welcome difficult emotions and not sink into a reactionary depression.

Emotional shock or trauma is always about loss. We are aware of having to accept the loss of another person in the case of a bereavement or a break-up, for example, but when it is a loss linked to an illness, an accident or an aggression, it also refers to the loss of physical and psychological integrity or, at the very least, to the loss of a feeling of security. Traumatic events thus confront the person who has experienced them with the need to accept change and to implement inner transformations that will allow him or her, in the more or less long term, to regain balance.

Sometimes the emotions and/or psychic conflicts that the traumatic event awakens and activates are too difficult to accept in the short term. It is thus possible that you find yourself frozen in a state of shock and unable to process what you have just experienced in order to continue to move forward.

These post-traumatic disorders can manifest themselves in various ways, and in a particular cause, a reactionary depression, linked to the exhaustion of your resources and the psychological distress into which you are plunged by this inner struggle to integrate the traumatic experience.

If you have experienced a trauma and you think that your psychological balance has been disturbed by this shock to the point of depression, here are the 3 clues that will help you discover this. Don’t hesitate to take the following test to find out the nature of your depression.


An emotional shock refers to an event that momentarily overwhelms an individual’s psychological self-regulation capacities: the internal conflicts that the event brings to the surface and/or its emotional charge are too great to be fully processed and integrated by the brain. These disorders, if they are long-lasting, can evolve into a trauma with multiple consequences on the psychological health, among which depressive symptoms are frequently found: we then speak of reactionary depression.


Reactional depression (or exogenous depression) is distinct from endogenous depression, which is a depressive episode that cannot be associated with an external cause, and which most often occurs in the context of pre-existing and often chronic mood disorders.

An accumulation of psychic micro-tensions due to harmless and difficult to identify events can be at the origin of the development of a reactive depression for a given person in the absence of a depressive background, whereas an emotional shock can also trigger a depressive episode in a vulnerable person suffering from mood disorders.

In short, the specificity of reactive depression is its symptom function: it reflects the individual’s difficulty in integrating new psychic data likely to destabilize his or her entire structure. Unlike other forms of depression, reactive depression is a way of managing internal conflicts that can be identified by analyzing the context and the associated psychological issues.

More precisely, reactional depression is a specific manifestation of the emotional return of a traumatic event or an emotional shock, i.e. a destabilizing life experience that calls into question your psychological and personal balance, through your feeling of security and the meaning you give to life.


Certain signs, or clues, can help you recognize the fact that you have experienced an emotional shock and thus explain in part your depressive state

Clue #1: A disturbing sense of identity

Very often, the psychic load of a shock cannot be treated in the direct continuity it. Dissociative disorders can appear in this case, which corresponds to the need for an individual to preserve himself by cutting himself off from difficult emotional experiences that he does not have the capacity to integrate psychically. The person evolves then as separated from himself and from a whole part of his interior life.

The feeling of identity can be disturbed, with the impression of a break from a previous state. This type of disorder is characteristic of emotional shock and is the first sign that you have been confronted with a traumatic experience.

Clue #2: Stress in response to shock

More or less acute manifestations of stress may also appear, often associated with memory and sensory revivals (images, memories, sounds, smells, etc.) linked to the traumatic event. They arrive in bits and pieces and often by surprise to the consciousness, like invasive reminiscences that demand to emerge and that the latter tries to contain.

Some definitions, such as those used mainly by psychiatrists, limit the notion of a traumatic event to events that “objectively exposed [people] to death or threats of death, serious injury or violence”.

However, it is important to also take into account other types of emotional experiences that can trigger reactive depression without constituting genuine traumas: professional difficulties such as the loss of a job or an abrupt restructuring of the activity, emotional and personal trials such as a difficult break-up or divorce

Clue #3: Strong anxieties that arise

The manifestations of reactive depression are similar to those of classic depressive syndrome.

These symptoms refer to a state of psychological distress characterized by intense moral pain or a recurring feeling of sadness, a lasting loss of pleasure in daily life, especially in activities usually enjoyed; there is often general fatigue linked to a loss of vitality at the physical and psychological levels. The depressed mood is also characterized by a feeling of diffuse guilt and self-depreciation, which add to the feeling of sadness and fuel it.

At the physiological level, sleep disorders are extremely frequent, with a tendency to insomnia or, on the contrary, a need for more sleep than usual (hypersomnia), and disturbances in eating habits manifested by weight loss or gain are regularly observed.

At the psychomotor level, there is a general slowing down or, on the contrary, an anxious agitation which also affects cognitive activity: thinking is slower and difficulties in concentration are frequent. Thoughts of death and suicidal thoughts may complete the picture.

The general distress is most often fuelled by strong anxieties that testify to the traumatic nature of the depression, in other words, the reactionary dimension of the disorder. Trauma confronts you with your current psychic limits and also points the way to better well-being: exploring the specific issues and effects of the traumatic event in relation to a pre-existing psychic organization will allow you to identify the areas of vulnerability at the origin of the depressive reaction. This can be considered as a manifestation of the body’s powerlessness and exhaustion in its struggle to deal with the psychological conflicts and emotional charge associated with the trauma.



The first step to getting better is to find the most stable emotional functioning possible: when you experience a traumatic shock that has led you to develop a reactionary depression, your emotional life is both raw and chaotic.

Indeed, beyond the sad mood linked to the depressive dimension, you are exposed to stress and anxiety, more or less diffuse or focused, which underline the reactionary aspect of the depression.

In order to survive psychologically, it was indeed necessary to separate the emotional charge (or energy) from its content, i.e. from the emotional feelings linked to the awareness of the intimate implications of the traumatic event (confrontation with loss, death…). This process is carried out automatically and obviously not consciously, as a protective measure when the psyche is not able to process the event. The impulsive energy that the traumatic event has released will therefore come to you in a more neutral form, without reference to the content and meaning of the event, which is too painful to be fully conscious of more or less acute stress attacks may occur independently of any stimulation and will be accompanied by raw anxiety, which also remains mostly without an object.

At the same time, you will witness the return of the specific content of the traumatic experience in the form of a syndrome of repetition of the event itself (intrusive recurrent memories, visual or auditory flashes, nightmares) which helps to maintain the stress and anxiety. Thus, the post-traumatic emotional disturbances are numerous and pervasive.

Although in-depth psychotherapeutic work, or at least work devoted to the reconstruction of an integrable psychological experience, is absolutely necessary, there are ways to gain emotional stability in order to limit the destructive effects of this mental and emotional overactivity, and in particular to avoid the psychological exhaustion that is often associated with it in the medium or longer term.

All activities that allow you to devote your attention to your body and your physiological feelings are particularly recommended, in order to lighten the activity of the mind and to regulate the emotional life. If the regular practice of a sport is strongly advised to evacuate tensions by the regulating work of the body, meditation can also do you a lot of good by allowing you to learn little by little to develop a space of consciousness preserved from the omnipresence of thoughts and emotions. In the same way, regular work on breathing is extremely useful in the fight against stress and anxiety. The method of cardiac coherence in particular is known to have a regulating effect on the activity of the nervous system, which makes it a royal road for those who seek to reach a certain level of emotional appeasement.


It is fundamental to realize that you have lived through an event which, because of its force and destructive potential, has overwhelmed your capacity for integration: you are not now in a position to live with the emotional consequences of the shock, let alone to constitute them as a life experience on which you can draw.

This event cannot be integrated at the emotional and symbolic levels in the continuity of your life course; you may not currently have the means to assume the reality of the experience, let alone adjust, or even restructure, your usual defences and modes of functioning in order to accept it. The first indicator of the fact that you have suffered an emotional shock refers to the distancing of the reality of the traumatic event, but also to the difficulty of making sense of it: human beings tend to unconsciously disconnect themselves from experiences that they feel could overwhelm them emotionally and destabilize them psychically.

This relative disconnection is actually based on the paradox of a traumatic experience that is both evacuated from the conscious mind and relived again and again through memory recollections: the emotional shock has occurred and if it is possible to keep it momentarily away from your field of consciousness through dissociation and denial, it will tend to manifest itself in the form of a more or less elaborate anxiety that you cannot fully contain.

This is what happens with reactionary depression, which is the sign that the emotion could not be integrated and that the psychic resources to face it are momentarily exhausted. You then find yourself helpless and prey to the often massive anxieties that are characteristic of this type of depression. It is fundamental to be able to make a path towards the awareness of the traumatic experience, and more precisely towards the reconnection with the painful experience which must be taken into account emotionally.

To do this, it is important to be accompanied in a process of making sense of your experience, the intimate and symbolic meanings of which have not been able to be formed because of an excessive emotional charge. The conscious integration of the events experienced is the key that can allow the reactionary depression to be resolved and it is necessary for this to be able to gradually put words to what happened in order to get back in touch with the difficult emotions linked to the shock. A therapist can help you to bring out these emotions by guiding you step by step through a process of making sense of the elements of the story to which you have access and which you are updating: he or she will conduct an analysis with you of the effects of the shock in terms of your weaknesses and resources.

Do not remain alone in the face of what is going on inside you. Depression can be treated and the first step in this direction is to gradually become aware of the psychological consequences of the traumatic event; psychotherapeutic support will allow you to bring them to light so that you can gradually integrate them and eventually be able to continue your journey with peace of mind.

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