Can a stressful event trigger a depressive episode?

Julia asks “Hi Emily, I am wondering if a stressful event can trigger a depressive episode?”.

Firstly I’d like to state unequivocally that I am NOT a health care professional, I am just a person with Bipolar who is willing to share my experience with this mental illness.

In my experience a stressful event can definitely lead to a depressive episode.  In fact this is often how the bipolar is diagnosed in the first place.  That was my experience.  I lost a business in the floods in I think it was 2010 or 11 (my memory of that time is diminished due to the electric shock treatment I had).  Insurance did not pay out for us, they found a loophole and consequently we were very nearly bankrupted by the event.  This led to a very deep depression for me, where I was nearly catatonic for a long time (months almost a year).  It took more than 4 psychiatrists and innumerable hospital stays to finally get to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

Once I was diagnosed though and treated appropriately with 3 rounds of 12 electric shock treatments and the right mix of medications – which I have outlined in a previous post; I have found that I can ‘catch’ the depression early in situations where I have foresight or prior knowledge that a stressful event is going to take place.  For example if I know in advance that I have to move house or change jobs I can speak to my psychiatrist and put a plan in place to avoid a depressive episode.

The trouble really only begins when I do not have prior knowledge of the stressful event, that is a very different scenario and it can actually go either way, that is to say an unexpected stressful event can lead to a depressive episode or a manic episode, or sometimes even a weird mix of the two across time.

I think the key here is to have regular contact with your psychiatrist and your GP as well as your ‘carer’ – in my case my husband.  He is my mental health carer in so far as he can often see my behaviour changing before I can and can alert me and my doctors to this fact.  Also he can make important decisions regarding treatment on my behalf when I am not of sound mind.  The primary one being the decision to have a round of Electroconvulsive “shock” treatment.

So in summary, a stressful event can definitely trigger a depressive episode, but there is plenty of things you can do to avoid that and/or to manage that if it occurs.

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