What Is Dysthymia? Understanding Its Connection Depression

Medically reviewed by: Erika McElroy, Ph.D.
Monday, September 12 2022

Everyone experiences an occasional blue mood, sleepless night or period of fatigue or feeling hopeless. But if these and other symptoms have become a part of daily life, it may be related to a condition called dysthymia.

What is dysthymia?

Dysthymia — also called persistent depressive disorder (PDD) — is a mild but long-lasting form of depression. Because it is long lasting, people with dysthymia may be accustomed to feeling this way and think that it is normal. But it is not. 

Dysthymia can have negative impacts on overall mental and physical well-being. It can interfere with goals, relationships, jobs, and daily activities. People with dysthymia may find themselves often dissatisfied and complaining. They may find it hard to be cheerful — even on happy occasions.

Most importantly, dysthymia can be treated.

How is dysthymia (persistent depressive disorder) different from major depressive disorder?

When most people think of depression they likely think of major depressive disorder (MDD). It’s a condition characterized by feelings of intense sadness, tearfulness, emptiness or hopelessness, loss of interest or pleasure in most or all normal activities, and perhaps frequent thoughts of death or suicide.

If you have dysthymia or persistent depressive disorder, you may also have occasional bouts of MDD. Your day-to-day symptoms may be similar to those of MDD, but are less severe. 

Symptoms of dysthymia may be different for different people, but common symptoms include:

  • Ongoing feelings of sadness, anxiousness, hopelessness, or emptiness
  • Difficulty concentrating, thinking, or making decisions
  • Loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyable
  • Avoidance of social interaction and activities
  • Decreased productivity
  • Appetite changes or changes in weight due to over- or under-eating
  • Tiredness, fatigue, and lack of energy
  • Changes in sleep patterns, such as restless sleep, difficulty getting to or staying asleep, or sleeping too much
  • Low self-esteem, feelings of incompetency or inadequacy
  • Irritability, easily angered
  • Feelings of guilt over the past

Aside from severity of symptoms, factors that distinguish between MDD and dysthymia are the number and the duration of symptoms — how many symptoms you have and how long you have had them. People with MDD typically have many symptoms of depression, while those with PDD may have just a few. And while people with MDD typically go through episodes of feeling severely depressed and are then symptom-free for periods of time, dysthymia affects people consistently over years.

How is dysthymia diagnosed?

To be diagnosed with this condition, an adult must have a depressed mood for at least two years (or one year in children and adolescents), along with at least two of the above symptoms. In addition, during this two-year period, symptoms may not be absent for longer than two months in order to be diagnosed with dysthymia.

Who gets dysthymia and why?

Dysthymia affects approximately 3-6% of the U.S. population. While anyone can get dysthymia, it affects twice as many women as men. It also seems to run in families, so if you have a close family member with dysthymia, you may be more likely to be affected yourself.

Although there is no clear cause, dysthymia may be a result of chemical imbalances in the brain. Chronic stress and trauma likely contribute to it as well as biological, environmental, and genetic factors. So far, however, no genes have been linked to it.

Treating dysthymia or persistent depressive disorder

You don’t have to suffer from dysthymia. If you are experiencing symptoms, there are effective treatment options to improve your quality of life.

The two main treatments are psychotherapy and medication. Some people need a combination of the two. Taking care of the psychological and psychosocial aspects of depression are just as important as treating its medical cause. Read this article on how to find the right therapist to help you take the first steps in finding the right mental health professional for you. 

During psychotherapy, you speak with a trained mental health professional who can help you identify and work through the factors that may be triggering your depression. The therapist will listen, provide feedback, and help you create strategies to solve the problems that create stress.

It can be challenging to have hope for recovery from dysthymia — particularly when depression has been part of your everyday life for a long time. But with the right professional help, you can feel better and get back to being yourself.

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