What Is Dysthymia and When Should You Seek Treatment?

by Marris Adikwu

What is dysthymia? Dysthymia, or persistent depressive disorder (PDD), is a milder but long-term form of depression that lasts at least two years. Similar to other types of depression, dysthymia affects your body, mood, and thoughts. It can cause feelings of sadness and hopelessness as well as affect your physical function—including productivity, appetite, and sleep—ultimately contributing to diminished interest in daily activities, work, and personal relationships.

Because PDD is not as severe as major depressive disorder (MDD), you may think of your tendency to feel detached, even in happy situations, as a mere personality trait. However, PDD is not the same thing as just being moody: dysthymia is a serious condition that requires treatment by a mental health professional.

PDD Symptoms and Causes

The symptoms of dysthymia are the same as those observed in other types of depression, but they are less severe and notably last longer, occurring regularly for at least two years. While symptoms can come and go, and their intensity may vary, they do not go away for more than two months at a time. PDD symptoms include the following:

  • A persistent sad, anxious, or listless mood
  • Difficulty concentrating, thinking, or making decisions
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability or excessive anger
  • A feeling of hopelessness
  • Changes in your appetite or weight
  • Low self-esteem
  • Extreme changes in your sleep patterns

The symptoms of PDD usually begin to appear in childhood or adolescence. Children with PDD display signs like irritability, moodiness, or pessimism for a long period of time. Dysthymia may also be reflected in behavior problems, poor performance at school, or social anxiety. These symptoms may grow more or less severe over time.

What causes dysthymia? The exact cause of this condition remains unknown, but according to mental health experts, it could be a result of chemical imbalances in the brain brought about by factors including environmental, psychological, biological, and genetic conditions. Other contributing elements, such as severe stress and trauma, have also been linked to PDD.

PDD also appears to be more common in people whose families have a history of the condition. Research is ongoing to determine the genes that are linked to depression.

PDD Diagnosis and Misdiagnosis

In some cases, people with dysthymia grow used to their mild depressive symptoms, and they feel they can manage the condition without professional help. However, early diagnosis and treatment is important to your overall recovery. Dysthymia is usually diagnosed after a careful psychiatric exam and medical history carried out by a mental health expert.

Can persistent depressive disorder be misdiagnosed? Yes, PDD can easily escape clinical detection if the correct diagnostic criteria are not applied. For instance, it's not uncommon for people with MDD to be misdiagnosed with PDD, as both conditions have similar symptoms, and dysthymia can progress into MDD.

PDD is also frequently mistaken for personality issues, given that those dealing with the condition themselves often attribute their symptoms to their general disposition. It's important for more research to be done so that PDD can be clearly distinguished from other similar conditions.

What Is Dysthymia Treatment?

Although PDD symptoms are milder than MDD symptoms, treatment is necessary for both conditions. Because the symptoms have gone on for a long time, you may think you'll have to live with them forever. But remember: if you're experiencing any symptoms at all, it's worth seeking medical help.

Start by talking to your doctor or a mental health expert about your symptoms. Treatment may involve prescribed medication, recommended talk therapy, or a combination of both. There may be non-medication options available, as well. No matter what path you choose, work closely with your provider to find the most effective treatment for you.

If you don't feel ready to see a doctor on your own, consider reaching out to someone else who can help guide you to treatment, such as a friend, loved one, or someone else you trust.

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