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Overview of Mood Disorders

What are mood disorders?

Mood disorders refer to a category of mental health problems that include all types of depression and bipolar disorder. Mood disorders are sometimes called affective disorders.

During the 1980s, mental health professionals began to recognize symptoms of mood disorders in children and adolescents, as well as adults. However, children and adolescents do not necessarily experience or exhibit the same symptoms as adults. It is more difficult to diagnose mood disorders in children, especially because children are not always able to express how they feel. Today, clinicians and researchers believe that mood disorders in children and adolescents remain one of the most underdiagnosed mental health problems. At any age, mood disorders put individuals at risk for other conditions that may persist long after the initial episodes of depression are resolved.

What causes mood disorders?

What causes mood disorders is not well known. There are chemicals in the brain, called endorphins, that are responsible for positive moods. Other chemicals in the brain, called neurotransmitters, regulate endorphins. Most likely, depression (and other mood disorders) is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. Life events (such as unwanted changes in life) may also contribute to a depressed mood.

Affective disorders aggregate in families and are considered to be multifactorially inherited. Multifactorial inheritance means that "many factors" are involved. The factors that produce the trait or condition are usually both genetic and environmental, involving a combination of genes from both parents. Often one gender (either males or females) is affected more frequently than the other in multifactorial traits. There appears to be a different threshold of expression, which means that one gender is more likely to show the problem, over the other gender.

Who is affected by mood disorders?

Anyone can feel sad or depressed at times. However, mood disorders are more intense and difficult to manage than normal feelings of sadness. Children, adolescents, or adults who have a parent with a mood disorder have a greater chance of also having a mood disorder. However, life events and stress can expose or exaggerate feelings of sadness or depression, making the feelings more difficult to manage.

Sometimes, life's problems can trigger depression. Being fired from a job, getting divorced, losing a loved one, death in the family, and financial trouble, to name a few, all can be difficult and coping with the pressure may be troublesome. These life events and stress can bring on feelings of sadness or depression or make a mood disorder harder to manage.

The chance for depression in females in the general population is nearly twice as high as it is for males. Once a person in the family has this diagnosis, the chance for their siblings or children to have the same diagnosis is increased. In addition, relatives of people with depression are also at increased risk for bipolar disorder (manic depression).

The chance for manic depression (or bipolar disorder) in males and females in the general population is about 2.6 percent. Once a person in the family has this diagnosis, the chance for their siblings or children to have the same diagnosis is increased. In addition, relatives of persons with manic depression are also at increased risk for depression.

What are the different types of mood disorders?

The following are the most common types of mood disorders:

  • Major depression. A two-week period of a depressed mood or a noticeable decrease in interest or pleasure in usual activities, along with other signs of a mood disorder.

  • Dysthymia (dysthymic disorder). A chronic, low-grade, depressed, or irritable mood for at least two years.

  • Manic depression (bipolar disorder). At least one episode of a depressed or irritable mood and at least one period of a manic (persistently elevated) mood.

  • Mood disorder due to a general medical condition. Many medical illnesses (including cancer, injuries, infections, and chronic medical illnesses) can trigger symptoms of depression.

  • Substance induced mood disorder. Symptoms of depression that are due to the effects of medication, drug abuse, exposure to toxins, or other forms of treatment.

What are the symptoms of mood disorders?

Depending on age and the type of mood disorder present, a person may exhibit different symptoms of depression. The following are the most common symptoms of a mood disorder. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Persistent feelings of sadness

  • Feeling hopeless or helpless

  • Having low self-esteem

  • Feeling inadequate

  • Excessive guilt

  • Feelings of wanting to die

  • Loss of interest in usual activities or activities once enjoyed

  • Difficulty with relationships

  • Sleep disturbances (for example, insomnia or hypersomnia)

  • Changes in appetite or weight

  • Decreased energy

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • A decrease in the ability to make decisions

  • Suicidal thoughts or attempts

  • Frequent physical complaints (for example, headache, stomachache, or fatigue)

  • Running away or threats of running away from home

  • Hypersensitivity to failure or rejection

  • Irritability, hostility, or aggression

In mood disorders, these feelings appear more intense than what a person may normally feel from time to time. It is also of concern if these feelings continue over a period of time, or interfere with an individual's interest in family, friends, community, or work. Any person who expresses thoughts of suicide should be evaluated immediately.

The symptoms of mood disorders may resemble other conditions or psychiatric problems. Always consult your health care provider for a diagnosis.

How are mood disorders diagnosed?

Mood disorders are a real medical disorder. A psychiatrist or other mental health professional usually diagnoses mood disorders following a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation.

Treatment for mood disorders

Specific treatment for mood disorders will be determined by your health care provider based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history

  • Extent of the condition

  • type of mood disorder

  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies

  • Expectations for the course of the condition

  • Your opinion or preference

Mood disorders can often be effectively treated. Treatment should always be based on a comprehensive evaluation. Treatment may include one, or more, of the following:

  • Antidepressant medications (especially when combined with psychotherapy has shown to be very effective in the treatment of depression)

  • Psychotherapy (most often cognitive-behavioral and/or interpersonal therapy that is focused on changing the individual's distorted views of himself or herself and the environment around him or her, working through difficult relationships, and identifying stressors in the environment and how to avoid them)

  • Family therapy

  • Somatic therapies, such as electroconvulsive therapy and transcranial stimulation 

Families play a vital supportive role in any treatment process.

Prevention of mood disorders

Preventive measures to reduce the incidence of mood disorders are not known at this time. However, early detection and intervention can reduce the severity of symptoms, enhance the individual's normal growth and development, and improve the quality of life experienced by people with mood disorders.

Online Medical Reviewer: Nelson, Gail A., MS, APRN, BC
Online Medical Reviewer: newMentor board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Date Last Reviewed: 9/4/2013
© 2000-2014 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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