What's The Difference Between Dysthymia And Depression?

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated June 17, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

You've likely heard the term “depression” quite a few times in your life, but have you heard the term “dysthymia?” Also known as persistent depressive disorder (PDD), dysthymia can impact your relationships with family and friends, your work experience, your personal life, your physical health, and even your ability to accomplish daily activities. This article explores these mental health disorders from a medical standpoint to help you learn more about dysthymia and each type of depression.

Are you experiencing symptoms of depression?

Dysthymia

Dysthymia is actually a type of depression, but it’s considered milder than mental health conditions such as major depressive disorder. That doesn’t mean that dysthymia isn’t a serious chronic condition or that the symptoms, such as depressed mood, aren’t challenging to cope with. However, dysthymia will generally have fewer intense side effects and symptoms than those with other types of depression will face.

Studies indicate that approximately 1.3% of adults in the U.S. will, at some point in their life, experience dysthymia. This is comparable to the one in six people who will experience depression of any kind at some point in their life.

For a dysthymia diagnosis, symptoms must be ongoing for at least two years. PDD symptoms are generally milder, but last longer than Major Depression.

Depression

As the American Psychological Association explains, depression is not just feeling sadness at times, but rather “extreme sadness or despair that lasts more than days.” It is also the most common mental disorder. 

While there are several types of depression, the term is most commonly used to describe major depressive disorder. This is the more extensive and more severe form of what is considered clinical depression. It tends to create physical and emotional symptoms for individuals and it can interfere with work, family, friends, social life, and personal relationships. In extreme cases, it can lead to suicide or attempted suicide. 

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or urges, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. Support is available 24/7.

Dysthymia vs. depression

The first major difference between major depressive disorder and dysthymia is that they interact with mood in slightly different ways. Both those diagnosed with dysthymia and those with major depressive disorder will have times where they feel depressed. However, those with major depressive disorder will also have times where they do not experience depression. Those with dysthymia will generally experience depression at all times and will not have periods where they feel “normal.” 

The second major difference is that major depressive disorder and dysthymia require different amounts of time to be diagnosed. Someone who is experiencing major depressive disorder must have symptoms for at least a period of two weeks in order to be diagnosed. Someone who is experiencing dysthymia or persistent depressive disorder must have symptoms for at least a period of two years in order to be diagnosed. These periods of time allow the mental health professional to tell whether the symptoms are persistent or not. It is possible for a major depressive disorder diagnosis to lead to a persistent depressive disorder diagnosis as time continues.

The intensity of the symptoms is different between major depressive disorder and dysthymia as well. Whereas someone with major depressive disorder will generally have more severity to their symptoms, someone with persistent depressive disorder will have milder, but more persistent symptoms. This means that the symptoms associated with persistent depressive disorder may not be as debilitating or as intense, but they last longer. Someone with major depressive disorder may have more intense outbursts, but the symptoms will come and go over time. This isn't to say that either one is easier to handle, but that they are different.

Dysthymia and depression symptoms

Both PDD and major depressive disorder have the same symptoms, just for different lengths of time and intensities.  These may include: 

  • Anger and frustration at small inconveniences
  • Loss of interest in normal daily activities, including sports and hobbies
  • Increase or decrease in sleep
  • Lack of energy for even simple tasks
  • Increase or decrease in appetite
  • Increase or decrease in weight
  • Feelings of sadness, emptiness or hopelessness
  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • Difficulty concentrating, making decisions, or remembering things

Double depression

Because of the way that these two types of depression are defined, they are considered separate disorders, and therefore can also occur concurrently. Someone who has been diagnosed with persistent depressive disorder, for example, may have a major depressive episode that then leads to a diagnosis of major depressive disorder as well. When this happens, the clinical world refers to it as “double depression.” 

It is important that you communicate with your mental health professional about what you are experiencing and when so they can help you work through your symptoms and get the proper treatment for all of them.

Dysthymia and depression treatment

Although the two disorders are different, their treatments are generally similar. Depression of all types typically uses a combination of two different types of treatment: psychotherapy and medication. For each individual, the specific treatments used will vary slightly.

Psychotherapy

The two most common types of therapy used to help treat depression are behavioral activation (BA) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Each of these focuses on the way that you feel and the way that your thought patterns can be adjusted to create positive changes in your moods or behaviors. They both have shown great success in treating patients with depression to make dramatic changes by helping them recognize their own influence, and control, over their thoughts and behaviors.

BetterHelp is one place you can find the type of help that you're seeking. With BetterHelp, you're getting a complete online service that will connect you with the mental health professionals you need. Because everything is online, you can connect from anywhere in the country that has an internet connection. This gives you the freedom to attend a session from the comfort of your own home.

Research finds that online therapy can be as effective for individuals with depression as in-person counseling. A medically reviewed study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research found that patients receiving CBT therapy via video chat experienced reductions in depression symptoms, indicating that online therapy for depression can produce “sustained and clinically meaningful improvements.” In another literature review, internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy was shown to be a cost-effective option for patients with depression, and was particularly helpful for those who lived in more rural areas. 

Are you experiencing symptoms of depression?

Medication

A number of different types of antidepressant medications have shown success in treating depression. They may be used in conjunction with talk therapy or modalities such as cognitive behavioral therapy. In general, some of the following types of medication are used to treat depression:

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) 

  • Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) 

  • Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) 

The specific medication and dosage prescribed will vary from patient to patient. It's important to talk with your mental health professional about the different options to see what you could be doing to help yourself as well.

Takeaway

Getting professional help is essential if you are experiencing depression. Do not try to go through it alone and do not interpret thatyou have no one to help you. A mental health professional can work with you to better understand your symptoms, your feelings, and what is really ahead for you in your life. By working with a professional, you may be able to start regaining control of your life again. 

With BetterHelp, you also aren’t limited by the mental health professionals who are available in your area, giving you more freedom to choose someone you trust and with whom you feel comfortable. Not only that, it allows you to review far more information and qualifications before you narrow down your choice. There's no reason to settle for a therapist with whom you aren't entirely comfortable. Through BetterHelp, you don’t have to.

Depression is treatable, and you're not alone
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