Knowing Dysthymia Definition Can Help You Understand Why You Feel Depressed

Updated October 4, 2022by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Not Everyone Experiences Depression In The Same Way

Depression is a widespread disorder that affects millions of people throughout the United States. But not everyone experiences depression in the same way, or for the same length of time. For this reason, there are many different forms of depression. However, if depression isn't severe, or marked with clear episodes, it's easy to miss it or leave it untreated. This article is going to focus on dysthymia definition to help you understand whether dysthymia is a form of depression you have, and what you can do about it.

What Is The Dysthymia Definition?

Many depression terms are floating around the world wide web, as well as the medical community. There is a major depressive disorder (MDD), chronic depression, persistent depressive disorder (PDD), dysthymia, and double depression.

To define dysthymia, it's helpful to examine the other terms briefly. This will help clarify what dysthymia is and isn't, and give us a good dysthymia definition.

Major Depressive Disorder (MDD)

Major depressive disorder (MDD) or depression, is marked with feelings of apathy, depression, and sadness, and it's estimated to affect close to 15 million Americans, or nearly 7 percent of the U.S. population each year. Individuals tend to be diagnosed with MDD in their early 30's.

To be diagnosed with MDD, an individual needs to show the first two of the nine following characteristics, as well as five other symptoms. In total, MDD patients should show at least seven of the nine symptoms every day, most of the day and for up to a two week period.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, the characteristics of MDD include:

  • Depressed mood
  • Loss of interest in prior activities that brought enjoyment
  • Significant changes in appetite and weight
  • Over- or under-sleeping
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling worthless
  • Unable to concentrate
  • Slowed physical activity or increased agitation
  • Recurring thoughts of death or suicide

As you can see, the major depressive disorder can be a brief, but intense experience of depression.

Persistent Depressive Disorder (PDD)

Persistent depressive disorder (PDD) is a relatively new diagnosis classifying chronic depression. Therefore, if you come across the term, "dysthymia DSM 5", it refers to a definition within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5, or DSM-V).

And if you look up "dysthymia DSM 5", you will likely be referred back to persistent depressive disorder (PDD), which is now an umbrella term for the combination of dysthymia and major depressive disorder.

So, let's go straight to dysthymia definition to understand this form of chronic depression.

Dysthymia Definition

Like MDD, dysthymia is marked with feelings of apathy and sadness. However, it affects less than two percent of the U.S. population or roughly 3 million adults. Diagnosis for dysthymia also usually takes place for individuals who are in their 30's.

Not Everyone Experiences Depression In The Same Way

But there are two big differences between MDD and dysthymia definition. First of all, MDD can last a much shorter time (up to two weeks), while dysthymia should last for up to two years to fit the dysthymia definition. Secondly, MDD diagnosis requires more symptoms, while dysthymia requires fewer characteristics.

Of the nine MDD characteristics listed above, individuals with dysthymia must have the first one (depressed mood), and then, at least two other symptoms.

These fewer symptoms are less severe and less intense than those experienced by individuals with MDD. However, dysthymia is a chronic, long-term disorder, negatively impacting their quality of life over a long period.

Does the individual need to feel depressed every day? Not necessarily, but "more days than not" is enough - and for those suffering from dysthymia, that's probably more than enough.

According to this ten-year study, it was observed that individuals with dysthymia also could experience major depressive episodes, suggesting that MDD and dysthymia are two sides of the same coin.

What's more, when an individual with dysthymia experiences an acute, depressive episodes, it could be referred to as "double depression."

If this was a lot of information to digest, don't worry. Here's a brief recap:

  • Major depressive disorder (MDD) refers to a type of depression, which is experienced for a short amount of time (at least two weeks), with almost all of the characteristic symptoms of depression.
  • Persistent depressive disorder (PDD) is a relatively new diagnosis, combining MDD and dysthymia. In short, it is a chronic, milder form of depression.
  • Dysthymia is characterized by two or more years of symptoms, which are fewer in number and less severe than those experienced in MDD.
  • Dysthymia DSM 5 refers to the listing of this diagnosis within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

What are the causes of dysthymia, or persistent depressive disorder (PDD)?

It's difficult to say for certain what exactly causes dysthymia. However, some factors are believed to contribute to individual developing dysthymia. These factors are as follows:

  • Chemical imbalance in the brain
  • Genetics, including a family history of the condition. However, even someone without a family history of depression may develop dysthymia.
  • A personal history of other mental health conditions
  • Trauma or major stressors
  • Long-term physical illness
  • Physical trauma to the brain
  • Problems with relationships or career

As you can see the causes of dysthymia are many and varied. And since dysthymia may not be marked with a clear onset and intense symptoms, it might be difficult to pinpoint what contributing factors are at play.

And while it's unclear exactly what causes this form of chronic depression, it is easier to identify the symptoms characteristic of dysthymia. By exploring these symptoms, you can better identify this disorder in yourself or others, and work to find ways to manage this depression.

Symptoms And Signs That Help You Identify Dysthymia

The term, "dysthymia" actually means "ill-humored," which is consistent with certain observations. In fact, cognitive symptoms are believed to be more common in dysthymia.

So, for example, things like low self-esteem and social withdrawal may be more prevalent in individuals with dysthymia, than symptoms like irregular sleep, significant changes in weight or appetite, or suicidal thoughts.

Along with some of the major depressive disorder symptoms (depressed mood; loss of interest; significant changes in appetite and weight; over- or under-sleeping; fatigue; feelings of worthlessness; inability to concentrate; slowed physical activity or increased agitation; recurring thoughts of death or suicide), dysthymic individuals have been found to exhibit the following characteristics:

  • Self-deprecation
  • Brooding, especially about the past
  • Socially withdrawn
  • Irritable
  • Unproductive
  • Having anhedonia, which is the inability to feel pleasure from things that previously gave pleasure

As you can see, individuals with dysthymia experience specific cognitive symptoms, which can spread a dull visage over life experience for a long period.

Consistent With The Dysthymia Definition, Dysthymia Is A Form Of Depression

The above-listed symptoms might indicate that dysthymia might be a depressive temperament rather than a form of depression and a true mood disorder. However, in a feature published in Scientific American, Jenna Griffiths and Arun V. Ravindran, from the Royal Ottawa Hospital in Ontario, Canada, say that "it is now generally accepted that dysthymia belongs to the classification of mood/affective disorders, rather than representing a depressive temperament."

This is consistent the dysthymia definition we've studied, and also with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, in which dysthymia falls under persistent depressive disorder (PDD).

Griffiths and Ravindran go on to explain that dysthymia can also be broken down into "sub-affective dysthymia" depending on clinical symptoms, and "character-spectrum dysthymia," depending on family history.

And when it comes to sub-affective dysthymia, individuals seem to respond better to antidepressant medications, whereas as those with character-spectrum dysthymia see less positive results.

In fact, Griffiths and Ravindran observed that those with character-spectrum dysthymia "report a major loss as well as a family history of substance abuse," suggesting that psychotherapeutic treatment may be a useful way to manage this form of long-term depression.

What Are The Best Ways To Treat Dysthymia?

As we've seen above, psychotherapeutic treatment, or talk therapy, is a recommended form of treatment. And if an individual prefers to address dysthymia in this way, it's crucial that they speak to a licensed professional.

In this way, the individual can discuss his or her emotions and thoughts, and also figure out ways to cope with negative emotions healthily. It's also an opportunity to discuss past trauma and substance abuse in a safe and supportive environment. Finally, talk therapy gives the individual the opportunity set goals and regain a sense of control again.

Apart From Talk Therapy, Are There Other Ways To Manage Dysthymia?

Antidepressant medications, such as Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil may be effective. However, even though dysthymic individuals have milder symptoms, they still require an aggressive prescription over a long period, just as those individuals with the major depressive disorder.

Lifestyle changes are also an important and powerful way to cope with dysthymia, and by doing the following things, an individual can improve the quality of their life despite long-term depression:

  • Exercise three to four times a week
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs
  • Enjoy a balanced diet, comprised of whole foods, and low in-process sugar
  • Practice yoga
  • Cultivate a meditation practice or a gratitude practice
  • Journaling, or even starting a blog if they feel comfortable

Even though dysthymia is less extreme and has less severe symptoms compared to major depressive disorder, it is still a mental disorder and a clinical illness. If necessary, the best way to deal with this disorder is to seek professional help. If you'd like to work with a licensed therapist online, simply start here to find a professional at BetterHelp.

Below are commonly asked questions on this topic:

What is dysthymia called now?
What triggers dysthymia?
Is dysthymia the same as bipolar?
What does dysthymia look like?
What is the best medication for dysthymia?
Is dysthymia considered a disability?
Can dysthymia be cured?
Can you fully recover from dysthymia?
Can dysthymia last a lifetime?
Does dysthymia have manic episodes?

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