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Depression is a mood disorder with a large number of subcategories, most of which apply to unique circumstances or situations. But there is one type of depression that imitates the symptoms of general clinical depression quite precisely, and that condition is known as dysthymic disorder.

The difference between major depression and dysthymic disorder is based on degree rather than kind. Dysthymic disorder is a mild form of depression that can still disable despite its reduced level of intensity, and, if it is left untreated for an extended period of time, it can easily morph into clinical depression. In order for the condition to be diagnosed, the symptoms of dysthymic disorder must have been present for two years or longer, and those who are eventually determined to be suffering from this vague but debilitating condition are likely to have had their lives significantly altered by its presence. Estimates are that up to 5 percent of the U.S. population may be suffering from this disorder, which, like most types of depression, is most frequently diagnosed in women.

Symptoms and Causes

The most commonly experienced symptoms of dysthymic disorder include:

  • Constant feelings of helplessness or hopelessness
  • Chronic fatigue
  • A lack of energy, an inability to accomplish even the simplest tasks
  • Insomnia at night or excessive drowsiness during the daytime
  • Poor appetite in some cases, and a tendency to binge eat in others
  • Trouble concentrating or making decisions
  • Persistent feelings of sadness
  • Low self-esteem and a lack of confidence

The symptoms of dysthymic disorder match those of clinical depression, and it is largely a difference in severity that distinguishes the two conditions from each other. While clinical depression is known for leaving its victims feeling empty and almost devoid of motivation, dysthymic disorder does not normally cause sufferers to experience this extreme emotional disconnect. Pessimism and feelings of being overwhelmed by the world tend to accompany dysthymic disorder, but the emptiness associated with cases of clinical depression is a unique state of mind that only manifests when the more serious condition is present.

Some types of mood disorders seem to have no direct or obvious cause, but with dysthymic disorder there are a number of risk factors that can predict the onset of this condition in the majority of those who will eventually be diagnosed. The list of these factors includes genetics (a family history of the disease), chronic stress, prolonged physical illness, extreme isolation and lack of social contact, a poorly developed ability to cope with life’s difficulties, and changes in brain chemistry that can throw the body out of balance. Family history is considered to be the strongest predictor of dysthymic disorder, but it is difficult to say whether this is based strictly on genetics or whether childhood experiences are playing some role in the later appearance of the condition.

Treatment and Prognosis

Any time a person is suffering from a mental health condition that is only partially related to external triggers there is a cause for concern, and a person in that situation should seriously consider seeking professional help before things spiral any further out of control. Untreated dysthymic disorder is very likely to turn into full-blown clinical depression, and even if it does not, those who are mired in its swampy waters of despair will endure great hardship and misery if they do not take action to improve their state of mental health.

Not surprisingly, antidepressants are the medication most frequently prescribed for victims of dysthymic disorder, and these drugs work quite well in a significant percentage of cases. Nevertheless, talk therapy is also an important aspect of the standard treatment regime, because if those who have been diagnosed with dysthymic disorder do not learn to deal with negative emotions when they come up in the future, they are virtually certain to experience emotional difficulties over and over again throughout the course of their lives. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is often used by counselors treating victims of dysthymic disorder, as it can help dysthymic disorder sufferers recognize their self-destructive thought patterns and show them how to reprogram their minds to react differently to external stressors. Interpersonal therapy, or IPT, can also make a positive impact by teaching dysthymic disorder victims how to solve conflicts with others that may be driving them toward depression.

Fortunately, dysthymic disorder is highly amenable to treatment, and those who have been unlucky enough to succumb to this condition do not have to suffer forever if they are willing to be proactive and ask for help when they realize they have a problem. But ff symptoms are ignored clinical depression could be the final result, and this destructive illness is capable of exacting a heavy toll on even the heartiest of spirits.

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