Mood Disorders

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS

What are mood disorders?

Mood disorders, or affective disorders, are mental health problems such as depression, bipolar disorder, and mania. Mood disorders can occur in anyone, including children. The cause of mood disorders is not fully understood, but an imbalance in brain chemicals known as neurotransmitters is likely to play a role. Sometimes mood disorders may be related to a medical condition, substance abuse, life events, or other causes.

The most common types of mood disorders include major depression, dysthymic disorder (milder depressive disorder), and bipolar disorder, in which alternating episodes of depression and mania (elevated mood) occur in the same individual. It is normal for your mood to change, and most people go through times of feeling sad. When these feelings last for a very long time or interfere with your life, however, you may have a mood disorder.

Symptoms of mood disorders include feelings of sadness, hopelessness, helplessness or inadequacy that do not go away; guilt; suicidal thoughts; fatigue; changes in appetite; irritability; difficulty concentrating; and trouble engaging in daily tasks and relationships. Mood disorders can also cause an elevated mood (mania) that is accompanied by feelings of grandiosity, extreme energy, and heightened arousal. These feelings are stronger and last longer than normal, and interfere with day-to-day life.

Treatment for mood disorders depends on the evaluation of a medical professional. Medication, cognitive therapy, behavioral therapy, and lifestyle modification may all be used. It is important to get early treatment for a mood disorder to reduce the severity of symptoms and manage any complications.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, express suicidal thoughts or attempt to harm yourself or others.

Seek prompt medical care if you are being treated for mood disorders and symptoms recur, are persistent, or interfere with your daily life.

What are the symptoms of mood disorders?

Symptoms of mood disorders are related to your feelings. Often, mood disorders will start out as mild feelings of sadness or inadequacy. Mild negative feelings are normal, but if these feelings continue for a long time or are very intense, you may have a mood disorder.

Common symptoms of mood disorders

You may experience mood disorder symptoms daily or just once in a while. At times any of these mood disorder symptoms can be severe:

Symptoms of heightened mood that may accompany mood disorders

Mania is the presence of an abnormally elevated mood, and hypomania is a term used to refer to this condition when present to a lesser extent. Symptoms of mania include:

  • Abnormally high energy level
  • Decreased sleep
  • Feelings of omnipotence
  • Impulsive behaviors such as spending sprees
  • Poor judgment
  • Racing thoughts
  • Talking fast or switching conversational topics rapidly

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, mood disorders can be life threatening. Seek imme diate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

  • Being a danger to yourself or others, including threatening, irrational or suicidal behavior
  • Feelings of wanting to die
  • Hearing voices or seeing things that do not exist
  • Inability to care for your basic needs
  • Suicidal thoughts or expression of suicidal thoughts

What causes mood disorders?

The exact cause of many mood disorders is not known. Most mood disorders are linked to chemicals in the brain, called neurotransmitters, which regulate moods, feelings and behavior. It is thought that changes in the levels of these neurotransmitters can lead to mood disorders. In some cases, it appears that heredity may contribute to mood disorders, though environment also plays a major role.

Often, mood disorders can be triggered by a traumatic event or stress in your daily life. While it is normal to have changes in mood due to life events, usually you are able to recover from stressors. When you have a mood disorder, your ability to cope with stress is decreased, leading to many of the symptoms of mood disorders.

What are the risk factors for mood disorders?

A number of factors increase the risk of developing mood disorders. Not all people with risk factors will get mood disorders. Risk factors for mood disorders include:

  • Adolescence
  • Alcohol or drug use
  • Certain medical conditions such as hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) or chronic pain
  • Certain medications
  • Family history of mood disorders
  • Female gender
  • Isolation from other people
  • Personal history of sleep disorders
  • Recent traumatic life event such as divorce or death in the family

Reducing your risk of mood disorders

You may be able to lower your risk of mood disorders by:

  • Avoiding drugs and alcohol
  • Engaging in activities that make you happy
  • Engaging in social activities
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Getting regular exercise
  • Seeking support after difficult life events such as divorce or loss of a loved one

How are mood disorders treated?

Treatment for mood disorders is aimed at addressing negative feelings, helping you to feel normal, capable, and ready for your daily life. Sometimes, therapy, such as talk therapy or psychotherapy, may help you to cope with difficult events and may be enough to treat your mood disorder. In other cases, however, medication may be prescribed to correct a chemical imbalance. In very severe cases, other therapies, such as electroconvulsive therapy, may be used.

Common treatments for mood disorders

Common treatments of mood disorders include:

  • Antidepressant medications to improve moods

  • Antipsychotic medications if indicated to treat disordered thought patterns and altered perceptions

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy to work on thought patterns and behavior

  • Family therapy to help develop support and understanding

  • Group therapy

  • Hospitalization for coexisting medical problems, serious complications, severe disorders, or substance abuse

  • Identification and treatment of coexisting conditions

  • Individual therapy

  • Mood-stabilizing medications

  • Psychodynamic therapy to work on discovering and understanding past issues and their relationship to current thoughts and behaviors

  • Support groups

Other treatments for mood disorders

Mood disorders that do not respond to medication and psychotherapy may require other treatments including:

What you can do to improve your mood disorders

In addition to following the treatment plan determined by your health care providers, you may be able to improve your mood disorder by:

  • Engaging in social activities

  • Getting enough sleep

  • Getting regular exercise

  • Talking to a trusted person about your mood disorder and everyday stress

Complementary treatments

Some complementary treatments may help some people to better deal with mood disorders. These treatments, sometimes referred to as alternative therapies, are used in conjunction with traditional medical treatments. Complementary treatments are not meant to substitute for full medical care.

Complementary treatments may include:

What are the potential complications of mood disorders?

Mood disorders can change the way you react to everyday stress or major life events. Mood disorders can affect almost every aspect of your life. Complications of untreated or poorly controlled mood disorders can be serious, even life threatening in some cases. You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Complications of mood disorders include:

  • Alcohol abuse

  • Attempted suicide

  • Drug abuse

  • Harm to self or others

  • Increased risk of illness or infection

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  1. Major depression. PubMed Health.
  2. Mental and behavioral health care. Ohio State University Medical Center.
Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Nov 24
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.