Definition

Dysthymia is similar to depression , but its symptoms are milder and it lasts longer—at least two years. People with dysthymia experience mild to moderate depression that may subside during periods of normal mood that last up to two months. Dysthymia can be treated with medications, so contact your doctor if you think you have this condition.

Causes

The cause of dysthymia is not known. It is thought that changes in the brain’s production of the chemical serotonin may play a role. Serotonin helps your brain handle emotions and make judgments.

Brainstem—Location of Serotonin Production

Brainstem and brain
© 2009 Nucleus Medical Art, Inc.

Risk Factors

These factors increase your chance of developing dysthymia. Tell your doctor if you have any of these risk factors:

  • Sex: female
  • Family history of major depression or dysthymia
  • Chronic mental or physical illness

People who have dysthymia may also experience one or more episodes of major depression in their lifetime.

Symptoms

Dysthymia may be difficult to differentiate from depression due to many overlapping symptoms. People with dysthymia have more emphasized symptoms of:

  • Social withdrawal
  • Lack of hope for the future
  • Pervasive feelings of inadequate performance

Other symptoms include:

  • Feelings of sadness and/or hopelessness
  • Poor appetite or overeating
  • Difficulty functioning at work or school
  • Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Fatigue
  • Low self-esteem

Diagnosis

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, giving special attention to:

  • Level of fatigue and how well you are sleeping
  • Ability to concentrate
  • Family history of depression

Your doctor may perform tests and/or a physical exam to determine if you have another medical condition (eg, a thyroid disorder) or are taking a medication that is causing you to feel depressed. You may be referred to a therapist who specializes in treating depression.

Treatment

Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Treatment options include:

Antidepressant Medications

Dysthymia can be treated with antidepressant medications that relieve depression. It may take a few weeks or months before you and your doctor can tell whether antidepressant medications are helping. You may need to take these medications for a number of years. It is important to keep taking them until your doctor tells you to stop.

Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy may include:

Lifestyle Modifications

In addition to medications and therapy, the following lifestyle modifications may help you feel better:

  • Participate in enjoyable activities.
  • Eat a healthful diet .
  • Avoid illegal drugs and alcohol.
  • Begin a safe exercise program with the advice of your doctor.
  • Have a regular sleep schedule.

Prevention

There are no guidelines for preventing dysthymia.