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Health A-Z

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Harvard Medical School

What Is It?

Dysthymia, also called dysthymic disorder, is a form of depression. It is less severe than major depression, but usually lasts longer. Many people with this type of depression describe having been depressed as long as they can remember, or they feel they are going in and out of depression all the time.

The symptoms of dysthymia are similar to those of major depression, though they tend to be less intense. In both conditions, a person can have a low or irritable mood, a decrease in pleasure, and a loss of energy. They feel relatively unmotivated and disengaged from the world. Appetite and weight can increase or decrease. The person may sleep too much or have trouble sleeping. He or she may have difficulty concentrating. The person may be indecisive and pessimistic and have a poor self-image.

Symptoms can grow into a full-blown episode of major depression. This situation is sometimes called "double depression" because the second problem (major depressive episode) is superimposed on the usual feelings of low mood. People with dysthymia have a greater-than-average chance of developing major depression.

While major depression often occurs episodically, dysthymia is more constant, lasting for long periods, sometimes starting in childhood. As a result, a person with dysthymia tends to believe that depression is part of his or her character. The person with dysthymia may not even think to talk about this depression with doctors, family members or friends.

Dysthymia, like major depression, tends to run in families. It is more common in women than in men, but in men it may be underdiagnosed because they are less likely to talk about their mood with their doctors. Some people with dysthymia have experienced a major loss in childhood, such as the death of a parent. Others describe being under chronic stress. But it is often hard to know whether people with dysthymia are under more stress than other people or if the dysthymia causes them to perceive more stress than others do.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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