Mood disorder

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at March 26, 2016
StartDiseasesMood disorder

A mood disorder is characterized by an emotional state that is distorted or inconsistent with the individual’s circumstances. Mood disorders can affect the way a person responds to significant life events and everyday stress. If untreated, mood disorders can be severe enough to impact an individual’s ability to function on a day-to-day basis and can even be life-threatening.


Definition & Facts

Mood disorders encompass a broad range of conditions, including:

  • Major depressive disorder (also known as depression), which is characterized by prolonged episodes of extreme sadness.
  • Bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, which includes alternating episodes of extreme happiness and extreme sadness.
  • Seasonal affective disorder, which is a type of depression often triggered by the decrease in the number of daylight hours during the winter months.
  • Cyclothymic disorder, which is similar to bipolar disorder but has less extreme mood fluctuations.
  • Premenstrual dysphoric disorder, which is characterized by increased irritability and mood swings just before the start of the menstrual period.
  • Dysthymia, which is a chronic form of low-grade depression.
  • Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder, which is characterized by severe and persistent irritability and outbursts in children that are inconsistent with the child’s age.
  • Illness-related depression, which is a form of depression directly connected to the effects of another medical condition, such as cancer, heart disease, Parkinson’s disease, or Alzheimer’s disease.

According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), mood disorders are among the leading causes of disability worldwide. The NIH also estimates that approximately 20 percent of U.S. adults will experience a mood disorder during their lifetime. Unfortunately, only about 20 percent of individuals with a mood disorder will receive treatment.

Symptoms & Complaints

It is natural to feel mild negative feelings from time to time; however, feelings that persist or are very intense may indicate a mood disorder. Some common symptoms include:

Some mood disorders are characterized by an abnormally elevated mood or mania. Individuals experiencing a manic episode may have an unusually high energy level, impulsive behaviors and poor judgment, racing thoughts, frequent changes in thought and rapid speech, a decreased need for sleep, and feelings of power and omnipotence.


The exact cause of mood disorders is not clear; however, there does appear to be a link to brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. These chemicals are meant to regulate behaviors, moods, and feelings. It is believed that fluctuations in the levels of the neurotransmitters can trigger a mood disorder. In some cases, heredity and environment may also play a role in the development of mood disorders.

It is normal to experience mood changes when faced with stress or traumatic life events. If the person is unable to recover from these stressors, they may develop a mood disorder. Those most at risk of developing a mood disorder include individuals experiencing a recent traumatic life event, individuals with a family history of mood disorders, teens, individuals using certain medications, females, and individuals who abuse alcohol or abuse drugs.

Isolation from others and the lack of a good support system may also contribute to mood disorders. If not controlled, mood disorders can lead to complications, including drug and alcohol abuse, suicide or other self-harm, and illness or infection due to lack of self-care.

Diagnosis & Tests

Many people may deny symptoms because of the social stigma associated with mood disorders. Although women are twice as likely to experience a mood disorder, men tend to be more reluctant to disclose their symptoms. Many individuals first seek help from their primary doctor due to the physical symptoms, such as insomnia or lack of energy.

In some cases, health care providers must rely on interviews with those closest to the patient to get an adequate picture of the symptoms. In addition to talking to the patient and their loved ones regarding symptoms, the doctor or mental health professional may ask the patient to complete a specialized questionnaire to gain insight into behaviors and thought patterns.

Mental health practitioners use the criteria published by the American Psychiatric Association in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to arrive at a diagnosis of depression or another mood disorder.

Treatment & Therapy

The goal of mood disorder treatment is to reduce the negative feelings and provide the individual with the tools to cope with stressors. In many cases, psychotherapy may be enough to help the individual cope with a difficult event. Psychotherapy may be performed in an individual, group, or family setting or a combination of all three.

In other cases, medications may be needed to correct chemical imbalances in the brain. Antidepressants, antipsychotics, and mood-stabilizing medications are often helpful in relieving the symptoms of mood disorders.

Light therapy has proven to be effective in the treatment of seasonal affective disorder. This involves the patient sitting in front of a full-spectrum light box for a prescribed period each day. It is believed that the light improves the mood by decreasing melatonin and increasing serotonin levels in the brain.

Extreme treatment measures which are highly controversial and considered a last resort if medication and talk therapy are ineffective include electroconvulsive therapy and transcranial magnetic stimulation.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

An individual can reduce his or her risk of developing a mood disorder by remaining socially engaged with friends and family and pursuing activities they find enjoyable. It is also important to pursue a healthy lifestyle that includes a balanced diet, regular exercise, and plenty of sleep.

Individuals experiencing a loss or another significant changes in life circumstances should seek support from others. This may include friends, family, others who have been through similar circumstances, or a mental health professional.

Alternative therapies, such as acupuncture, yoga, and massage, may help reduce levels of stress and anxiety that can trigger a mood disorder. A mood disorder can be potentially life-threatening. An individual should seek immediate medical care if they experiencing any of the following symptoms:

  • Suicidal thoughts or suicidal ideations.
  • Inability to provide for their basic needs.
  • Visual or auditory hallucinations.
  • Being a danger to themselves or others.