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By Jay (John) Case, MD, Psychiatrist, Program Director at Virtua Behavioral Health Chair of Psychiatry—Virtua Memorial Hospital

As a human being, it’s normal for you to experience a range of complex emotions and feelings that are linked to events in your everyday life. At one time or another, you’ve probably felt excited or happy about a positive life event, such as a promotion, a major achievement or a new relationship. You’ve probably also felt sad or “down” after a negative life event, such as the end of a relationship, job loss or the death of a loved one.

However, people can sometimes experience feelings of extreme sadness that affect their ability to function normally. In other cases, people can experience periods of extreme elevated mood and excitement that also interfere with their functioning.

If you experience intense emotions or emotional changes that interfere with your day-to-day functioning for more than a few days at a time, this could be a sign you have a mood disorder. This is a time to seek the help of a professional (a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker or other licensed mental health clinician) to diagnose your condition and get appropriate treatment.

What is a mood disorder?

A mood disorder is a general term that’s used to describe conditions that affect your daily emotional state. To be a diagnosed a mood disorder, these changes in your mood must negatively affect your functioning in some way. Mood disorders usually are grouped into two categories:

Depression (major depressive disorder) You’ve probably heard people say that they are “depressed” when they’re really feeling sad or down. But, the medical diagnosis of depression is a serious condition that affects more than just your feelings—it also affects your ability to perform daily activities and the way you think.

For example, if you have depression, you might be unable to go to work or take care of your children. You may have trouble sleeping or lose interest in a hobby you used to enjoy. Symptoms of depression include:

  • Feeling sad, hopeless, worthless, helpless, guilty, pessimistic or “empty”

  • Loss of pleasure or interest in activities or hobbies

  • Fatigue or lack of energy

  • Loss of appetite and eating too little—or sometimes too much

  • Sleeping too little—or sometimes too much

  • Trouble with concentration, memory and decision-making

  • Thoughts of death or suicide

  • Talking or moving slower than usual

  • Irritability

  • Restlessness

  • Symptoms such as headaches, abdominal pain or digestive problems that don’t respond to treatment or have no clear physical cause

Depression symptoms are different for everyone, and not everyone will experience every symptom. However, to be diagnosed with depression, you need to experience a few symptoms nearly every day for at least 2 weeks.

Anyone can develop depression in response to negative or stressful life events, but people with a personal or family history of depression are more likely to develop the condition. There’s also a link between depression and other health conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer. Other types of depression that can be linked to a particular life event or circumstance include:

  • Postpartum depression: Postpartum depression occurs in women who have recently given birth.

  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD): SAD occurs when depression develops during the winter months due to a lack of natural sunlight. In some cases, people with SAD experience periods of increased energy and elation in the summer.

  • Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD): PMDD is diagnosed when mood problems (often depression) occur in women usually during the premenstrual phase of their monthly cycle, and usually goes away when they get their period.

Bipolar disorder (formerly known as manic-depressive illness) Bipolar disorder is a condition that causes periods of depression that alternate with periods of extreme happiness and energy, called manic episodes. Symptoms of manic episodes include:

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Increased energy and activity levels

  • Racing thoughts

  • Talking fast

  • Feelingjumpy, irritable or agitated

  • Feeling “up” or elated unrelated to circumstances

  • Engaging in risky or impulsive behaviors, such as excessive gambling or spending, dangerous driving or reckless sex

  • Multitasking too much

To be diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a patient has to have at least one episode of significant manic symptoms. Of note, in many people with bipolar disorder, depressive episodes are more common than the manic episodes. Bipolar disorder also runs in families, so you may be at an increased risk of developing the condition if a close relative has bipolar disorder.

How are mood disorders treated?

Mood disorders are highly treatable, but many people don’t seek treatment due to the stigma associated with mental health problems (as actor Wil Wheaton honestly describes).

Mood disorders are disorders of the brain, and require medical treatment just like disorders of other body organs (like the heart, lungs or kidneys). Some people may have just one episode of depression and never have it again (like having one kidney stone or one episode of pneumonia). For many people, however, mood disorders can be chronic medical conditions that require treatment—just like high blood pressure, diabetes or any other chronic health problem.

Treatment for a mood disorder will depend on the type of mood disorder you have and the severity of your symptoms.

Depression treatment If you’re experiencing depression, your treatment may include medications, psychotherapy or a combination of both. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of psychotherapy or “talk therapy” that focuses on coping with stress and conquering thinking patterns such as negativity and pessimism.

Medications called antidepressants can be effective in controlling symptoms of depression, but each medication affects people differently. You may have to try a few medications before you find one that’s right for you. You also may have to continue taking an antidepressant for 6 months to a year or longer to prevent a relapse and maintain your mental health.

Other treatments may be used for types of depression that are caused by other life events or circumstances. For example, SAD symptoms can be treated with light therapy in the winter, and PMDD symptoms may improve with the use of birth control that prevents a monthly period.

Bipolar disorder treatment Although talk therapy can be used in treating bipolar disorder, the condition typically doesn’t respond to talk therapy alone and usually requires treatment with medications called mood stabilizers. Although bipolar disorder involves periods of depression, antidepressants can make mood changes worse and cause mania, so they must be used with caution.

How common are mood disorders?

Mood disorders—especially depression—are very common. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 16.2 million American adults (or 6.7 percent) had at least one major depressive episode in 2016. Depression also is the leading cause of disability for people in the U.S. between the ages of 15 and 44.

How can I get help for a mood disorder?

If you or a loved one is struggling with symptoms of a mood disorder, help is available.

Virtua has partnered with the Center for Family Guidance to provide high-quality behavioral health services in our 24-hour inpatient psychiatric care unit at Virtua Memorial Hospital and in all of our emergency rooms. Services include:

  • Psychiatric and psychological evaluations

  • Behavioral health evaluations through secure, real-time video teleconferencing

  • Referrals for outpatient counseling and follow up for individuals, groups and families with board-certified psychiatrists, psychologists and licensed clinical social workers

If you or a loved one is thinking about suicide, call 911 or seek emergency medical treatment.

For non-emergency mood disorder treatment, call 1-888-847-8823.

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