Atypical Depression

What is Atypical Depression?

Atypical depression or depression with atypical features is an incurable but often manageable mental illness. It is similar to major depression and dysthymic disorder but can be harder to diagnose because some days the person will feel good instead of feeling down all of the time.

This may encourage the patient to believe that they are cured and so stop taking medication or will not go seek help. Inevitably, they will feel bad again, even to the point of becoming suicidal.

It is unknown what causes atypical depression but it is known that it is not a character flaw but an illness. People with family histories of mental illness are often more susceptible. People with brain injuries may also develop atypical depression.

What are the Symptoms of Atypical Depression?

There are many symptoms of atypical depression that are identical to other types of depression.

Symptoms include

An increased appetite, sleeping too little or too much and yet never feeling rested, feelings of heaviness in limbs or entire body, mood swings and problems making even simple decisions. These can worsen so badly that suicide seems a logical option. Some people may have a combination of problems including addiction or bulimia as well as atypical depression. Often, but not always, patients will have good days where they do feel normal or even feel tinges of happiness. This happiness may come and go but a sense of “wrongness” about life pervades.

Atypical Depression Causes

The cause of atypical depression is usually an episode of major depression, in which the individual experiences a persistently low mood most of the time for an extended period of time.

Major depression could be caused by many things, including:

  • Chemical imbalances in the brain
  • Genetics and family history of depression
  • Emotional trauma, such as the death of a loved one
  • Long term stress, such as financial worries

In some instances atypical depression occurs as a symptom of other disorders. Bipolar disorders, particularly type II bipolar disorder, have a strong link with atypical depression. These conditions cause an individual’s mood to swing between an extremely elevated state (mania or hypomania) and depression. Some studies have suggested that atypical depression occurs in up to two-thirds of all cases of bipolar disorder.

Atypical depression may also occur as a symptom of cyclothymia or seasonal affective disorder.

How is Atypical Depression Treated?

Sometimes the most difficult part of treating a person with atypical depression is getting them to a doctor. Many people may believe that they are incurable or do not want to be stigmatized as having a mental illness.

Treatment includes

Many patients respond to a combination of talk therapy and medications like antidepressants. Alcohol, tobacco and recreational drugs should be avoided since these will interfere with the antidepressants. If the patient is an addict then the addiction needs to be treated in order for the depression symptoms to ease. Some patients find that symptoms ease using medications, therapy and regular exercise.

Atypical Depression Prevention

Preventing atypical depression in individuals with bipolar disorder may be possible with the use of mood stabilizers. These medications are designed for long term use and can help to reduce the frequency or severity of depressive episodes.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear way to prevent atypical depression in other instances. It may be possible to reduce the risk of the condition by alleviating stress and finding healthy ways to cope with emotional pressure. Exercise can be particularly helpful. Having a network of friends and family to reach out to during times of crisis might also help to prevent serious depression.

It can be beneficial to seek out counselling or talking therapies to process severe emotional trauma, such as the death of a loved one or a traumatic event such as an assault. Doing so could help to prevent a full episode of major depression being triggered.

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Last Reviewed:
September 13, 2016
Last Updated:
November 10, 2017