Cyclothymia (Cyclothymic Disorder)

What is Cyclothymia?

Cyclothymia is a mental health condition characterized by mood swings between emotional highs and lows. Some experts consider it to be a form of bipolar disorder, yet the shifts in mood are not nearly as pronounced. Those with cyclothymia have less difficulty functioning on a day-to-day basis, and its affects are relatively mild when compared to most other mental disorders. It is a considerably uncommon condition, affecting up to 1% of people in the United States. For most, it begins during a person’s adolescent years or in early adulthood. While genetics are known to be a factor, it is not entirely clear what causes it.

It can be difficult to pinpoint exactly when cyclothymia first sets in. Mood swing patterns are rarely predictable, and any given mood can last for several days or even weeks at a time. In between these shifts, a person can appear and behave completely normal. Conversely, there may be no downtime between mood swings. Sometimes the condition presents as a borderline mental illness. Other times, it does not interfere with daily life at all and patients are very successful in everything they do.

What are the Symptoms of Cyclothymia?

Most symptoms of cyclothymia are very similar to bipolar disorder. People with this condition will often experience:

  • Marked shifts in mood
  • Mild depression
  • Irritability
  • Hypomania
  • Chronic depression

Cyclothymia Causes

There doesn’t appear to be one specific cause of cyclothymia, but instead, it seems that several factors are at play. Firstly, brain chemistry seems to play a role. Neurotransmitters, which are chemicals which occur naturally in the brain and help to send messages between brain cells, can affect our mood. If the normal balance of neurotransmitters is affected, mood may become lower than normal or it may fluctuate between lows and mild highs.

In some instances, this change in brain chemistry could be down to genetics. Many people with cyclothymia have a family history of the disorder. This suggests that certain genes could influence our brain chemistry and make us more susceptible to the condition.

Environmental factors also seem to influence cyclothymia.

It is often triggered by very stressful or emotionally traumatic life events, such as:

  • The loss of a loved one
  • Being made redundant from work
  • The breakdown of a relationship
  • Long term financial problems
  • Physical, emotional or sexual abuse.

How is Cyclothymia Treated?

Very often, cyclothymia is left undiagnosed and untreated, as symptoms are mild enough that the patient does not feel the need to seek medical care.

When treatment is needed, it is usually the depressive complications that persuade a person to get help. In most cases, therapy and counseling are recommended. Psychotherapy, family therapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy have all shown to be beneficial for those with the condition. There are no medications specifically approved for cyclothymia, although antidepressants and mood stabilizers can be prescribed.

Cyclothymia Prevention

There isn’t a definitive way to prevent cyclothymia, but those with a family history of the disorder who are at an increased risk themselves may want to take steps to minimize long periods of stress, which could trigger it. Make time within your day to day schedule to relax and recuperate, and consider meditation or another relaxing activity which could help you to manage stress levels.

Counseling or talking therapies may also be helpful for managing stress, and for processing emotional trauma which could also trigger cyclothymia. Being able to talk about difficult events and emotions in a confidential, safe environment can be incredibly helpful. Having regular appointments with a psychotherapist may also help you to identify early warning signs of cyclothymia which could allow for early intervention and more successful treatment.

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Last Reviewed:
September 20, 2016
Last Updated:
December 12, 2017