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How To Understand Mood Disorders

Read on to discover what classifies a mood disorder and understand each of its causes and symptoms.

From time to time, we all experience changes in our moods. Let’s say we’ve had a really difficult week at work or are dealing with tension in our social circles. Perhaps it’s the changing of the seasons. Maybe, it’s nothing at all and we can’t figure out why we’re feeling a different way. Whether it’s a biological, social, or environmental reason–or a mix of all three factors contributing to distorted emotional well-being, here we will discuss what classifies as a mood disorder, what the symptoms look like, and how to better manage these conditions.

What Are Mood Disorders?

Mood disorders are categorized as serious mental health conditions that alter one’s emotional state, and thus also negatively impact one’s daily life functioning. Those of us who are diagnosed with a mood disorder by a health professional may often encounter moods on the extreme ends of the happiness-to-sadness spectrum or may even experience both extremes (Parker, 2014).

Mood Disorders Causes and Risk Factors

Mood disorders can have varying underlying causes. Research suggests that most mood disorders may be caused by an imbalance in our brain chemistry. However, not all mood disorders are caused by our neurological structure and functioning. Other risk factors may include having a previous diagnosis of a mood disorder, a genetic family history of mood disorders, or a major stress-inducing life event that can significantly change one’s emotional well-being (Rosenthal, 2010). Additional risk factors such as a comorbidity of an anxiety disorder or physical health condition (e.g., heart disease or cancer), may also further aggravate depressive mood disorders, in particular (Parker, 2014).

List of Mood Disorders and Symptoms from the DSM-5

  • Major Depressive Disorder. Often referred to as major depression or clinical depression. This disorder often is preceded by a social or environmental life event that may cause extreme grief or sadness. Depressive symptoms often must be present for at least two weeks for a clinical diagnosis.

  • Bipolar 1 Disorder. Also known as manic-depressive disorder, meaning both manic and depressive episodes can last one to two weeks and those with this disorder may sometimes cycle through episodes quickly.

  • Bipolar 2 Disorder. This presents as cycles of depression and hypomania (rather than mania), which is a less intense form of mania than that in Bipolar 1 Disorder.

  • Cyclothymia Disorder. This type of bipolar disorder is often seen as the mildest version. Patients with this condition experience less severe highs and lows than Bipolar 1 or Bipolar 2 disorder, but present symptoms of chronically irregular mood swings.

  • Persistent Depressive Disorder. Often referred to as dysthymia or dysthymic disorder. While symptoms may not be as severe as major depression, this type of mood disorder can last for two years or longer.

  • Postpartum Depression. Symptoms of depressive moods that occur following the birth of a baby.

  • Seasonal Affective Disorder. Often referred to by the acronym “SAD”. Most commonly experienced during the wintertime when days are shorter and sunlight is less available.

  • Substance-Induced Mood Disorder. This type of disorder can present depressive or manic symptoms and most often occurs during intoxication or abuse of a substance or during withdrawal from a substance.

  • Psychotic Depression. A type of severe depressive disorder that is combined with a psychotic disorder or psychotic episodes. Symptoms of this mood disorder may often include delusions or hallucinations.

  • Adjustment Disorder with Depressed Mood. This type of mood disorder is a psychological response to major life stress and feeling emotionally overwhelmed. For example, if you are getting divorced, dealing with unemployment, or experiencing sudden changes in housing or food security, the stressor or situation causing emotional turmoil can result in this type of mood disorder.

Treatment Options for Mood Disorders

Treatments for mood disorders are not one-size-fits-all and often rely on a mix of psychotherapy and medication. The best course of action to begin treatment for a mood disorder should be to consult a medical professional in order to figure out an action plan together. While the combinations of treatment options for every disorder may look different, let’s view some of the more common treatments from a broader scope (Nemeroff & Owens, 2002).

  • Psychotherapy. Those of us who may be battling a mood disorder might find it particularly helpful to meet with a therapist for talk therapy or counseling sessions.

  • Family Therapy. While mood disorders may only physically affect one person, spouses and family members may also choose to participate in therapy with the patient to learn ways to support and understand their loved one.

  • Antidepressants. For both depressive and bipolar disorders, some patients may benefit from taking antidepressants.

  • Mood Stabilizers. In addition to antidepressants, patients diagnosed with bipolar disorder, in particular, may choose to take medication that stabilizes mood swings.

  • Light Therapy. This form of therapy is mostly prescribed for those of us who may struggle with Seasonal Affective Disorder. Light therapy is not typically supervised by a clinician and can be utilized by the individual on their own. ​

Final Thoughts

Several of us may experience subtle changes in our moods even over the course of the day. And while these subtle changes may be normal, there are distinct differences in what is classified as a mood disorder. We hope this article provided you with the knowledge and insight to learn a bit more about the mood disorders that can severely impact one’s functioning, emotions, and overall quality of life—but more importantly, how symptoms present themselves and treatment options available that may help those of us who are struggling with any of these conditions.


  • ​American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).

  • Nemeroff, C. B., & Owens, M. J. (2002). Treatment of mood disorders. Nature neuroscience, 5(11), 1068-1070.

  • Parker, G. F. (2014). DSM-5 and psychotic and mood disorders. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online, 42(2), 182-190.

  • Rosenthal, R. N. (Ed.). (2010). Managing Depressive Symptoms in Substance Abuse Clients During Early Recovery: Treatment Improvement Protocol. DIANE Publishing.

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