What Is a Mood Disorder? Recognizing and Treating Depression

Sadness. Irritability. Low energy. Could these symptoms be signs of a mood disorder? Find out in our guide to recognizing and treating depression.

Stressed woman with ADHD
Stressed woman with ADHD
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What Is a Mood Disorder?

Simply put, a mood disorder impacts the level or intensity of your moods. The moods themselves (sadness, irritability, etc) are universal — everybody has them. Three telltale signs of a mood disorder are:

1. Intense moods can’t be linked to a specific cause or trigger.
2. They come on gradually (over several weeks or months, not hours or days).
3. Nothing you do to “snap yourself out of it” helps.

If your low mood follows these three guidelines, you may be suffering from major depression.

[Self-Test: Is It Depression?]

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What Are the Symptoms?

Most people use the words “blue” or “down in the dumps” when they talk about depression, because persistent sadness is a common and recognizable symptom. Other symptoms include excessive irritability, sudden weight loss or weight gain, disrupted sleep, and very low energy.

A teen girl with a mood disorder talking to a male psychiatrist
Psychiatrist and patient Teenage girl
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Can I Cure My Depression?

Since depression is a biologic, genetic disorder, most cases respond well to medication — particularly antidepressants. But remember that medication should never be the whole story. When people get depressed, they start to think differently — this is where therapy comes in, particularly cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Therapy helps patients recognize distorted thinking patterns, and tries to get them back to what they were like before they were depressed.

[“I Live With Both ADHD and Depression”]

Pills used to treat mood disorders, held by a female hand
Anti-Depressants against a landscape at fall
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Which Antidepressant Is Best?

There are seven different classes of antidepressant medications. Which one is best? Honestly, none of them — they all work about equally well, which means about a 70 percent response rate. Consequently, the prescription decision is usually influenced by factors like tolerability, cost, insurance coverage, and associated symptoms. Talk with your doctor about a diagnosis and his or her recommended treatment options.

A pharmacist explaining to an older woman how she should treat her mood disorder
Chatting with the Pharmacist
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What Can I Expect from an Antidepressant?

Seventy percent of people get a good response to practically any antidepressant. If you're among the 30 percent who don’t, your next move is to try another class. If you get a response, that’s great — but in some cases, it may not be enough to completely cure your depression. In these cases, we use what are called “augmenting agents” — additional medications like thyroid hormones that work alongside the antidepressant to give it a boost.

[Recognizing Depression]

A woman with a mood disorder, holding a blue clock in front of her face
happy girl holding big blue clock
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How Long Will it Take to Work?

It’s important to take a long-term view, since antidepressants can take time to work. For the first 10 days to 2 weeks, it’s very likely that side effects will outnumber benefits. These can include nausea, weight gain, insomnia, and other unpleasant symptoms. However, after about 2 weeks, you’ll start to notice a drop in your irritability, and crying spells should all but disappear. Then, about 8 weeks after that, many patients enter full remission.

Older woman taking medication for her mood disorder
Woman taking pill out of weekly pill box, close-up
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How Long Do I Stay on Antidepressants?

Multiple studies have shown that if you stop taking the medication less than nine months after going into full remission, there’s a 75 percent chance you’ll lapse back into full depressive syndrome. However, if you continue the medication for a full 12 months and then stop, there’s only about a 5 percent chance you’ll relapse. Try to stick with it for at least a year!

Man with mood disorder looking in mirror and putting on shirt
Hispanic man putting on shirt
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Is This Just a One-Time Incident?

Remember, 85 percent of people who experience one depressive episode will continue to have them for the rest of their lives. If your depression comes back, even after you’ve gone through a cycle of antidepressants, it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you — it’s simply the way your brain is wired.