If you’re like many women, reading an article or hearing a television commercial that lists the symptoms of depression may give you pause--sadness, fatigue, loss of joy, weight gain or loss, trouble sleeping, irritability—you may feel like it’s describing you but not so severely that you can’t get out of bed in the morning. You still work and go about your usual activities, even if it often feels as if you’re just going through the motions. “I’m just stressed, not depressed,” you think. Perhaps not.
You may suffer from a mild but chronic form of depression called dysthymia. With this mood disorder, sometimes called the common cold of mental illness, symptoms may not be disabling, but they can persist for years. You may have had feelings of gloominess, apathy, pessimism and low energy for so long that they’ve simply become part of your personality or you accept them as a consequence of difficult life circumstances. Perhaps you also suffer chronic physical ailments such as headaches, backaches or gastrointestinal problems but don’t connect these to your mood. While dysthymia won’t keep you from managing your life, it can prevent you from functioning well or feeling good and increases your risk for a major depressive episode.
Dysthymia may be caused by many factors, including genetic, psychological and environmental issues. It may be triggered by a serious loss, a difficult relationship, financial problems or hormonal changes that occur with pregnancy, postpartum and menopause. Normally, the sadness and other symptoms lift after these events, but when they don’t, these feelings may persist for years. Coping with a serious illness and certain medications contributes to depressive disorders. What’s more, women tend to face additional stresses and responsibilities at work and home, such as caring for children and aging parents.
If you think you may suffer from dysthymia, see your doctor for an evaluation. He or she will first rule out other causes of your symptoms such as a viral illness. Treatment will depend on the symptoms’ severity and may include counseling, problem-solving therapy and anti-depressants. Once you begin treatment, try the following strategies to help you redirect negative feelings and thoughts.
- Set realistic goals. Break large projects into smaller, more manageable tasks and set priorities.
- Socialize. Reach out to friends and make new ones. Strike up a conversation with another mom from your child’s class.
- Find activities that make you feel better. Go to a movie or a ball game, attend religious services, take a creative class or begin an exercise program.
Treatments for dysthymia are highly effective, but don’t expect to be able to just snap out of it or pull yourself together on your own. You can lift the veil of sadness and live a happier life, but you must seek help.