Atypical depression is a type of depression that can have some symptoms that are similar to those of major depression, but it does not have the number of symptoms needed for a diagnosis of major depression. Common symptoms of atypical depression include increased appetite or weight gain, sleepiness or excessive sleep, and feeling extremely sensitive to rejection.
Atypical depression is a type of depression with certain specific characteristics. A person with classic major depression has at least five of the following nine symptoms:
sadness or depressed mood most of the day or almost every day
loss of enjoyment in things that were once pleasurable
major change in weight (gain or loss of more than 5% of weight within a month) or appetite
insomnia or excessive sleep almost every day
physically restless or rundown that is noticeable by others
fatigue or loss of energy almost every day
feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness or excessive guilt almost every day
problems with concentration or making decisions almost every day
recurring thoughts of death or suicide, suicide plan, or suicide attempt
In general, people with atypical depression don't have as many of the symptoms that people with classical depression may have. They tend to have first experienced depression at an early age, during their teenage years.
Despite its name, atypical depression is probably rather common. Some doctors believe that it is underdiagnosed.
What are the symptoms of atypical depression?
The main characteristic of atypical depression that distinguishes it from major depression is mood reactivity. In other words, the person with atypical depression will see his or her mood improve if something positive happens. In major depression, positive changes will not bring on a change in mood. In addition, diagnostic criteria call for at least two of the following symptoms to accompany the mood reactivity:
sleeping too much (hypersomnia)
increased appetite or weight gain
having a more intense reaction or increased sensitivity to rejection, resulting in problems with social and work relationships
having a feeling of being weighed down, paralyzed, or "leaden"
A doctor will investigate physical causes for any of these symptoms. That will include a physical exam and tests to look for a problem such as hypothyroidism. With hypothyroidism, having low levels of thyroid hormone can lead to symptoms that include depression and weight gain.
What causes atypical depression?
Depression is believed to be the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain. These chemicals -- neurotransmitters that facilitate communication between brain cells -- include dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. While the exact cause of depression is unknown, there are risk factors for depression, including:
a family history of depression
a significant loss -- from death, divorce, or separation -- that results in grief
interpersonal conflicts and related emotions such as guilt
any type of abuse -- physical, sexual, or emotional
any type of major life event such as moving, changing or losing a job, graduating, retiring
isolation or exclusion from family, friends, or other social groups
How is atypical depression treated?
Doctors are likely to recommend psychotherapy (talk therapy) and/or medications for atypical depression. There are different types of psychotherapy and medications available for treatment. You may be referred to a specialist such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, or other licensed professional for care.