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Mood Disorders: What Is Cyclothymic Disorder?

Bipolar disorder causes severe, unusual shifts in mood and energy that affect your ability to do normal tasks at home, school, or work. Cyclothymic disorder is often thought of as a mild form of bipolar disorder.

With cyclothymic disorder, you have low-grade high periods (hypomanias) as well as brief, fleeting periods of depression that don't last as long (less than 2 weeks at a time) as in a major depressive episode.  The hypomanias in cyclothymic disorder are similar to those seen in bipolar II disorder, and do not progress to full-blown manias. For example, you may feel an exaggerated sense of productivity or power, but you don't lose connection with reality. In fact, some people feel the "highs" of cyclothymic disorder are even enjoyable. They tend to not be as disabling as they are with bipolar disorder.

Up to 1% of the U.S. population -- equal numbers of men and women -- has cyclothymia. Its cause is unknown, but genetics may play a role; cyclothymia is more common in people with relatives who have bipolar disorder. Symptoms usually appear in adolescence or young adulthood. But because symptoms are mild, it is often difficult to tell when cyclothymia begins.

Symptoms of Cyclothymic Disorder

A diagnosis of cyclothymic disorder may result from simply describing symptoms like these:

  • Episodes that involve brief, recurrent periods of depression and, at other times, episodes of hypomania; this pattern of episodes must be present for at least 2 years.
  • Symptoms that persist, creating fewer than 2 symptom-free months in a row.

The episodes of cyclothymic disorder are often somewhat unpredictable. Either depression or hypomania can last for days or weeks, interspersed with a month or two of normal moods. Or, you may have no "normal" periods in between. In some cases, cyclothymic disorder progresses to full-blown bipolar disease.

Treatment for Cyclothymic Disorder

Some people with mild symptoms of cyclothymia are able to live successful, fulfilling lives. Others find their relationships troubled by depression, impulsive actions, and strong emotions. For these people, short-term medications may bring relief. However, cyclothymic disorder may not respond as well to medications as does bipolar disorder. A combination of mood stabilizers and psychotherapy is most effective. Mood stabilizers include lithium and antiseizure drugs such as Depakote, Tegretol, or Lamictal.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Joseph Goldberg, MD on February 11, 2014
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