Cyclothymia: Are Your Mood Swings Normal — or Something More?

Bipolar’s milder cousin has its own ups and downs
Sad woman emotional

Do mood swings sometimes overtake you for no apparent reason? Maybe they’re not as extreme as the roller coaster highs and lows that come with bipolar disorder. However, if they create an ongoing problem in your life, you may have cyclothymia, bipolar’s milder — and rarer — cousin.

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Although symptoms aren’t typically as disruptive as symptoms associated with bipolar I and II, cyclothymia can signal bigger problems looming on the horizon. So it’s a good idea to mention these mood swings to your doctor.

“Cyclothymia causes a sort of mini-depression and mini-hypomania,” psychiatrist Minnie Bowers-Smith, MD. “It is a chronic, low-grade condition.”

To be diagnosed with cyclothymia, adults must have had episodes for at least two years. Cyclothymia is quite rare in children and teens, but to receive a diagnosis, they must have had episodes for at least one year.

To understand cyclothymia, it helps to first understand bipolar disorder.

How does bipolar disorder affect you?

When you have bipolar disorder, you have periods of both depression and mania or hypomania that last for days, weeks or even months. Episodes of hypomania are briefer and cause fewer problems than episodes of mania.

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You’re most likely familiar with the symptoms of depression, which include:

  • Decreased interest in pleasurable activities.
  • Weight changes.
  • Slowed thinking and movement.
  • Fatigue or loss of energy.
  • Feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide.

Mania is the opposite of depression, and its symptoms include:

  • Inflated self-esteem or grandiosity.
  • A decreased need for sleep.
  • Rapid or pressured speech.
  • Racing thoughts.
  • Distractibility.
  • Increased activity levels.
  • Impulsive or high-risk behavior.

“If you recognize a milder form of some of these symptoms in yourself, you may have cyclothymia,” says Dr. Bowers-Smith.

How does cyclothymia affect you?

When you have cyclothymia, you experience periods of depression and periods of hypomania. “However, you have fewer symptoms, and your episodes aren’t severe or long-lasting enough to meet the criteria for bipolar disorder,” says Dr. Bowers-Smith.

How can you tell the difference between cyclothymia and life’s everyday ups and downs we all experience? Dr. Bowers-Smith uses three other criteria to make a diagnosis:

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  1. Do your moods affect the way you function? Are your moods causing problems at work, at home or in other areas of your life?
  2. Do moods seem to come out of nowhere? Do mood changes seem disproportionate — or unrelated — to the circumstances of your life? Do relatively small issues trigger them?
  3. Are your moods out of control? Are you unable to take steps to make yourself feel better or to calm yourself down?

What can you do about cyclothymia?

If you suspect you may have this condition, talk to your doctor or to a mental health professional. Getting help will allow you to avoid the problems cyclothymia may be causing in your life now and in the future.

Taking this step is also important because having cyclothymia increases your risk for bipolar disorder. And the sooner you get treatment, the sooner you’ll learn how to handle mood swings and maintain your mental health.

Dr. Bowers-Smith recommends psychotherapy over medications. Although bipolar disorder requires mood-stabilizing drugs, the side effects can be problematic. “The symptoms of cyclothymia aren’t typically severe enough to justify their use,” Dr. Bowers-Smith says.

“People who are in an emergency situation should consider an intensive outpatient program which will also teach them many coping skills. While some people will need medication, it’s not necessarily the same amount or the same type of medication that people with bipolar disorder are on,” she adds.

Find a good therapist — it can make a real difference in your life. You’ll learn how to identify your triggers, better handle stress and develop solid skills for managing your moods.

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