Mood Disorders

Mood Disorders: What They Are, Symptoms & Treatment

What are Mood Disorders?

Mood disorders are a group of heterogeneous mental health conditions that are defined by the presence of substantial changes in an individual’s emotional state or mood or an alteration in their emotional reactivity to their typical environment. People who experience a mood disorder cannot accurately assess or control their reactions to their world and thereby find it difficult to function normally in day-to-day life. Mood disorders include those that we broadly understand to be depressive illnesses and also bipolar affective or manic-depressive disorders. Mood disorders affect approximately 10-15 percent of the population worldwide. They affect the individual, their friends and family, their workplaces, and their communities. We urgently need a better understanding of mood disorders to address the burdens associated with them.

Mood disorders can only be overlooked at the peril of our ability to recognize them as a real problem and to treat them. They are often misunderstood and stigmatized, meaning people don’t seek help and endure undue suffering. They can also end up with significant impairments in their physical health, social life, and ability to work or study. This article, therefore, aims to describe what mood disorders are, their symptoms, and the various treatment options available.

This is a velvet glove. This is a velvet glove over an iron fist crushing his head in.” Here, I take a holistic perspective on mood disorders, place them in context, and investigate their taxonomy, causes, and psychobiological mechanisms to demystify them and help us all better understand them. With education, appropriate treatment, and support, there is no reason why anyone suffering from mood disorders cannot live a rich and meaningful life. 

What Are Mood Disorders?

Mood disorders are a class of mental illnesses typically defined by pathological extremes of mood that impair a person’s ability to function daily. These disorders can cause intense periods of prolonged sadness and hopelessness, as well as the exuberant ‘highs’ and plummeting ‘lows’ associated with conditions such as major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder.

Central to mood disorders is a dysfunction in the usual means by which the brain regulates mood, ultimately resulting in the persistence of a highly disruptive emotional state, interfering with the individual’s quality of life; we are not talking here about moods as experienced by all of us, but more extreme moods; of longer duration; and more likely, in these more extreme disorders, to be accompanied additionally by cognitive and physiological symptoms that together make for considerable distress and dysfunction.

The spectrum of mood disorders includes various forms, with the most commonly known being:

  • Major Depressive Disorder (MDD): the symptoms include lasting sadness and loss of interest or pleasure in previously enjoyable activities, along with several physical and cognitive symptoms that interfere with a person’s ability to function.
  • Bipolar Disorder: Depressive episodes interspersed with alternating periods of manic and hypomanic episodes. Dramatic variations in mood are characteristic.
  • Dysthymia, also known as Persistent Depressive Disorder, is a chronic depression in which the low mood has persisted for an extended period.
  • Cyclothymic Disorder: Less intense yet more persistent instability than classic bipolar disorder, resulting in mood swings that are less severe than full-blown manias and depressions but impact a person more consistently over an extended period. 

Mood disorders are multidimensional, and because many patients with mood disorders suffer from an emotional disturbance in the context of other psychiatric symptoms, a wealth of information must become available if we are to give those who are affected, their families and loved ones and health professionals the tools to identify and cope with these challenges. 

Causes of Mood Disorders

Mood disorders have a complicated and multifactorial pathogenesis, meaning that they’re the result of a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors, with no single element playing an isolated causative role. Still, the multiple elements are acting in concert to bring about these disorders. 

  • Genetic Factors: Family studies suggest a hereditary component to the occurrence of mood disorders, as they are more common in individuals with a family history of these conditions. Specific genes associated with neurotransmitter systems in the brain (serotonin and dopamine) are thought to underlie susceptibility to mood disorders.
  • Biological Causes: Research on the neurobiology of mood disorders suggests that mood disorders may be associated with brain changes, such as structural and functional brain alterations affecting areas governing mood, cognition, and behavior. Changes in neurotransmitters, hormones, and other physiological conditions can also be implicated in the development of mood disorders.
  • Environmental Factors: Traumatic life events or critical circumstances (e.g., abuse, losses, or stresses, especially those due to relationships) are key to triggering mood disorders in predisposed individuals. Situational or adverse events involving life circumstances (e.g., poverty or culturally influenced inequities) and chronic stressful or unpredictable environments inflate risks.
  • Psychological Factors: Personality characteristics, coping mechanisms, and past mental illness episodes can influence the risk of developing a mood disorder, such as a person with low self-esteem, negative thinking styles, or poor stress management skills.

Knowing what causes mood disorders is part of prevention and treatment. If we know more about the causes behind mood disorders, prevention and treatment become part of a seamless, holistic approach. While prevention and treatment for physical conditions such as diabetes often begin with doctors, genetic and family history, and scientifically based prescriptions and practices, those suffering from mood disorders today may not receive this kind of multifaceted help. Patients need to be able to think about their own lives and experiences and make decisions about their health. 

Genetic, environmental, and developmental causes, as well as the roles of the brain and epigenetics, are part of understanding what causes mood disorders. This information can then be part of prevention and treatment so persons can create lives that include genetic counseling and analysis, psychological support from therapists, diet, lifestyle changes, and medical support or palliatives that support those suffering from mood disorders – perhaps the most common mental health challenges facing the human race today. Knowing what causes mood disorders must also be a part of reducing the stigma attached to mental illness. Armed with knowledge about how we arrive at any mental health challenge, we can take an approach far more likely to be empathetic, supportive, and non-judgmental. 

Symptoms of Mood Disorders

Symptoms associated with mood disorders differ depending on the type of mood disorder, but they generally influence mood, behavior, thinking, and physical well-being. Depression can result in distinctively different symptom clusters compared with bipolar disorder, for example. However, there is sufficient overlap among types of mood disorders to make broad generalizations about these mental health conditions.

Emotional Symptoms:

  • Persistent feelings of sadness, emptiness, or hopelessness
  • Irritability or excessive anger
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Sudden mood swings, from extreme highs (mania) to lows (depression)
  • Behavioral Symptoms:
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
  • Withdrawal from social interactions
  • Changes in appetite or weight (significant weight loss or gain)
  • Insomnia or excessive sleeping

Cognitive Symptoms:

  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, or making decisions
  • Persistent negative thoughts and anxiety
  • Thoughts of death or suicide, including suicide attempts

Physical Symptoms:

  • Fatigue or lack of energy
  • Physical aches and pains without a clear cause
  • Altered activity levels, either slowed movements or restlessness and agitation

The nature of these symptoms can also help to distinguish between various types of mood disorders. Depressive disorder, for example, is defined in part by the constancy of its symptoms: the official diagnosis of major depressive disorder requires that depressive symptoms are present nearly every day. In contrast with unhappiness, depression makes it hard to enjoy anything. Most are characterized by periods of illness punctuated by relatively lengthy periods of remission. Bipolar disorder is one such example, being diagnosed when a person experiences at least one episode of either depression or mania (or hypomania, a milder version of mania). Manic symptoms include an inflated sense of self-esteem, disturbed sleep patterns, talkativeness, racing thoughts, anxiety, and – in the case of full-blown mania – periods of psychosis.

Awareness of these symptoms is essential for early intervention for mood disorders. Anyone who experiences these symptoms should consult with a doctor for a psychiatric evaluation and treatment to contain the disorder and mitigate its burden on an individual’s well-being. Differences in reported symptoms also reflect the disparities of individual care experiences, where the treatment must be calibrated to a person’s unique experience and challenges. 

Diagnosing Mood Disorders

The diagnosis of mood disorders also provides the gateway for scientifically derived interventions aimed at treating them and facilitating recovery. Here is what it entails: The person’s mental health history and current level of functioning are obtained. The patient’s complaint is elicited, and the symptoms are assessed in the context of the illness displayed by the patient. This is done to classify and diagnose the most appropriate illness category.

Clinical Assessment: Detailed interviews to determine the patient’s current symptoms and duration, how long the symptoms have been present, the onset of the disorder, any prior mental illnesses, family history of surgery-related mental illness, and how the symptoms impact daily activities.

  • Psychological ‘assessment’: This consists of standardized psychological tests and self-report (self-assessment) scales that can indicate the severity of mood symptoms and the type of mood disorder present.
  • Medical Examination: Because certain illnesses can present with or exacerbate mood disorders, your clinician might perform a physical exam that includes laboratory tests to screen for other causes of your symptoms, such as thyroid abnormalities or nutritional deficiencies.
  • Diagnostic Criteria: Clinicians use established diagnostic criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) or the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) that differentiate mood disorders based on type, duration, and severity.

Diagnosing a mood disorder is often a nuanced, time-sensitive process. It might involve a series of meetings and screenings and sometimes misdiagnoses in cases that are more complicated and have multiple comorbid conditions. But whatever the complexity of the case, it’s always important to take time for careful and ethical evaluation to arrive at a complete diagnosis – one that helps with effective treatment planning that’s individualized to the person’s unique needs.

Diagnosing Mood Disorders

It is difficult to diagnose mood disorders due to their complex nature, mainly because they always involve a historical perspective of someone’s experience of symptoms and behaviors. We have no blood test or imaging procedure that can help us identify mood disorders.

  • Clinical Interviews: These start with a discussion that zooms into an individual’s emotional experiences, recurring behaviors, family history, and more with a mental health professional.
  • Psychological Evaluations: These can often be used with standardized psychological assessments, such as questionnaires or mood scales, to give the individual a quick read on the severity and frequency of their symptoms.
  • Medical Assessments: It is not uncommon for healthcare providers to exhaustively rule out a physical basis for mood disturbances through a series of medical tests. Examples of such tests include a blood draw (to screen for hormonal imbalances, thyroid issues, or substance use) and imaging tests (e.g., computerized tomography [CT] scan or magnetic resonance imaging [MRI] of the brain).
  • Use of Diagnostic Manuals: Specified criteria, as outlined in authoritative guidelines such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) or the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), are to be utilized to facilitate accurate and standardized diagnosis.
  • Recognition of Patterns of Symptoms: Since mood disorder diagnosis hinges heavily on patterns of elevated mood and depression – for example, the presence of manic episodes for bipolar disorder – clinicians will look carefully for specific symptoms and how long they have persisted (how long the manic episode has lasted, whether it has been episodic, whether the depressive episode was specific to bipolar illness, etc) to distinguish different diseases.
  • Teamwork: Initially, the process would sometimes involve collaboration with other health professionals to assess the individual’s health picture.
  • Follow-up Assessments: Diagnosis of mood disorders is not an ‘event’ but must be evaluated repeatedly. Follow-up assessments help monitor the client’s reactions to therapeutic intervention and adjustments in the treatment plan.

The point behind diagnosis is to gain a fuller, more nuanced understanding of the person’s difficulties, which underpins a carefully tailored treatment plan. So, it’s essential to recognize the minute differences and qualifying shades in understanding this symptom, as these can substantially change an individual’s recovery path and treatment.

Treatment Options

Given the inherent complexity of these conditions, it’s not surprising that their treatment is similarly multifaceted. Whether mild or severe, virtually all treatment regimens include a combination of drugs, psychotherapy, and other lifestyle modifications, which can help alleviate symptoms, prevent recurrence or relapse, and help people regain their level of function.

  • Medication: Usually, it is a fundamental form of treatment and consists of the use of antidepressants, mood stabilizers, or antipsychotic drugs. The reason for this is to keep the chemicals in the brain at an even turbulence when it comes to emotions.
  • Psychotherapy: Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), interpersonal therapy (IPT), and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) can all be effective alternative treatments because they teach coping, problem-solving, and relationship/interaction skills.
  • Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT): When drugs and psychotherapy have already been unsuccessful in severe cases, ECT may be considered as a last alternative. This treatment passes a brief electrical current through the brain under anesthesia.
  • Lifestyle Modifications: Adequate sleep and sleep hygiene, regular exercise, a healthy diet, and stress-reduction activities/exercises (e.g., mindfulness and relaxation techniques).
  • Support Groups: Participation in peer-support groups can provide a social network and a shared experience, which can be great comfort and lessen isolation. 
  • Complementary Therapies: Some can benefit from complementary therapies, such as acupuncture, massage, or yoga, which can be included in their treatment plan.
  • Long-term Follow-up: Spontaneous remission or changes in the course of mood disorders mean that patients will need the ongoing evaluation of the effectiveness of the treatment. This might include changing medication doses, therapeutic approaches, or switching treatment.

To reduce symptoms in the short- and the long-term and return the individual to full function, the standard of treatment in mood disorders strives to not only relieve symptoms in the present but also to offer tools for long-term management, greater resilience, and enhanced quality of life overall. Treatment plans are tailored to the needs of each individual’s life and are highly and specifically personalized.

Impact of Mood Disorders on Daily Life

Most facets of daily life are affected to some degree by mood disorders – one’s emotional stability, physical health and well-being, personal relationships, professional achievements, everyday activities, work performance, and more. Here is a rundown.

  • Relationships with Family and Friends: Mood disorders can impair relationships with family, friends, and significant others. The unpredictability of one’s emotional state and withdrawal can lead to differences of opinion, arguments, and the alienation or withdrawal of the social support structure.
  • Employment and Productivity: Mood disorders are generally accompanied by reduced productivity, absenteeism, and, in some cases, unemployment in the workplace. Frequently, the cognitive symptoms—e.g., slowed thought processes, disorganized thinking and reasoning decreased ability to focus, concentrate, or make decisions—significantly impair one’s ability to work.
  • Educational Attainment: Mood disorders can wreak havoc on students’ attention to learning and the completion of educational pursuits by impairing motivation and interfering with attention and working memory. Across the spectrum of mood disorder severity, the goals of maintaining high academic performance or completing educational milestones can become significantly more challenging for students with mood disorders due to motivational and cognitive impairments.
  • Routines and Self-Care: Keeping up with domestic chores, bathing, or engaging in regular exercise can seem like particularly Herculean tasks when mood disorders hit during a depressive episode or a period of mood instability.
  • Physical Health: Mood disorders often interact with physical health. Chronic stress from mood disorders can lead to a variety of physical complaints, such as heart disease, diabetes, and impaired immune function.
  • Substance use: People with mood disorders may self-medicate with alcohol or drugs and suffer from substance use disorders, which can co-occur with and complicate the mood disorder and also overall health.
  • Diminished Quality of Life: In the long term, mood disorders can rob people of their quality of life. The constant emotional ups and downs can keep one from enjoying life, setting goals, and even showing up at work.

Acknowledging just how much mood disorders influence people’s daily lives might help sufferers and others around them understand the importance of staying on top of treatment or, when necessary, seeking support from others. Effective management of these disorders maximizes the chances of minimizing the disruptiveness of mood disturbances and supporting people through to more stable, happier lives.

Prevention and Management

Although mood disorders can be challenging, there are strategies for prevention and management that can help reduce the impact and prevent or lower the risk of their onset or recurrence. Here’s a rundown of these proactive strategies.  There is evidence that several interpersonal therapies can be effective in reducing depression and anxiety. For instance, one review from 2013 examined the efficacy of interpersonal psychotherapy, a treatment developed explicitly for mood disorders, and it was found to ‘successfully and durably treat’ them. Additionally, group interpersonal psychotherapy also demonstrated positive outcomes for the prevention of depressive relapse and the management of chronic depression.

  • Early intervention: the early warning signs of mood disorders can be spotted and treated to prevent symptoms from progressing. Early intervention can reduce the duration of episodes and improve longer-term outcomes.
  • Education and Awareness: Education and awareness are significant as they can work at two levels: increasing awareness in the general public and your doctor. Such a campaign can aid in timely diagnoses and treatment.
  • Stress Management: Because stress can trigger your mood disorder, learning how to manage your stress in practical ways (relaxation techniques, time management tools, problem-solving strategies) is essential.
  • Healthy lifestyle: engage in regular physical activity, follow a nutritious diet, get enough sleep, and avoid alcohol and drugs. Regular physical activity, a healthy diet, sufficient sleep, and avoidance of alcohol and drug use are healthy lifestyle choices that help to support even and stable moods.
  • Support Systems: A support network of family and friends and support and recovery groups can help maintain an emotional lifeline.
  • Therapeutic Strategies: Long-term psychotherapy may assist in the development of coping mechanisms against negative thoughts, stress, and challenges associated with mood disorders.
  • Medication adherence: For those prescribed medication, adhering to their medication regimen is essential to manage symptoms and prevent relapse.
  • Regular check-ups: These range from routine medical check-ups with psychiatrists and general practitioners to simple tests such as blood pressure and cognitive evaluations. These allow the individual’s condition to be monitored, predictive changes in treatment to be made, and perhaps even prevention and mitigation of some of the adverse effects.
  • Mindfulness and Meditation: These practices can enhance emotional regulation and have been shown to impact mood disorders positively. 

Preventing and treating mood disorders thus becomes a blend of personal skills, social support, and professional care. A holistic perspective that emphasizes the psychophysiological links and strategies can strengthen a person’s resilience to vulnerabilities and help them achieve healthy and more satisfying lives. 


To summarise, mood disorders are multifactorial conditions in which suffering is influenced by a complex web of self and other perceptions, which can be difficult to disentangle, leading to challenging decisions regarding diagnosis, treatment, and management. Failure to understand the complexity of these conditions can result in a reductionist assessment of mood disorders by clinicians. It is, however, hoped that this paper has shown that a scientific comprehension of mood disorders is required if we wish to show compassion and sensitivity to those suffering, both as healthcare professionals and in society as a whole. While mood disorders can affect all areas of life, the future of mental health research holds hopeful possibilities for effective treatment and management strategies, allowing sufferers to regain control over their lives.

Understanding, diagnosing, treating, and managing a mood disorder is not a journey traveled alone. Specifically, a person who has a mood disorder is not alone. Healthcare professionals, family, and peers are all participants within the spheres of support shared by those with mood disorders. So, too, increasing public awareness of these conditions and a corresponding de-stigmatization process are leading more people to come forward and seek help without embarrassment.

Recognizing the crucial value of ongoing education, early intervention, and a support community, the author encourages sufferers to seek help and argues that the mental health community needs further research and intervention. These continued efforts will aid and ultimately better the lives of sufferers of mood disorders, allowing them the freedom to live with the resources and support they deserve. 

Finally, with every breath we take, we should pledge never to allow mood disorders to become a hidden pandemic. Instead, they should be greeted with the full expansion of our compassion, comprehension, care, and the necessary resources to allow sufferers to live with dignity and hope.

For individuals dealing with mood disorders or seeking support for them, there are several resources and organizations available that offer help, education, and community.

The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) provides extensive resources, including in-person and online support groups, educational materials, wellness tools, and advocacy information. They emphasize the importance of peer support and education as a part of wellness for those with mood disorders​​.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) is another valuable resource that offers detailed information on the signs, symptoms, treatments, and studies related to mood disorders like depression. They also provide an overview of various types of mood disorders and discuss the different demographic groups that these disorders may affect​​.

Mayo Clinic is renowned for its patient care and has comprehensive information regarding the diagnosis and treatment of mood disorders. Their approach includes talk therapy, medications, and, for some, brain stimulation therapies. They emphasize the importance of an individualized treatment plan and provide many resources to educate individuals on managing it.

  1. Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA)
  2. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) – Depression
  3. Mayo Clinic – Mood Disorders
  4. Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA)
  5. – Mood Disorders
  6. World Health Organization (WHO) – Mental Disorders
  7. American Psychiatric Association – Mood Disorders
  8. PsychCentral – Mood Disorders
  9. Harvard Health Publishing – Mood Disorders
  10. American Psychological Association (APA) – Depression

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