Written by Amber Erickson Gabbey | Published on August 15, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Is Dysthymia?

Dysthymia is chronic depression with recurring symptoms of sadness and hopelessness lasting for several years. It is not characterized by acute depressive episodes but by an ongoing depressed feeling. Dysthymia is most common in women and is believed to be hereditary. Although it is a low-grade depression, Dysthymia is still a serious condition. Approximately six percent of the population is thought to have dysthymia.

What Causes Dysthymia?

The specific cause of dysthymia is unknown. Risk factors for developing dysthymia include

  • a family history of the condition
  • imbalances in the brain
  • gender (it is more common in women)
  • life stress or trauma
  • any chronic physical illness, such as heart disease or diabetes
  • other mental health disorders, such as anxiety or addiction
  • a history of major depressive episodes
  • physical brain trauma such as concussion

Dysthymia can develop in the elderly because of loneliness, physical disability, or a decline in mental state. In older men, low testosterone may be a factor.

Symptoms of Dysthymia

The symptoms of dysthymia are similar to symptoms of general depression. The difference is that dysthymia is chronic, with symptoms occurring on most days for at least two years.

The symptoms of dysthymia include

  • feelings of sadness or hopelessness
  • disturbed sleep (too little or too much)
  • low energy
  • changes in or loss of appetite
  • difficulty concentrating
  • indecisiveness
  • lack of interest in daily activities
  • poor self-esteem
  • negative outlook (for yourself and others)

Diagnosing Dysthymia

To diagnose dysthymia, your doctor will do a routine physical and psychological examination. He or she will ask questions to assess your current mental and emotional state. Be prepared to discuss your symptoms.

Treating Dysthymia

Medication and psychotherapy (talk therapy) are the most common treatments for dysthymia.


The medications used for dysthymia are the same ones used to treat major depression. These commonly include fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline (Zoloft), paroxetine (Paxil), and citalopram (Celexa). You may need to try different medications and dosages to find an effective solution for you.


Talk therapy is a beneficial treatment option for many people. Seeing a therapist is an effective way to learn to express your thoughts and feelings. You will also learn how to cope with your emotions. The following types of talk therapy are often helpful:

  • Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) teaches you ways to correct negative thoughts. You become more aware of your symptoms and what makes them worse, as well as learning skills that will help you deal with your feelings.
  • Psychodynamic (insight-oriented) psychotherapy helps you understand the factors that may cause your depressive thoughts, behaviors, and feelings.
  • Support groups give you a chance to share your feelings with others who are experiencing similar problems.

Lifestyle Changes

Dysthymia will not just go away, but you can be an active participant in your treatment plan. Lifestyle remedies include

  • exercising
  • eating a healthy diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables
  • learning about warning signs of depression
  • avoiding drugs and alcohol
  • taking supplements such as St. John’s wort, SAMe, and Omega-3 fatty acids
  • seeing an acupuncturist
  • practicing yoga, tai chi, meditation, or guided imagery
  • journaling

Long-Term Outlook for Dysthymia

Because dysthymia is a chronic condition, some people will not recover completely. Treatment will help many people manage their symptoms, but it is not successful for all patients. Some patients’ symptoms can cause personal or professional difficulties.

Depression does increase your risk of suicide. If you or someone you know has dysthymia, be aware of behaviors that could signal suicidal thoughts. These behaviors include

  • giving away your belongings
  • withdrawing more than usual
  • injuring yourself

Dysthymia can develop into more serious depression if left untreated. It is important to seek professional help.

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