What are mood disorders?

Mood disorders are a broad category of mental health conditions that drastically affect a person’s emotional state.

Two of the most common mood disorders are depression and bipolar disorder.

It's normal for everyone to have mood changes now and then. But unlike ordinary variations in mood, mood disorders are serious and can last for several weeks or longer. They can cause severe emotional disturbances that interfere with your daily life. You may experience prolonged periods of intense happiness, sadness or both. Some mood disorders also cause feelings of anger and irritability.

Symptoms of mood disorders

Mood disorder symptoms vary based on the type of condition. Here are some of the most common signs of a mood disorder:

Depressive symptoms generally include:

  • Persistent feelings of sadness, helplessness or hopelessness
  • Losing interest in things you once enjoyed
  • Social withdrawal
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Fatigue or loss of motivation
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Suicidal thoughts or tendencies*

*If you have this symptom, it is critical to get help immediately.

Manic symptoms generally include:

  • Rapid speech
  • Racing thoughts
  • Persistently high energy levels
  • Overconfidence and risk-taking behaviors
  • Persistently diminished need for sleep without tiredness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Believing that you have special powers or abilities

Mood disorders can significantly disrupt your life, but they are manageable with the right treatment. Our behavioral health specialists are here to help you find the best treatment plan for you.

Causes of mood disorders

Researchers aren’t sure what exactly causes mood disorders. But there are several factors believed to contribute to depression and bipolar disorder, including:

  • Genetics: Mood disorders often run in families. If you have family members with depression or bipolar disorder, you’re more likely to develop similar conditions.
  • Biological factors: Changes in brain chemistry or brain structure that affect how the brain processes emotions may cause mood disorders.
  • Life events: Environmental factors and significant life changes can trigger mood disorders in some people, such as prolonged stress, traumatic events and certain chronic medical conditions (diabetes, heart disease and Parkinson’s disease).

Types of mood disorders

There are several types of mood disorders that fall underneath depression and bipolar disorder.


29% of adults in the U.S. have been diagnosed with depression at some point in their life. Everyone feels sad or down sometimes, but depression is different. It can cause symptoms that affect the way you feel, eat, sleep and think.

While major depressive disorder is the most familiar of depressive disorders, other specific depressive disorders include:

  • Postpartum depression: This type of depression occurs after childbirth. It’s a common but serious mood disorder that affects about three in 20 new mothers.
  • Persistent depressive disorder: This form of depression lasts for at least two years.
  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD): This type of mood disorder is a form of mild to moderate depression that occurs during certain seasons, most commonly fall and winter.

Bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder (previously called manic-depressive illness or manic depression) results in extreme mood swings that can disrupt your life. These periods alternate between manic highs (sometimes called “mania”) and depression. More than five million adults in the U.S. have bipolar disorder.

While depressive episodes present with the symptoms of major depression, manic episodes are characterized by periods of intense energy (either happiness and enthusiasm or intense anger and irritability) that impair function. In these episodes, people can go days without needing much sleep or getting tired, and often make impulsive and dangerous decisions. In some cases, people lose touch with reality and experience bizarre or unusual thoughts, such as believing they are receiving divine messages or that they have special relationships with celebrities or famous people.

The two most common types of bipolar disorder are:

  • Bipolar I disorder: People with bipolar I have manic episodes that last at least seven days without interruption or are severe enough to require hospitalization. Many will often also have prolonged depressive episodes that occur between manic episodes.
  • Bipolar II disorder: People with bipolar II have periods of depressive episodes and hypomanic episodes, a less severe form of manic episodes than seen in Bipolar I. Chronic depression is more common in bipolar II than bipolar I. Bipolar II disorder can be hard to differentiate from other disorders less easy to recognize than bipolar I disorder. A trained MainLine Behavioral Health Professional can help identify the proper diagnosis for you.

Who is at risk for mood disorders?

Anyone can develop a mood disorder, but certain risk factors may increase the likelihood. These include:

  • Family history: Mood disorders tend to run in families, so having close relatives with depression or bipolar disorder increases your risk. People with a family history of depression are also at a greater risk for bipolar disorder.
  • Stressful life situations: Those who are exposed to ongoing stress, such as being a caregiver or working a high-pressure job, are at a higher risk for mood disorders. Experiencing a painful event, like divorce, the death of a loved one or job loss can also trigger depression.
  • Substance misuse: Use of alcohol or drugs can impact your brain chemistry, which can increase the risk of developing a mood disorder.
  • Medical conditions: Certain medical conditions, such as hormonal imbalances, may increase the risk for mood disorders. Some medications can also increase your risk of mood disorders.
  • Age and gender: While a mood disorder can affect anyone, women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with clinical depression than men are. Additionally, bipolar disorder is most often diagnosed in young adults.

Any of these factors, or a combination of them, can make you more susceptible to a mood disorder. In some cases, depression can arise for no apparent reason.

Mood disorder treatment options

People with mood disorders often have periods with no symptoms and live healthy, full, productive lives. Diagnosis and treatment are generally very effective at minimizing mood disorders' impact.

At Main Line Health, our behavioral health specialists will work with you to determine the best mood disorder treatment for you. Your care may include one or more of the following:

  • Medication, such as antidepressants or mood-stabilizing drugs
  • Group or individual psychotherapy, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
  • Leaning on a support system
  • Other therapies, such as electroconvulsive therapy, transcranial magnetic stimulation and light therapy (for treating SAD)

Diagnosis and testing for mood disorders

In order to diagnose a mood disorder, your behavioral health specialist will perform an evaluation through tests that may include:

  • Exam: You’ll talk with your doctor about your symptoms, experiences and medical history
  • Psychological assessment: Your doctor will ask questions to assess your emotional state and behavior