What is cyclothymia?

With the help of a counselling psychologist, we explore the lesser-known mental health condition of cyclothymia

Throughout our lives, our mental health will naturally fluctuate as we face challenges, as well as periods of joy and happiness. While this is a normal, natural thing, for some people this cycle is more extreme, and they find that their moods can change rapidly, impacting both their own everyday lives and their relationships with others.

Here, with the help of counselling psychologist, Michelle Williams, we’re exploring the mood disorder, cyclothymia – delving into what makes it different from other mental health conditions, and examining the impact this relatively unknown disorder has on the lives of those who live with it.

What is cyclothymia?

“Cyclothymia, or cyclothymic disorder, can be characterised by moods cycling between feeling elevated and depressed – but in a person who does not meet the criteria for bipolar I or II disorder, or major depressive disorder,” Michelle explains. “The elevated moods are punctuated by feeling good, not needing as much sleep, and having a lot of energy – whereas the depressed moods involve feeling low, needing more sleep, and losing interest in things that normally interest you.”

A rare mood disorder, cyclothymia is also known by its unofficial term ‘bipolar III’, and it’s often seen as a milder form of bipolar disorder. It is for this reason that most people who actually have the disorder never formally receive a diagnosis.

Cyclothymia and bipolar disorder

Cyclothymia is a term that isn’t as well known as its cousin bipolar disorder, a mental health condition that causes extreme mood swings and has many similarities to cyclothymia. Symptoms can overlap in that they both follow a pattern of moods; periods of feeling low followed by periods of extreme happiness or excitement.

The key difference is that moods can last for a longer period of time with cyclothymia, and they are significantly milder than the moods experienced with bipolar disorder. You may feel sluggish, unmotivated, and lack interest in the usual things you enjoy, but you will still be able to go about your daily life. When you experience a high mood with cyclothymia (also known as hypomania), you may feel extremely happy, upbeat, and full of energy, but don’t need a lot of sleep. It’s common you’ll experience ‘normal’ moods in between the mood disturbances.

Treatment for cyclothymia

Leaving cyclothymia undiagnosed can be unhelpful, and it can affect your behaviour, relationships, and everyday interactions, so it’s important to consult your GP if you suspect that you might be experiencing symptoms.

“Something that you can do to help your health professional is to maintain a mood chart that keeps a daily record of your mood, sleep patterns, and any other factors that are affecting your mood,” says Michelle.

This is an activity that can then be taken to any initial appointments, and be passed on to help health professionals identify, diagnose and, in turn, recommend the most appropriate treatment.

Mood disorders can affect the way you react and behave in certain situations – for example, when experiencing a bout of low mood, you may struggle with excessive guilt, feelings of worthiness, or anxiety. In this state, you may respond to an everyday situation in a highly sensitive manner, experiencing intense worry, or severe self-deprecating thoughts.

« Cyclothymia can be characterised by moods cycling between
feeling elevated and depressed »

When it comes to mood disorders, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is particularly helpful for teaching you how to identify these emotionally charged reactions, and challenge negative thoughts – assisting with stabilising your mood and influencing more positive behaviour.

Cyclothymia is no different, and is typically treated via a combination of mood stabilising medication and CBT. “The aims of treatment are to reduce the frequency and severity of your symptoms, to reduce the risk of relapse of symptoms, and decrease your risk of developing bipolar I or II disorder,” Michelle explains. “It can also be really useful to join a support group.”

People who have cyclothymia are at a greater risk of developing bipolar disorder, so while the emotional ‘highs’ may seem pleasant, if you do suspect you may be experiencing something more complicated, it’s always best to speak to your GP.

Mood disorders are often strongly linked to alcohol and substance misuse, as people turn to these self-medicating methods to help manage the disorder. Talking therapies such as CBT can also be a helpful tool to support individuals with any alcohol or substance misuse problems.

So remember, mental health is complicated, it’s a spectrum that encompasses many different experiences, but no matter how ‘mild’ your experiences may seem, you’re always worthy of help and support.

To connect with a counsellor to discuss low moods, or symptoms of cyclothymia, visit counselling-directory.org.uk

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