What is atypical depression?

Diana Meeks
Diana Meeks on behalf of Sigma Nursing
Family Practitioner

Atypical depression is a subtype of depression. Causes of atypical depression are not known. Research has identified several possible factors which may trigger depression. Genes may play a role because depression tends to run in families. Problems with the neurotransmitters in the brain may cause depression but so can early trauma, emotional events (divorce, for example), and substance abuse.

Symptoms include a feeling of melancholy and sorrow, as well as a lack of interest in formerly enjoyable activities. These symptoms are the same for most types of depression. The difference is that with atypical depression your mood can improve temporarily if something positive happens in your life. Other symptoms include tendencies to overeat and/or oversleep, feelings of heaviness in the limbs, and an extreme sensitivity to rejection from others. Additionally, atypical depression symptoms do not seem to be affected by tricyclic antidepressants.

Atypical depression is diagnosed by first eliminating other causes for your symptoms. Your physician may do blood tests and perform an examination to make sure there is no physical cause for your weight gain or excessive sleepiness, such as a thyroid that is not working correctly. Afterward, the doctor will ask you questions about your thoughts, feelings and life events to determine if your symptoms possibly indicate atypical depression. Before the official diagnosis can be made, the doctor will ask close-ended questions to see if your symptoms match up with those in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

Atypical depression can be very serious. Without treatment, you can become socially isolated, can suffer from relationship and professional problems, and could even become suicidal. People who have atypical depression may also be more likely to develop a substance abuse problem. To control your symptoms, you will need to develop a long-term treatment plan with your doctor. This plan will include medications and psychotherapy. This form of depression tends to be chronic and usually begins when you are a teenager.

Donna Hill Howes, RN
Family Practitioner

Compared with other kinds of depression, atypical depression carries its own set of special symptoms. These include:

  • sensitivity to rejection or criticism that causes problems in your life
  • relationship problems and trouble having long-lasting relationships
  • increased appetite that may result in weight gain
  • increased need for sleep
  • heaviness in the arms and legs

Atypical depression also shares certain symptoms with other types of depression. These include loss of interest in things you once enjoyed, and feeling sad or low. However, atypical depression may respond better to certain types of psychotherapies and medications.

Dr. John Preston, PsyD
Psychology Specialist

Atypical Depression is a form of major (clinical) depression. Approximately 15% of people suffering with depression have this version of the disorder. Atypical depression has many symptoms that are common to all depressions, e.g. pessimistic and negative thinking, low self-esteem or lack of confidence, suicidal ideas or impulses, loss of sex drive, diminished ability to experience vitality and a sense of aliveness, withdrawal from normal life activities, mood changes: sad, despair, irritability and low frustration. The unique features of atypical depression are: hypersomnia (excessive sleeping; e. g. sleeping 10-12 hours a day, most nights), very pronounced fatigue, and increased appetite (with subsequent weight gain).

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.