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ABCs of Mood Disorders

Affect: A feeling, mood, or emotion, or the visible, outward appearance of feeling.

Antidepressant: A medication that works on chemicals in the brain to help lift symptoms of depression. There are several classes or types of antidepressants which act on different combinations of brain chemicals.

Antipsychotic: A medication that works to relieve symptoms such as delusions, racing thoughts, hallucinations, paranoia and other symptoms that may appear during mania or depression.

Atypical: A form of depression or bipolar disorder that does not follow usual or expected patterns.

Bipolar: A disorder characterized by switching between the two extremes or "poles" of mania, a highly active or agitated state, and depression, a sad, withdrawn state.

Bipolar I disorder: Bipolar disorder characterized by alternating states of mania and depression.

Bipolar II disorder: Bipolar disorder characterized by alternating states of depression and hypomania, a milder form of mania.

Bipolar disorder NOS: Bipolar disorder that does not follow a pattern, or follows a pattern different from bipolar I or bipolar II disorder.

Chronic: Recurring.

Clinical trials: Research studies involving people that test the effectiveness of different types of treatments and/or medications.

Cyclothymia (cyclothymic disorder): A form of bipolar disorder characterized by alternating hypomania and mild depression.

Delusion: A belief, such as “I have figured out the meaning of life,”  “I have been chosen to save everyone on earth,” or “Everyone is talking about me,” that is exaggerated or untrue.  Delusions may be part of mania or depression.

Depression: A period of at least two weeks of depressed mood, along with loss of interest or pleasure and at least five of the following symptoms: fatigue or low energy, changes in weight or appetite, changes in sleep habits, slowed or agitated movements, feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt, inability to concentrate, and thoughts of death or suicide.

Disorder: An illness, disease, syndrome or condition.

Dysthymia (dysthymic disorder):  An illness characterized by a chronically depressed mood for most of the day, more days than not, for at least two years, with symptom-free periods lasting less than two months. Dysthymia may be difficult to identify or diagnose because the person may believe that sadness is part of his or her personality. While dysthymia is not as severe as major depression, it can be just as disabling.

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT):  A form of treatment first used in the 1930s, which has been modified to be much gentler and safer in the 2000s. ECT works by applying a small electric current to the brain which causes a small seizure and can relieve symptoms of depression or mania when traditional treatments do not work, or immediate relief is needed.

Episode:  A period of manic or depressive symptoms that often interferes with life.

Euthymia: A stable, even mood.

Euthymic: Having a stable, even mood.

GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid): A neurotransmitter that acts by binding to specific receptors on both sides of the synapse. Medications that increase GABA typically have anti-anxiety, anti-convulsive or mood stabilizing properties.

Hallucination:  Seeing or hearing things that are not there.  Hallucinations may occur with severe mania, or with depression that has psychotic features.

Hypomania:  A milder form of mania characterized by a period of at least four days during which a person has a noticeable personality change along with milder manic symptoms which may include enthusiasm, irritability, racing thoughts, less need for sleep, increased productivity, distractibility and pleasure-seeking. Hypomania is not easily diagnosed, in part because many people mistake their symptoms for a really good day or don’t report them because they are enjoyable.

Ideation: The process of forming and relating thoughts, feelings ideas. This term “suicidal ideation” is often used to describe the symptom of depression in which a person becomes obsessed with death and motivated to take his or her own life. This symptom needs to be treated immediately.

Inpatient: Treatment that takes place inside a facility. Inpatient treatment is often recommended for people whose symptoms interfere with their lives to an extent that they are not able to care for themselves.  Inpatient treatment for a psychiatric condition usually lasts 1-3 weeks, depending on the facility and the person’s medical insurance.

Magnetic stimulation therapy (MST): MST uses powerful magnetic fields to induce a small, mild seizure, similar to one produced through ECT. Research studies involving people have only recently begun. Researchers believe MST will be able to treat specific areas of the brain. It is hoped that this treatment will not affect memory or concentration. However, because the procedure causes a seizure, general anesthesia is required. The FDA has not yet approved MST for treatment of depression or bipolar disorder. Clinical trials are ongoing.

Mania: A period of elevated or irritable mood lasting at least one week (or less if hospitalization is necessary) which includes four or more of the following symptoms: inflated self-esteem, decreased need for sleep, talkativeness, racing thoughts, distractibility, increase in goal-directed activity, or excessive involvement in pleasurable activities.

Mixed episode/mixed mania: A period during which symptoms of mania and depression are both present. May also be called dysphoric mania.

Mood:  Emotion, feeling, frame of mind.

Mental:  Relating to the mind.

Outpatient: Treatment that takes place in a facility for 3-8 hours during the day, after which the patient returns home.  Outpatient treatment is often recommended for people who have severe symptoms requiring treatment but are not a danger to themselves or others.

Neurosis: An outdated term for mood disturbance or destructive habit. Most conditions classified as neuroses 50 years ago are now recognized as treatable mental illnesses.

Neurotransmitters: Chemicals that are used to relay, amplify and modulate electrical signals between brain cells.  Many medications for mood disorders adjust the amounts of certain neurotransmitters in the brain, including serotonin, norepinephrine, and GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid).

Norepinephrine: A neurotransmitter that affects parts of the brain where attention and impulsivity are controlled. Along with epinephrine, norepinephrine works to control a person’s fight-or-flight response.

Psychosis: A treatable condition in which a person may be confused and have delusions or hallucinations. Psychosis may co-occur with mania or depression. Although it is often a temporary state, people experiencing psychosis should get immediate treatment to avoid putting themselves or others in danger.

Psychiatrist: A medical doctor (MD) who specializes in illnesses of the brain and the medications that treat them.

Psychologist/psychotherapist: A trained and licensed professional (PhD, MSW, LCSW, EdD, and other advanced degrees) who specializes in talk therapy. Most psychologists cannot prescribe medication, but they can offer a great deal of help through therapy.

Psychotherapy: An important part of treatment that involves talking about goals, things in life you want to change, fears, stressors, triggers, relationships, crises, routines, destructive habits or other things that contribute to stress, relationship problems or a mental illness. The goal of psychotherapy is to address the things that may be keeping you from reaching the wellness you deserve. There are many types of psychotherapy, including cognitive, behavioral, interpersonal and social rhythm.

Serotonin: A neurotransmitter believed to play an important role in the regulation of mood, sleep, sexuality and appetite. Serotonin has been thought to play a part in many disorders, notably as part of the biochemistry of depression, migraine, bipolar disorder and anxiety. (Also known as 5-hydroxytryptamine, or 5-HT)

Schizoaffective disorder: An illness in which symptoms of a major depressive or manic episode coexist with symptoms of schizophrenia (an illness characterized by symptoms including delusions, hallucinations, disorganized or incoherent speech, disorganized or catatonic (inactive) behavior, and a “flat” affect lasting more than six months and interfering with life).  (For more information:

Side effect: An additional effect of a medication that may be bothersome, such as dry mouth, weight gain, sexual dysfunction, tremor or blurred vision. Side effects and ways to cope with them should be discussed with a doctor.

Synapses: Spaces through which brain and nervous system cells signal to each other, or to muscles or glands.

Talk therapy: see Psychotherapy

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS): A treatment for depression approved in 2008 by the FDA that uses a special electromagnet to deliver short bursts of energy that stimulate nerve cells in the brain. This helps correct the existing chemical imbalance. Typically, an individual receives five 30- to 40-minute treatment sessions each week for 4-6 weeks. TMS can be performed in a physician’s office and doesn’t require hospitalization, surgery, or anesthesia. Clinical trials have demonstrated that TMS is a safe and effective treatment. These studies have also shown that it doesn’t have the side effects that accompany some psychiatric medications.

Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS Therapy):  A treatment that involves implanting a small pulse generator, similar to a pacemaker, in the left chest area and connected to the vagus nerve in the left side of the neck. The pulse generator sends small pulses to the vagus nerve, and the vagus nerve then delivers these pulses directly to the brain. Because the vagus nerve does not contain pain fibers, stimulation is typically painless. VNS Therapy targets specific areas of the brain that affect mood and other symptoms of depression. VNS Theraot also influences the activity of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and norepinephrine.


page created: May 2, 2006
 page updated: June 24, 2009