An Overview of Atypical Depression

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Atypical depression is a type of depression which does not follow what was thought to be the "typical" presentation of the disorder. In general, people with atypical experience similar symptoms as those with major depressive disorder (MMD) but with one crucial difference: mood reactivity. In other words, a person's mood is able to improve if something positive happens.

Atypical depression, which is now referred to as major depressive disorder with atypical features, is actually quite common. Unlike other forms of depression, people with atypical depression may respond better to a type of antidepressant known as a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAO). MMD with atypical symptoms also has an early onset age, typically diagnosed in the teenage years.

Symptoms

In addition to the core symptoms of depression, people with atypical depression may also experience the following symptoms:

  • A mood that temporarily brightens after a positive event or happy news
  • Increased appetite and weight gain
  • A heavy feeling in the arms or legs
  • Body aches
  • Sleeping for long periods at night or during the day (hypersomnia)
  • Extreme sensitivity to rejection or perceived criticism

Less common symptoms include:

  • Insomnia
  • Headaches
  • Eating disorders
  • Poor body image

Causes

The reason why some people experience atypical depression is not known. A potential cause of atypical depression is an imbalance in certain neurotransmitters, including dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine, which influence mood.

Other factors that can raise your risk for atypical depression include:

  • Family history. You are more likely to experience symptoms of atypical depression if others in your family also have depression or another type of mood disorder.
  • Certain medical conditions. You may be more likely to experience atypical depression if you have a history of bipolar disorders, anxiety disorders, avoidant personalities, body dysmorphic disorder, or social phobia.
  • Substance use. Having a history of substance use or misuse can also increase the likelihood of depression. 

Diagnosis

Making a correct diagnosis is a critical step in getting the treatment you or your loved one needs. Unfortunately, unlike other health conditions, there isn’t a lab test, X-ray, or physical exam that can provide a definitive diagnosis.

An informed diagnosis would likely include specific tests to rule out any health conditions that may cause symptoms of depression or be an underlying cause. This may involve a blood test, drug screen, and imaging tests (CT scan or MRI of the brain).

You also likely undergo a depression test, which can be done orally during the exam by a physician or mental health professional or via paper or a digital device before seeing the physician. The doctor will compare your answers and symptoms to the diagnostic criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

According to the DSM-5, to be diagnosed with depressive disorder with atypical symptoms a person has to exhibit the ability to feel better temporarily in response to a positive life event (mood reactivity), plus any two of the following criteria for a period of two or more weeks:

  • Excessive eating or weight gain
  • Excessive sleep
  • Fatigue, weakness, and feeling "weighed down"
  • Intense sensitivity to rejection
  • Strongly reactive moods

Treatment

Although selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and other newer medications are often the first-line choices for depression treatment due to their favorable side-effect profiles, patients with atypical depression tend to respond better to monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs).

Some common MAOIs include:

  • Phenelzine (nardil)
  • Tranylcypromine (parnate)
  • Isocarboxazid (marplan)
  • Selegiline (emsam)

Still, SSRIs may be prescribed first simply because they do not have the potential for serious side effects or dietary restrictions that MAOIs do. For example, to prevent potentially fatal high blood pressure spikes, it is necessary to avoid foods and beverages high in tyramine while taking MAOIs.

Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, is also an important part of the treatment plan. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has been scientifically proven to be effective in treating symptoms of depression.

CBT can help you develop coping skills to better manage your stress, deal with negative thoughts and emotions, and manage your fears. These skills can be particularly helpful as you wait for antidepressant treatments to begin working.

Other types of psychotherapy, or talk therapy, that may be used for atypical depression include:

  • Behavioral therapy
  • Cognitive therapy
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy
  • Individual, group, and family therapy
  • Interpersonal therapy
  • Psychodynamic therapy

In addition to medication and psychotherapy, there are some preliminary studies that show herbs and supplements that might help with symptoms of depression. This includes fish oil, St. John's Wort, fish oil, 5-HTP, and folic acid. If you're considering supplements, talk to your doctor first. Some supplements and herbs can interfere with medication. 

Coping

If atypical depression is interfering with your daily activities, working with your doctor to develop a treatment plan that involves medication and psychotherapy is a great first step. Beyond that, there are lifestyle modifications that may help ease the symptoms and help you better cope. 

  • Prioritize nutrition and exercise. Doing your best to stick with a healthful diet and regular exercise program will improve your overall health and help decrease the symptoms of atypical depression. Aim to exercise five days a week, for 30-60 minutes a day.
  • Practice mindfulness meditation and deep breathing. Deep breathing exercises combined with mindfulness meditation can teach you to become aware of your thoughts and feelings without reacting to them.
  • Write in a journal. Journaling, or expressive writing, is a highly recommended tool for dealing with depression. Whether you do it daily or weekly, making journaling a habit can help allow you to explore your feelings and counteract many of the negative effects of stress.
  • Seek support. Perhaps the most important thing you can do to cope with depression and prevent isolation is to develop strong social support. This can include trusted family and friends or an online or in-person depression support group with whom you can connect with and share your feelings and experiences. 

    A Word From Verywell

    It is important to see a psychiatrist rather than your primary care physician for treatment. Not all depressions are alike nor do they respond to the same medications. A physician in general practice is not likely to have the experience necessary to differentiate between subtypes of depression or to know which treatment choices are more likely to work. You may suffer unnecessarily as your doctor tries all the wrong medications. Given the very nature of atypical depression, this only complicates your already depressed feelings.

    If you are forced by insurance or financial circumstances to see a primary care physician for your treatment, you need to do the legwork to make up the potential deficit in your physician's knowledge. This is not as it should be, certainly, but until there is a radical change in our healthcare systems, it may be necessary. If you educate yourself and take an active role in your treatment, you're less likely to slip through the diagnostic cracks.

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